It’s come full circle for Jeanette Marais, MMI’s deputy CEO, who’s headed back to where it all started for her. Supplied

This article was first published in the 3rd quarter 2018 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

Jeanette Marais, who was appointed in March this year to take on a herculean task of helping to turn around a faltering MMI as its deputy chief executive officer – and as such became one of the most senior women in the financial services industry – was destined to be anything but a traditional Afrikaans woman.

Having grown up on a farm in the Free State, Marais realised at a young age that “a man is not a plan”, and that she needed to be independent and successful in her own right.

Having witnessed her own, educated mother’s struggles with dependence on her husband and eavesdropping on their conversations about money, Marais understood the importance of women maintaining their own identity and managing their own finances.

“I have vivid memories of my parents discussing money. We didn’t lack for anything, but my mother had to ask my father for an allowance. I understood her need to be independent.”

Growing up, none of the mothers in Marais’ friendship circle were career women, but her parents didn’t pressure her to follow suit. Instead, her father instilled in all his children a fierce work ethic and an aversion to debt.

“He wasn’t easy to please,” she says. “He’d see our report cards and say, ‘Why be happy with 98% – if you could be a child who delivers 120%? He drummed into us the discipline and belief that we should always do better and not settle for anything less than the best.

“I’ve always been disciplined with my money because from an early age my dad involved me in financial decisions and that made me feel important. He would discuss money matters with me, for example, whether he should buy a tractor, or other decisions regarding the farm. And he hated debt. I have the same aversion to debt, except if it is used for growing your wealth.”  

It was also impressed upon the Marais children that the world did not owe them anything and good things come to those who work hard and were disciplined.

That solid work ethic stood Jeanette in good stead: she completed her BSc in maths and statistics at the University of the Orange Free State in 1989, before taking up her first job as an actuarial student at Momentum. Later, she completed an executive development programme and an MBA through the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Financial services was a tough sector to break into, particularly for young women, she says, but she saw it as a challenge, not a hindrance.

“My first experience of the workplace was that it was pale, male and middle-aged. But people were incredibly welcoming too, so I wasn’t deterred.

“I thought: what an amazing opportunity, to change corporate culture. And the opportunities and experiences they (Momentum) gave me were priceless.”  

She soon moved up the ranks at Momentum, leaving nine years later as the head of sales and marketing, becoming a director at Stanlib, then an executive general manager at Old Mutual, and thereafter executive director of investments at Allan Gray – where she also remained for nine years – before being poached by her first employer 18 years later to deputise for the chief executive, Hillie Meyer.

Meyer is also returning to the MMI fold, having served as chief executive of Momentum during the heydays from 1996 to 2005.

As the deputy chief executive officer of MMI Holdings, Marais’s portfolio includes being the chief executive officer of Momentum Investments and taking care of the MMI group’s marketing and branding department and distribution. (MMI Holdings came into being in 2010 with the merging of Momentum and Metropolitan.)

Momentum Investments focuses on a range of outcome-based investments and services, including asset management, pension funds, multi-manager funds, and asset consulting for the institutional and the retail markets.

Marais will be in charge of co-ordinating the retail upper-cluster offering, which is familiar territory for her. She’ll also be leading distribution, marketing and branding, which are her passions.

“We have some challenges and work to do right now – our two strong consumer brands, Metropolitan and Momentum, need to be pushed forward,” she says.

“I’m privileged to be part of building the Momentum and Metropolitan brands,” she says. “It’s both scary and very exciting because great brands are built over many years but can be ruined in a short time.

“We often say that one cannot put lipstick on a bulldog, meaning you cannot fake a brand which does not align to the heart of the organisation. An organisation’s culture is its most important asset and everyone needs to work together to build the brand.”

Part of the overall turnaround strategy will be looking at expenses, and MMI is focused on overall growth, not job cuts. “We’ve bashed a very complex operating structure, with not enough accountability. Now we’re going to end up with various profit centres, as we believe that you should grow by giving people more accountability.”

The view is, “if you do things right by people and clients, profits will take care of themselves”.

As a financial services trailblazer, Marais welcomes the shift in attitudes: when she joined Allan Gray, she was the first woman on their exco.

MMI’s exco is currently 13 strong, diverse and boasting five women in leadership positions.

At MMI, Marais’s focus will be on challenging conventional thinking, driving change and building a legacy.

She feels strongly too about “bashing the complexity” in the industry. “We should be helping people make better plans. The financial services industry is way too complex.

If a customer has to read the fine print in the contract, there’s a problem. And if an adviser has to sit for hours to explain policies to clients, we’re doing something wrong.

“We need to bring trust back into the industry, which will encourage ordinary people to save more and do better financially.”

An area that is close to her heart is changing women’s ingrained attitudes towards money, because women defer to their husbands’ perceived “higher authority” on finances.

“Women are not knowledgeable enough when it comes to finances. A close friend of mine lost her husband tragically and when I stepped in, we realised her expectations were out of line with reality: They were not debt-free, not cared for and not insured. It’s everybody’s responsibility to know what is going on with your finances.”

Working women especially underestimate the role they play in their family’s financial security.

“What if you are no longer there? Would your family be taken care of? There are many extras that a mom does, like caring for small children. Even though no money could ever replace what a mom does, it is important to have plans to ensure the best possible future, and the biggest issue is ignorance.”

Marais admits that she’s also made a number of financial mistakes: her love for expensive shoes and handbags is a weakness.

“On a serious note, I cashed in my first pension fund when I left my first job at Momentum to buy a house, which arguably makes it one of the most expensive houses in the Cape if I apply the wonder of compound interest. If I had known what I know now, I would never have cashed in the pension fund. It was a struggle to get here with a proper financial plan and the right building blocks in place.”

It’s come full circle for Marais: Momentum, once the darling of the industry, was her first job and she’s now back to help return it to its former glory.

“Being at a competitor [at Allan Gray], I was sad to see how Momentum was doing things wrong. Things clearly aren’t right, but the challenge for us is how can we bring simplicity and hope into the system.

“It’s been a homecoming for me – to be part of a winning team. If you look at the Springboks’ performance recently: people gave up on them, but with a young, different team they are champions again.”

With a relentless focus on turning around MMI, Marais says it’s all about setting achievable goals for herself and the company.

“Because, how else would you eat an elephant?”

PERSONAL FINANCE