For someone whose boyhood dreams never featured anything to do with financial services, Karl Kumbier’s rise in the world of finance is extraordinary. A former professional rugby player, who also dabbled in other sporting codes (including basketball) among other pastimes before a long career path, Kumbier’s entry to this sector was by accident. It started on the baseball pitch, the Mercantile Bank CEO says with a sense of nostalgia when eProperty News catches up with him over tea.
Mercantile last year loaned entrepreneur Sergio Aquino-led Lushaka Investments R300 million – half the amount required for the Central Square high-end mixed-use development in the congested Sandton. Mercantile’s holding company Lisbon-based Caixa Geral de Deposito also owns BCI, Mozambique’s largest bank. BCI lent the remaining R300 million. Lushaka has been a client for 10 years and therefore the banker does not worry too much over the fact that this is the largest cheque signed by Mercantile Bank, now under the chairmanship of Nuno Thomaz, in its 50-year history.
Kumbier feels comfortable because he trusts “the jockey”, being Aquino. Secondly, there is a shortage of residential accommodation in Sandton, and thirdly Lushaka has appointed a world class construction firm – Moto Engil – to complete the development.
This topic brings the 44-year-old, who enjoys spending time with his family and golf (he normally tees off at 6h45 on Saturdays), to other property projects that Mercantile is involved in and the industry. This golfer, with a handicap of 18, observes how office blocks across South Africa’s metros are being converted into residential apartments. On the other hand, all the new office space, combined with a sluggish economy, mean that there is going to be a lot of vacant office blocks in the not too distant future.
But, property isn’t the only area that appeals to this bank, whose total assets stood at R8.8 billion as at December 2014 (the plan is to grow to R20 billion in a few years) – a 1% market share. Results for fiscal 2015 are due next month. In a concentrated industry where heavyweights dominate almost every inch, it will be tough for Mercantile’s balance sheet to breach R20 billion.
The banker only has to cite the entrepreneur market, a woefully under-served segment, as he discusses gaps and opportunities. The reason Capitec and Investec have done well in their respective arenas is because they cornered segments of the market that were badly serviced, Kumbier reckons.
His rise to head Mercantile was a natural progression. Having joined Standard Bank in 2001, Kumbier’s nous catapulted him to different posts and, five years later, the level of provincial director in the Western Cape whose Personal and Business Banking division was rated a mere 3/10. The CA and his team turned things around that in less than a year the province’s rating hit 10/10 and is one of the proudest career achievements.
Just as he was settling in, at 36, married to Cally, and with a three-month-old daughter Natasha, Kumbier was in 2008 appointed COO at the Accra-headquartered Stanbic Bank Ghana, a business led by CEO Alhassan Andani. “Running a small bank is extremely complex.
The dynamics are totally different to working for a large bank,” he says, underplaying the fact that Stanbic Ghana recorded exceptional growth in those years. Then, a call “out of the blue” brought him to Mercantile, where his mandate is to find new markets and double its share. How it all started still amazes him years on.
“I didn’t enjoy my lectures much,” he recalls of his days at Stellenbosch where he first took a stab at BCom before fortuitously landing a fulltime job at now-PwC (thus a switch to enrol, for the same degree, at Unisa). Strangely, the move was linked to his prowess on the field, which had earned him a place in the first South African baseball team to tour Europe since this country was readmitted into the global sport arena following the fall of apartheid.
Barring golf, reggae icons the Black Uhuru and Bob Marley fan doesn’t play much these days but supports the Stormers, Liverpool and attends Yankees matches when in the USA. His music collection includes lots of reggae, Cat Stevens, Sisters of Mercy, and, of late, Amy Winehouse and The Editors. He enjoys reading biographies with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet standing out as firm favourites.
“One of the players on our team was a partner at PriceWaterhouse. While we were training, one day, I asked him: are you a partner at the firm. He said ‘yes’. Then I asked: can you give me a job? He looked at me and said ‘yes’.” Perhaps, for Kiki de Kock, then a partner at the accounting firm and Kumbier’s Bellville teammate, it was a joke. After all, he was a full-time student. But the then-20-year-old was dead serious. That’s why, perhaps to De Kock’s mild shock, the youngster showed up the following Monday, on the road to becoming an articled clerk.
His tempo turned from monotonous to upbeat. “I now really loved studying because suddenly whatever I was studying I was able to put to practice. Whether it was tax, accounting or auditing, I loved it. Since I was enjoying, it I studied very hard – every evening and every weekend... I finished my degree in three years.” After all his mantra is: work hard, play hard.
To this day, this man regards that “fateful meeting” with De Kock as his (re)defining moment. That informs his advice to youngsters to grab opportunities and always excel on tasks. Being from an entrepreneurial family, it wasn’t difficult for Kumbier to get backing from his folks when he switched from lecture halls to accounting firm offices.
In 1995, he’d added a PGDA (UCT) to his name, board exams followed in 1996. Completing it at the end of that year sparked a busy schedule. Next up, still in his mid-20s, Kumbier was off to Flyde Rugby Club in the UK (where he also worked for Guardian Royal Exchange). Stints at his parents’ Trio-Tex Knitware, and at Control Instruments then preceded Kumbier’s niche: banking.
eProperty News brings you a fresh feature introducing you to the captains of industry. Read about their career journeys, management styles, game plan... you name it. This is your opportunity to learn what drives them, and more importantly, what they do when they are not closing deals. See CEO Profile tag.