Founding member of WIPHOLD and CEO of Wipcapital

This is an extract from My Success, Your Success: Top tips from South African women entrepreneurs. It is reproduced with permission.

When the lists of black South African women who have played a significant role in the empowerment and inspiration of women in this country are drawn up, Gloria Tomato Serobe is usually somewhere in the top five. Co-founder of South Africa’s first and most successful women’s investment company – WIPHOLD – Gloria might only be a little over five foot tall, but she commands a reputation that dwarfs that of many other businesswomen.

It’s a reputation that has been fuelled by a 30-year career in financial services that is as illustrious as they come. On the eve of her 50th birthday (something she intends to celebrate for all she is worth), Gloria can look back with a certain amount of satisfaction. In her working life so far she has seen action on two continents with some of the heavyweight multinationals, been the Financial Director of a top parastatal and launched and sustained a women’s investment company that is making real progress in ushering ordinary South African women into the mainstream economy. Of all her achievements this last is probably the one of which she is most proud.

Gloria is, quite simply, driven by a passion to empower her fellow women, or more precisely, to give women economic freedom in a world that she perceives is still very much dominated by men.

‘It is still difficult for women to get the same opportunities in business as men,’ says Gloria. ‘That is what often discourages women from entering business. Our role is to make the world accept that women are taking their rightful place in business. All we want is to compete on an equal footing!’

It is these sentiments that brought Gloria and three like-minded women – Wendy Luhabe, Louisa Mojela and Nomhle Canca – together in 1993, on the eve of the country’s transition into democracy, when opportunity for previously disadvantaged people was knocking.

Each an executive in her own right, the four were determined to heed the knock and open the door to opportunity. They did not want to see men waltz away with all the opportunities. They put their heads together and decided that, with their collective experience, they could launch an investment company that could take advantage of the new economic climate. Together they raised R500 000 of seed capital (in investment terms a laughably small amount) and set about the seemingly daunting prospect of launching such a company. But from the beginning they were thinking of more than just opportunity for themselves. They wanted it to be an investment company that brought wealth not only to the four founders but also to the vast numbers of South Africa’s women – black and white – who were then still excluded from the mainstream economy.

‘We all had the one dream of creating a critical mass of women in business as opposed to each one doing their own thing. We knew that if we succeeded we would be rich, but we thought it would be so much nicer if we were also surrounded by other rich women,’ says Gloria.

For this reason they decided to do an initial public offer/private placement to women only. After two years of laying the groundwork – which included touring the country to mobilise and galvanise potential women investors and building up a decent portfolio of business for them to buy into –  their dream became a reality. In 1997 the fund was launched with an Initial Public Offer to women throughout South Africa for R25 million. The response, says Gloria, was mind boggling. Eighteen thousand women took up the invitation to become part of the dream and bought shares. Some of them were individuals, others were groups of women drawn from all nine provinces in the country, urban and rural. WIPHOLD (Women Investment Portfolio Holdings Ltd) had arrived on the South African financial scene with a bang.

‘Effectively from day one we were public company,’ says Gloria. ‘WIPHOLD was the first BEE company to establish a permanent broad-based shareholding – long before the BEE rules shifted in that direction.’

This early and intuitive understanding of the need for broad-based empowerment may have something to do with the fact that each of the four founders had a very personal experience of what it means.

Gloria, for example, knows first hand what it is to rise above your circumstances. From a conventionally disempowered background – she was one of nine children born in Langa township in Cape Town – she was fortunate to be given the opportunities in life to go far. Opportunities that she grabbed with both hands.

‘I have always treated all opportunities as if they would not be there tomorrow,’ she says simply.

The first of these was the chance to learn from her parents. Both superb role models to a bright young girl, Gloria’s parents were entrepreneurs and ran shops in the community. From them she learned much about the perseverance and hard work needed to make a success of life. Then her grandfather, whom she always cites as the most important formative influence in her life, gave her something equally important and utterly priceless – self-belief.

‘Like any grandfather mine doted on his grandchildren,’ says Gloria. ‘He always celebrated our successes and downplayed our failures. He made me feel important and that I could do anything I wanted.’

Showing promise from an early age, Gloria was given the opportunity to be the first girl to study at St John’s school for Boys in the Eastern Cape (one of the few good schools for black children at the time). Of course she jumped at it. From there she went on to earn her BCom from the University of Transkei and then won a Fulbright Scholarship that took her to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she attained an MBA. After her formal education Gloria became an accountant for Exxon and worked in the US for a few years before returning to South Africa where she worked in the accounting sphere (for Munich Reinsurance and Premier Group).  Then at age 32 she took a sudden leap from accounting into the world of investment and merchant banking taking a role with Standard Corporate & Merchant Bank (SCMB). There she learned all about corporate and project finance and mergers and acquisitions. The move was also significant because at SCMB she met one of her future business partners– Louisa Mojela.

By the time she reached WIPHOLD, Gloria was therefore already a seasoned and much-respected business woman. So much so that around the time that she participated in setting up WIPHOLD she was offered (and had to accept obviously as it was another one of those opportunities she couldn’t let pass) a job as Financial Director of Transnet. It was to be one of the most challenging, but also very rewarding, legs of her career.

While working at Transnet she continued to be involved in WIPHOLD, helping it with its rights offer to women (R76 million) in 1998 and private placements worth R 424 million in 1999 as well as assisting with listing the business on the stock exchange that same year. However, by  2001 it became clear that WIPHOLD needed more than her peripheral involvement.

After its listing, WIPHOLD ran into trouble. A natural downswing in markets from 1999 coupled with the lack of full-time involvement by its founders meant that the company was suddenly in danger of going where all the other post-apartheid women-owned investment firms had gone – down the tubes. But Gloria and her co-founders were not about to let that happen.

‘The burden of being a pioneer is that you can’t afford to fail,’ she says. ‘You find you have attracted a following and become an inspiration and a role model. You become anxious to succeed, not only for your own sake but for your followers.’

Thus, Gloria resigned from Transnet and joined WIPHOLD full-time in 2001 in a bid to get the organisation back on track. She believes that it is necessary for the founders to stay sharp and committed at the helm so that they can continue to hold the organisation to its original vision. Today, three of the four original founders still work in the business.

‘If WIPHOLD fails it won’t be because the founders are not there,’  she says.

As part of the turnaround strategy, one of the first things they did was to establish Wipcapital, as a wholly owned financial services subsidiary of WIPHOLD, which allowed them to have a more operational focus. Gloria became its CEO.

Then, in 2003, WIPHOLD bought out its minority shareholders and delisted as a R1,5-billion company, a move that Gloria says was all about taking back control.

‘We felt that with listing we could no longer control who bought shares and our ideology of being a women-owned company was being eroded,’ she says. ‘Now just over 60% of the company is again owned by women, which is the way we like it.’

After that there was no looking back. In 2005 WIPHOLD grabbed headlines when it secured stakes in the local- and London-listed insurance giant Old Mutual – as well as in subsidiaries  Nedbank and Mutual & Federal. A deal worth R7,2 billion, it was one of the biggest BEE deals in the country at the time and also the first sizeable transaction to be driven equally by women.            In the same year, WIPHOLD also concluded a significant BEE deal worth R396 million with Distell and acquired a 1,12% stake in Telkom. Most recently, WIPHOLD and Sasol Mining announced a transaction (valued at almost R1.9 billion) which has seen thousands of rural and peri-urban women participating in a BEE transaction for the first time as WIPHOLD, through a new entity called WIPCoal Investments, became the BEE partner to Sasol Mining.

Now almost 15 years old, WIPHOLD represents over 300 000 women investors and over 50% of the stock owners are black. Although it has been bigger, it employs a stable workforce of 60.

Gloria says that one of the secrets of their success has been the fact that they are an operational company and not just a portfolio holding company. ‘For the deals we do we don’t have outside advisors. We have got our own, very powerful investment banking team in house,’ she says.

She says that being able to demonstrate that they are self standing and have the technical expertise and capacity for the deal is important for their credibility, particularly as BEE deals are often subject to criticism.

‘We need to be able to demonstrate that we are not just a bunch of lucky people hanging around to collect our dividend without doing any work. Here we work for our money.

‘It’s an obsession for us. We want to be indispensable in business and the only way to do that is to be knowledgeable and to work hard at it.’

It’s an obsession that has paid off. The impressive turnaround led by Gloria and co-founder Louisa Mojela (the  CEO of WIPHOLD), that bought the company back from the brink to one of the top performing investment companies in South Africa, has earned the two of them numerous accolades. Leading South African weekly business journal the Financial Mail named Gloria among the country’s 20 most influential women in 2004 and in 2006 she and Louisa were finalists in the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year. Gloria was also crowned the Businesswomen’s Association Businesswoman of the Year in 2006 and sits on numerous boards – including that of the JSE and the UCT Graduate School of Business.

It all sounds like a lot of hard work, but Gloria is definitely not all work and no play. In fact the ratio seems to be a little the other way around. She believes firmly that nothing can be achieved without hard work, but that it needs to be balanced out with a fair dollop of fun.

‘Our strategy sessions, for example, are about 30% intense working and 70% fun,’ she says, adding that to make sure of the fun they tend to go away somewhere special for these annual sessions. In 2008 it took place in Kenya (in time to watch the annual game migrations) and in 2007 they went to Mauritius.

She also finds time to be a mother (to two boys) and a wife (to husband Gaur Serobe) something she also believes in passionately. Despite her fervent championing of women’s rights, she describes herself as ‘not quite a feminist’ in the sense that she espouses home values.

‘I think marriage and home life play a vital role. Given the loneliness you experience in the boardroom, it is nice to know there is something at home for you,’ she says.

This of course comes at a cost. ‘There is no such thing as balancing home and career,’ she says, ‘It is not balanceable. You have to have a good support network in place.’

For Gloria, that support comes mainly from her mother-in-law, a woman who she says understands the difficulties of being a working woman herself and who is committed to the happiness of her sons. The other key to keeping both spheres of life in harmony, says Gloria, is making sure that there are no surprises for anyone.

‘You must either be in or not in. Your family must know where you are and how they can find you so they know how to support you,’ she says.

She must be doing something right because the stresses and strains don’t appear to be taking their toll. Gloria seems relaxed and ready for anything. Which is just as well because with tough economic times ahead, WIPHOLD is facing a potentially bumpy ride. But  Gloria is happy that they have done all they can to weather the storm. Firstly, their business is diversified. ‘The whole purpose of WIPHOLD now is to be strong in a few sectors and trust that they can’t all fall apart at the same time,’ she says.

Secondly, she is confident that they have the best possible team in place. Hard work and excellence have always been non-negotiables in the company and now this will count for a lot.

‘Excellence is everything here,’ says Gloria. ‘You are only going to win on the back of that. There is no substitute for super, super performance. We have a very bright team in place with enough conservatism to make sure things work.’

It is also a close-knit team, although good people come and go – WIPHOLD does not have the deep pockets necessary to keep some of their top staff from being poached by other financial services companies – there is a loyal core of people working in the business. Gloria reports that the average service for staff is 10 years.

With these fundamentals in place, Gloria is confident that WIPHOLD will continue on its march towards equity in South Africa.

‘It has always been part of WIPHOLD’s ethos to make women our business by finding ways to bring disadvantaged women into the economic mainstream,’ she said, ‘and we think that we are achieving that.’

Indeed, many of the women that bought into WIPHOLD right at the beginning remain shareholders today and have seen their investment grow exponentially over the years. Somehow, it seems likely that with Gloria and Louisa at the helm, they won’t have seen the end of that growth yet.

‘There are short cuts,’ she says. ‘We will never be billionaires because there are so many of us, but we will never be miserable either!’

Gloria’s top tips
1. Don’t be afraid to try.

2. Believe in yourself. Without being arrogant it is necessary to believe that you can do it no matter what.  This belief will always have to come from somewhere, in my case, I always talk about my grandfather who was so eager for our success that we grew up thinking we could do anything.

3. Treat every opportunity like it won’t be there tomorrow. Every opportunity I have had in my life I have grabbed with both hands.

4. Have fun. It’s a big part of business, you cannot carry your sadness into your workplace and hope to make it. Celebrate every little achievement – there is nothing wrong with Champaigne really! Find the opportunity to pick out the most positive and best things about your colleagues and celebrate those. It is also important because the younger people in an organisation will look to you the leader for motivation and will need to see the light heartedness in you.

5. Let people know where you stand. Your principles have to be clear at all times.  That’s the only way people get comfortable  working with you. You may lose  business as a result of taking a principled stand, but then it was probably not worth having in the first place.

6. Acknowledge the people who support and mentor you and hang onto them – especially the men. I have only been mentored by men all my life. I have never had the opportunity to be mentored by a woman in my 30-year working career. One of the enablers of my success has always been the fact that the ruling party in general and President Thabo Mbeki in particular has a strong, well-articulated policy on women empowerment. The president has gone out of his way to empower women during his presidency and I honour that.

7. Learn how to be tough! It’s not easy out there and you will be on your own.

8. Look out for and encourage other women – without scaring them you have got to make them believe that they can do it too.

9. Open yourself to criticism, as that is how you will learn.