The nastiest boardroom bust-up in recent South African-corporate history has left the chairman and chief executive officer of the nation’s oldest insurer with bloodied noses. Neither one is backing down.
Nor would they, it’s not in their character. But their fight is now hurting the reputation of Old Mutual, a financial-services company started in 1845 that has businesses spanning money management to consumer lending, and operations in 12 other African countries.
As an anti-apartheid activist, Trevor Manuel, 63, was jailed several times, and was eventually appointed finance minister, where he oversaw the country’s longest stretch of economic growth. Zimbabwean-born Peter Moyo has worked in the top tier of South Africa Inc for more than a decade, and has sparred separately with the nation’s top mobile-phone network operator and biggest retirement-fund administrator.
“I cannot see a scenario where the two gentlemen who are on opposite ends of the ring, so to speak, survive this saga,” said Morris Mthombeni, faculty director at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. “It’s not helpful. People are paralysed because of the leadership vacuum created when a board and its CEO are in a public spat.”
Moyo, 56, emerged victorious in their first round in court and arrived for work on Wednesday morning after a ruling temporarily reinstated him. Old Mutual immediately fired back by seeking leave to appeal the judgment, sending Moyo back home that same afternoon. The drama continued when a bomb scare at the company’s headquarters had staff standing on the pavement, according to CNBC Africa.
— Fifi Peters (@FifiPeters) July 31, 2019
A second case brought by the on-and-off CEO to declare Old Mutual’s board as delinquent directors, still has to be heard.
The battle spilled into the public arena at the end of May when Old Mutual announced it had suspended Moyo, citing a “material breakdown in trust and confidence.” It later clarified that the dispute involved a conflict of interest related to an investment firm Moyo founded before joining Old Mutual. Moyo was dismissed three weeks later.
The feud has been marked by accusations and counter-allegations of conflicts of interest by both parties. The stock is down 11% since Moyo was first suspended, the biggest drop in the five-member FTSE/JSE Africa Life Assurance Index, and is at its lowest level since the company moved its main listing back to Johannesburg from London last June.
‘Taking a hammering’
“We’re saddened that our reputation is taking a hammering,” Old Mutual spokeswoman Tabby Tsengiwe said by phone. “But we have maintained all along that this isn’t our choice. We’re trying to speak to the issues at hand, which is that there has been an irreparable breakdown in trust and confidence.”
Old Mutual is a “good company and that’s why I am desirous of going back,” Moyo said. Manuel directed questions back to Old Mutual.
“I imagine people are taking sides within the organization and that is informing their behavior as things unfold,” said Mthombeni at GIBS Business School.
There are many examples of leadership fall outs which result in an irretrievable breakdown in relationships and “one of the parties bowing out in one way or another,” he said. “In this case it’s on steroids in that both have gone to court and ventilated issues in court. That just makes life untenable for everyone.”
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.