RYK VAN NIEKERK: Magda Wierzycka is one of the most prominent businesswomen in the country. She announced today that she is resigning as the CEO of Sygnia Asset Management, the company she co-founded 15 years ago in 2006.
Under her leadership, Sygnia’s assets under management grew from R2 billion to more than R250 billion, and in the process, she disrupted the asset-management industry with a range of innovative low-cost passive investment products. Magda will remain on the Sygnia board as a non-executive director.
Magda is now on the line.
Magda, thank you so much for joining me. Many people were quite surprised by your decision. Why did you decide to resign?
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: Ryk, I’m surprised that people are surprised. I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, starting with Coronation, which I joined when the company had 14 people. Then I started a hedge funds company. I moved on to the role of being CEO of African Harvest, and then I started Sygnia.
In many ways, I look back at my career and I think that I’ve held down the same job for 25 years. About five years ago I read an article in the Harvard Business Review which said that one of the greatest impediments to growth of a family-founded business is the fact that the founders stick on for too long, way beyond their skill set.
Sygnia has now become a large company which requires professional executive management. Over the last five years I’ve brought in the right people, I’ve mentored them, and now I’ve enabled them to steer the company going forward.
Whereas, as much as I have stepped down as the CEO – I hate the word resigned, such an ugly word – I remain very actively involved in the areas of the business I’m passionate about: strategic direction of the company, product innovation, and Sygnia Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is my brainchild and my baby, and I have big plans for it offshore.
Also, brand marketing; I will always remain a Sygnia brand marketer.
But I have let go of all the things that I’m not good at – operational management of a large company. And I think most importantly I have absolutely no intention of selling any of my shares because in Sygnia I remain the majority shareholder since I think Sygnia’s journey has only just begun.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: What are you going to do now?
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: Well, apart from the fact that that I remain involved in Sygnia strategy, in looking for opportunities for Sygnia, I’ve also set up a venture-capital business in the UK in the past two years called Braavos, which invests in a company called Oxford Science Innovations, which commercialises all the IP that comes out of Oxford University.
So I’m very involved in venture capital. And with that and almost two years of exposure to venture-capital investing I’m potentially going to bring venture-capital investing to South Africa, because we so badly need job creation. Job creation will only come from small and medium-sized enterprises which are set up by entrepreneurs.
We have so little venture capital in South Africa. So one of my objectives is to set up a venture-capital fund where I can both provide capital and mentor potential entrepreneurs. That is one project. Obviously, I remain involved in the venture-capital business offshore, which is taking up a lot of my time.
Other than that, I want to take a little bit of a – sabbatical is the wrong word in my context, because I don’t think I’ve taken a day’s leave in the last 25 years, never mind a sabbatical – but I do want to spend a bit of time in New York just to look at what’s happening in the world.
When you look at these ginormous megatrends that are happening, the shifts away towards solar energy, towards electrical vehicles, towards new therapeutic treatments which rely on genomics.
There’s so much stuff happening overseas that we don’t have exposure to in South Africa, not only as people, but as investors. So I’m hoping to research that in a lot more detail and bring some of these ideas back to South Africa and bring back some of those ideas to Sygnia.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: It seems like you would want to be an entrepreneur again, not a manager.
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: Exactly. I am an entrepreneur. I set up businesses, I’m passionate about that. And I think at this age in my life, without sharing my age – I guess people can Google it – I also want to transfer some of those skills that I have acquired to other people, to youngsters out there who have the dreams and who have the vision, but couldn’t necessarily have the skills to commercialise their ideas.
But you can’t drag me into a risk-management meeting or into a three-hour meeting about administration. I’m just not that person.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: No. I know HR meetings. But you are not only a good entrepreneur, you’re also known in South Africa as one of the very, very few CEOs who has stood up publicly against corruption and mismanagement, both in the private sector and the public sector, and you’ve been quite aggressive in your criticism.
You’ve probably been the most aggressive in taking on injustice in South Africa. You’ve even funded some of the lawsuits out of your own pocket against some public figures. I know that is probably not how you see yourself, but we need voices like that. I don’t want to ask you whether you’re going to continue with it –
MAGDA WIERZYCKA: Absolutely!
RYK VAN NIEKERK: – but it is something we need, and hopefully some other CEOs can follow suit.
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: Ryk, I am hoping that the platform I have built – through being vocal about corruption, about state capture, about non-participation of the business sector in taking on that corruption – has built sufficient brand around me as a person, Magda Wierzycka rather than Sygnia, and that I have a platform to continue being that loud voice against corruption, and that that voice does not depend on me being a CEO of Sygnia.
That voice is a personal voice.
Often some of our clients at Sygnia were uncomfortable with the fact that I was so vocal in the public domain. Well, now they can’t criticise me any more for being vocal.
So I intend to remain as engaged and as active as you have seen me over the last however many years because, as a person, I stand for what’s right and I will always speak up, and I will always be available to speak up.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: The conspiracy theorists had a field day today on various social media platforms. I’m just going to highlight a few things which are myths. One is that you are leaving due to political pressure. The second theory was that you want to leave South Africa. And the third one was that you really want to write a book.
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: I love that. I think I love the third one. So political pressure – I don’t know where political pressure would possibly come from. Absolutely not.
I don’t have a lot of interest in politics beyond the way that it shapes people’s lives and the way it shapes the economy. I will always be supportive of people in politics who are trying to do the right things and critical of those who are not.
The second one – leaving South Africa – again, absolutely not. South Africa has passed some very silly tax laws that I hope at some stage they can withdraw, which basically make people who spend [time in] multiple jurisdictions in terms of where they earn their income; they are limited to a spending six months in South Africa before being double-taxed in South Africa. So that’s one thing I am very critical of because it’s a very silly law which basically forces someone like me, who does have business interests offshore as well as in South Africa, to be limited to spending six months a year in South Africa before I get double-taxed. But I do intend to spend my full allotment of six months in South Africa.
As for the rest of the time, some of it is spent in the UK running the venture-capital business that I founded there, or co-founded, in London. And the balance of the time I want to travel internationally, travel to the US, travel to China, pick up ideas. That’s how you generate innovation. Then I can bring that innovation back to South Africa.
So no, I am not leaving South Africa – for those that think I am. And incidentally, the other thing I’ve heard is repeatedly that I am divorced. Just for those people who still believe that, I’ve just celebrated my 24th wedding anniversary, very happily married, sorry, without getting divorced.
And I’m not yet ready for a book. I think I still have many more chapters to go.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: You’ve written a few. You’ve got a very interesting story to tell.
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: I think I do, but I always think that every day is a new chapter. And so I’ve been asked to write a book, I’ve been approached a number of times by people who would ghost-write a book, and every single time I think my story is not finished yet. I contract a book now, because what am I going to do? Write a second book later? Maybe I can be persuaded.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Not many people can write two biographies, but maybe you can be one of the first in the asset-management industry in South Africa to do so. Magda, thank you so much for your time today and really good luck in your new ventures.
MAGDA WIERZYCSKA: Thank you very much, Ryk.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: That was Magda Wierzycka.