If Dippenaar's involved it's always a big deal
Laurie Dippenaar became the chief executive of FirstRand on April 1 after Rand Merchant Bank - a group he co-founded from scratch in 1977 - made its third landmark deal in 21 years in merging with Anglo American Corporation's financial services interests in First National Bank and Southern Life.
"We don't do many deals, but they tend to be big ones when we do them," says Dippenaar, who describes himself as an accountant by training but not by nature.
During three years as an investigating accountant at the Industrial Development Corporation he met Paul Harris, now at the helm of Rand Merchant Bank. Harris had studied at Stellenbosch with FirstRand chairman GT Ferreira. Dippenaar and Ferreira established Rand Consolidated Investments, which specialised in leveraged leasing for public utilities. Harris joined a year later and, by 1984, the group was not only thriving but in need of the next logical step - a banking licence. This came about through the purchase of Rand Merchant Bank from Rembrandt's Rupert family, Johann having been a Stellenbosch colleague.
The next milestone came in 1992 when RMB bought the underperforming Momentum Life and turned it into a highly efficient player.
Six years down the path Anglo put a for-sale sign outside its financial investments and RMB won the nod for what has become the country's largest financial services grouping - FirstRand has a market capitalisation of some R30-billion.
Dippenaar competed in this year's Argus cycle race in the Cape with a cellphone, helping to raise the R5-billion needed to effect the FirstRand deal. It was done in a day, a testimony to RMB's reputation and credibility.
While many aspects of merging the two parties have gone better than expected, notably key staff placements, Dippenaar jokes that during the first year with any new baby, everybody asks themselves why they did it. "The bonding process takes about 18 months. When we bought Momentum, I did not notice that I referred to the Momentum staff as "you" and not "we". But by the time they became we, Momentum had become first-league players."
Co-ownership has been a core of the RMB philosophy and Dippenaar is aware that many FirstRand staff borrowed to take up shares in the new group, only to see the market value of that investment halve. "While it would be disconcerting if it were only our share that had fallen, there is not much we can do if the market has rerated the whole financial services sector to a lower price:earnings ratio than before the bear market. It is one of the risks of ownership and I can only say let's beaver away. Sooner or later the share price will reflect value."
Dippenaar's task is to introduce the RMB business philosophy to the newcomers. "To infuse a new culture, a new coach is needed. Our style is that the man in the chair does not dictate and must be challenged. Otherwise, nothing grows under the big oak," he says, not specifying whether he means "oak" or "oke".
"I tell my staff it is like a fancy-dress party. I can choose the theme, but not the costumes: I need their ideas and innovations."
Dippenaar believes the building blocks for a strong FirstRand are already on site, they merely require rearranging.
Dippenaar is married to Estelle, a Stellenbosch law and economics graduate, and they have three children. "I come from an English-speaking home, but my father was a strong believer in bilingualism and we are the same." Dippenaar comments that both parents and two siblings are doctors: "I grew up on dinner-table talk of gall bladders and livers." He preferred the footsteps of his grandfather, a lawyer and businessman.
Dippenaar sits on the boards of the schools his children attend as well as his alma mater.
Julie Walker Top of page