Erol Zeki has lived his life surrounded by strong women. His mother, a maths teacher, and his sister, an actuary, had a strong influence on his drive and the direction his life has taken. “I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for them,” he says. His wife is a successful entrepreneur in the financial planning space. “Her business consists of eight women and one man. They are celebrating their 10-year anniversary this year. They really are leaders in this field.” And he has worked with and under many strong women. All this within the finance industry, an industry that is still very much a male dominated field.
In his 20-plus years in the industry, he’s seen shifts in diversity, the way business operates and what women bring to the table.
In watching his wife succeed in the financial space, he says he’s learnt from her the importance of the human side of business. “[Women] tend to be a lot more aware of and alive to the importance of softer issues. That everything is not always about the hard numbers. At the end of the day, we are a service industry that deals with people, and when you deal with people, you need to deal with a whole person and not just crunching hard numbers all day.” It’s a shift he’s seeing in the industry as a whole, where people are looking for holistic advice and a more human approach that balances hard numbers with the personal element.
“At the end of the day, we are a service industry that deals with people, and when you deal with people you need to deal with a whole person and not just crunching hard numbers all day.”
Erol spent most of his career at BJM, a private client business and asset manager, which was later bought out by FNB. He then left FNB Security to start his own company, which was subsequently bought out by Sasfin. He is now the chief executive of the Wealth Business at Sasfin, which he says differs from other businesses in the industry in its culture of access and collaboration. “Sasfin, being more of a boutique business, means that most people know each other and there's broad access across the group. It creates a much more collaborative and cohesive environment.”
In his years in the industry, he says that while more women are entering the financial space, “the momentum is just getting started”. As for encouraging more women to enter male dominated fields, Erol believes in the power of telling stories. “There are countless success stories in our industry, and I think that there will be many more. Celebrating the success stories and telling them is very important.”
“Celebrating the success stories and telling them is very important.”
He knows many of those success stories personally. “First and foremost, to me is Gloria Serobe from Wiphold; they are big shareholders in Sasfin and Gloria was part of the wealth board for some time.” While she’s been busy in recent years, being chairman of the Solidarity Fund and assisting with state enterprise issues, Erol worked closely with her when Wiphold became a shareholder in Sasfin. “My experience with Gloria is that she doesn't say much, but when she does have something to say, you better listen. To ignore her advice is at your own peril; she comes with an incredible amount of insight and wisdom, which comes from a very long and successful business career.”
Linda Fröhlich is another notable mention, he says, before adding: “She's going to remind me of this for the rest of my life. I’m never going to live it down.” Linda, he shares, has built the biggest business at Sasfin. “They are the leaders in their space. They dominate the office automation space and they built that from the ground up over more than two decades.”
There are many others, including those he works closely with on the management team, like Gill Scott, Murunwa Oni, Bongiwe Momoza and his assistant, Fiona Eaton. “Without these women, I certainly couldn't do what I do.”
Being in the industry they’re in and as Sasfin is a member of the JSE, Erol says it would be remiss not to mention the women who worked on the JSE floor when it was an open outcry system, before changing to electronic trading in the mid-90s. “Talk about a boys’ club – that was a proper boys’ club, and to be a woman in that environment, you needed to hold your own and be a particularly strong person. I've always held those women as exceptional role models.” Helen Hayworth, who recently retired from Sasfin, is one such woman who started her career on the JSE floor. Another is Kim Venter, who Erol worked with at BJM and now at Sasfin.
Erol is an advocate for diversity across gender, race, culture and religion, which he says is important in terms of building innovative teams. “We all draw on our experience in terms of the way that we view the world and the way that we approach problems and solve them. Diversity of background brings diverse thought into the process, which ultimately should lead to better outcomes.”
“Diversity of background brings diverse thought into the process, which ultimately should lead to better outcomes.”
This ties into his leadership motto: “Build the business, build the team,” which focuses on the strength of the people who make up the business. “There's no point in hiring a bunch of smart people and telling them what to do,” he says. “You need to hire the best talent and give them the responsibility and the accountability within a framework of collaboration and teamwork to do what they do.” If you can do that, you have the foundation on which to build greatness.