Interview with Harry Kellan, FNB’s new CEO

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Interview with Harry Kellan, FNB’s new CEO

Dec 29, 2023 | Interviews, News

Harry Kellan joined First National Bank (FNB) in 2005 and spent seven years as CFO, after which he was appointed FirstRand CFO in 2014. He returns to FNB as CEO effective 1 April 2024.

Harry would have spent a lot of time behind swivel chairs if he had stuck to the family tradition, both his father and grandfathers were barbers, in Durban and Johannesburg.

A failed doctor

“I have my mother to thank for placing a premium on education. She was a teacher and we grew up with a strong focus on education. Indian families in those days thought highly of the medical profession and in keeping with that perception I initially selected medicine and pharmacy as my first two university discipline choices. I was unable to get into either of the two and had to settle for my third choice, a bachelor’s degree in science.”

What was supposed to be a route into eventually fulfilling the dream of becoming a doctor turned out to be a nightmare. He struggled with subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics which were essential subjects in his first year of study, let alone the struggle with the transition to university studying. The only subject he seemed to excel at was mathematics,

“I had the choice to keep on the path of least resistance and continue to  try to become a doctor or change to a different degree. I chose the latter and it was not easy. It meant accepting failure, disappointing my parents and facing the financial cost of a wasted academic year.”

Harry’s father was unimpressed and informed him that henceforth he would only get money for ‘running costs’.

“To many European families becoming a Chartered Accountant is as big an achievement as becoming a doctor. In an Indian family back then, and likely still a little today, it is a very big step down”.

Joining FNB

When Harry joined FNB in 2005, a number of the people reporting to him were older and more experienced than he was. “I had to rewire my brain to the idea that age does not matter and that everyone has the right to say something. . I also took the time to convince my colleagues that they were working with and not for me”

Alan and the then CEO of FNB, Michael Jordaan, offered him the position as CFO of FNB two years later. At only 35, Harry was apprehensive about the prospect of heading up the finance  operations of one of South Africa’s largest financial institutions. He has since grown into executive roles and gathered many strategy lessons and achievements.

Given the ongoing success of FirstRand’s strategy in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis that our country and economy is suffering, I ask Harry what he considers to be a good strategy.

“The key part of a strategy is understanding what you are trying to achieve. Most people will express their need to achieve growth in earnings or a certain return profile. Those are certainly  outcomes and or measures of a strategy but ultimately your strategy must align to  your purpose  as a business. So, if you say you are here to serve society or to address customer needs, that should be the core of the strategy from which you develop key performance indicators such as, for instance, earnings.”

Harry observes that many organisations make the mistake of changing  strategy  too often.

“For a strategy to be embedded, you cannot change it every year. People try one thing and if it doesn’t work, they decide to try something else. That is tactical and strategy does not lend itself to tactics. It must be allowed the opportunity to live and execution needs to  exceed the timespan of a mere year or two. You may tweak bits and pieces as you go along but ultimately delivery on strategy is a long-term achievement.”

Achievements and lessons

“My biggest achievement was when I became a father three times over,” he excitedly declares. “Our kids help me become a better person because I need to set a good example for them. As for professional achievements, my appointment to the Group CFO role and FirstRand becoming Africa’s largest bank by market capitalisation are certainly highlights. That said, we do not measure ourselves by the size of our market capitalisation but by how well we deliver value to our shareholders and customers.”

In his engagement with employees, Harry has an open-door policy. “Reporting lines are only there for administrative purposes but in reality, people don’t work for me, we work together. I am a firm believer in the idea that if you work to build people, you build yourself. I also have the confidence to hire people that are smarter than me because I will learn from them and build a better team that way. We will achieve our outcomes much more effectively with a smart team of individuals  with a common vision.”

In terms of lessons learnt so far, Harry advises that professionals should embrace disappointments as they have some significance that may only become apparent later.

“I was addressing trainee accountants last year and I used an extreme analogy to illustrate this lesson about the personal dilemma of who you wish to marry versus the person who you choose to marry. In life you may set out to marry option A, like an A-list actress but this option is only achievable by a select number of people. So, to achieve  Option B, does not constitute failure and you should not view it as second best because that option is likely to be the absolute best choice for you. The universe always has plans for you. Always.”

This article is an extract from the book Masters of Money – Strategies for Success from the CFOs of South Africa’s Biggest Companies available here –



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