The first hint you get that Investec is not a bank like any other is the larger-than-life zebras, which decorate every floor of the City skyscraper that is the bank’s London home.
So, what’s the story with the zebras, I ask Douglas Krikler, the bank executive who is a former director of the UJIA. And first, he tells me that the collective noun for zebras is “a dazzle”, and then he says the company likes zebras, a symbol of Investec’s South African roots and a nod to the “restless spirit” that signifies the bank’s attitude to its place in the business and wider communities.
Investec began in Johannesburg in 1974. “It was a small group of people within the Jewish community who saw a gap in the market,” explains Krikler, the bank’s group development director.
“They saw young professionals, doctors, dentists, who were graduating and wanted to establish themselves in their career, but had to buy equipment and found it very difficult to raise the funds they needed to get started.”
The founders of the bank — which was not yet a bank — believed the professionals should be backed. “They were likely to be good for the credit, and were unlikely to default on their loans. It was a business opportunity. It’s what we know today as leasing, but it was very new and innovative in South Africa then.”
And, as Krikler recounts, the approach was opposed by the South African banking establishment. It took the five young founders — two of whom still run the business — until 1980 to get their first banking licence but, in that time, he says, “they had a very strong sense of where they came from, and strongly identified with their Jewish roots”.
One early decision was not to deal with the apartheid regime, something remembered by Nelson Mandela when he was eventually freed from prison and became South Africa’s first black president.
“It was a very difficult and courageous thing for a young bank to do within that kind of society and environment. Investec became one of Mandela’s first banks for development and reconstruction in South Africa; he retained a very close relationship with the founders and leadership of the bank — and he saw Investec as partners”.
That sense of social responsibility, and an intention to deal with the wider community, now runs through Investec like letters in a stick of rock.
Within the Jewish community in the UK, the bank has become well-known for its
frequent and solid list of partnerships and sponsorships, from support for big fundraising dinners for a range of charities, to backing community endeavours across the religious and cultural spectrum.
Charities such as UJIA, World Jewish Relief, ORT, and the friends of Israeli universities have all benefited from the corporate social responsibility arm of Investec.
Krikler himself comes from an era in which the Jewish community “saw charitable activities become more professional”, and his perspective on that has, he says, been reinforced since he joined Investec.
“I have a sense of the depth and breadth of communal charitable activities and we can take great pride in how committed and generous our community is,” he says.
He adds: “I see the part our community plays in British society, not just in the range of philanthropy within the community, but also in business life, philanthropy and
“It’s a very active community, and Investec partners with a deep sense of history and
heritage, and in keeping with the bank’s commitment to enabling communities to flourish, has focused on supporting the core pillars of Jewish communal life — welfare, education, and the outward-facing actions.”
He affirms: “We go beyond simply writing out a cheque: It’s about sitting with people and discussing how we can help them achieve what it is they are trying to do.”
The bank “does not presume to tell [charities] how to do their jobs” but, Krikler says: “Informally, we can bring perspectives to bear… we have had a workshop for senior leadership at Jewish Care, talking about some of those issues, the parallels and differences between the third sector and the management sector.”
But Krikler says social responsibility is “not a box-ticking exercise” for Investec. He himself had spent the day before our meeting planting trees on a part of Greenford wasteland off the A40 motorway, with 49 other Investec employees.
“I still have the blisters on my hands to prove it. This is something that runs very
deep within the business, and the bank wants everyone who works here to preserve that culture and sense of commitment. It’s authentic, real, and meaningful.” The mantra, he says, is: “We want to live in society, and not off it.”
If that sense of responsibility to the wider community is something Investec takes from its South African Jewish origins — when today the majority of its 8,000 worldwide employees are neither South African nor Jewish — then the other main inheritance of its beginnings is who it chooses for its clients.
And this is where the “restless spirits” come in. Krikler says the bank defines “restless spirits” as those “who are dissatisfied with the status quo, have a clear sense of how things could be better, and a strong determination and courage in their convictions to see that through”.
Those are the kinds of people who are drawn towards Investec — and the sort of people in whom the bank is likely to place its trust.
Among those “restless spirits”, back in South Africa in Investec’s early days was the young Mick Davis – today, he is Sir Mick and the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, but was then a newly-qualified accountant to whom Investec gave his first car loan.
“Investec was prepared to back and lend money to people to whom others wouldn’t, because we took a view on them as individuals and on their professional reputation,” says Krikler. “We have a reputation as a bank that understands and ‘gets’ professionals and entrepreneurs.”
The bottom line for his bank, says Krikler, “is that we will be better bankers if we are better people”.
So Investec’s dazzle of zebras look likely to be galloping down City and community roads for a long time yet.