CFO Grant Talbot: Africa is a continent of challenges and chances


Standard Bank CFO CIB for Africa Grant Talbot believes that the region is full of opportunities.

Grant Talbot has more than 20 years of experience in financial institutions with key experience in global markets, investment banking, transactional banking, and private equity. But his finance journey is worlds away from his childhood years on a farm in the Cradle of Humankind.

Grant grew up on a small farm in Driefontein, just outside of Krugersdorp. His two younger brothers were his best mates, and he had a “fairly carefree childhood”. His dad started and ran a small engineering business, where he used to spend his vacations working.

He recalls that he soon realised that engineering was not for him, and he started looking around for something else to do. One of his dad’s friends was a chartered accountant who gave him some exposure, and he found his niche in this field and studied accounting.

“I enjoyed articles and did the old-style articles where you worked for an audit firm and you went to see different customers every couple of weeks or months,” he remembers.

Grant particularly enjoyed the exposure to different industries. “It was mining one month, the bank the next, the life insurer, IT company, etc. I really enjoyed the variety of it," he says.

“I was auditing Standard Bank and really enjoyed it and had good relationships with some of the senior managers. That is how I was hired, and I have spent most of my career either at Standard Bank or at one of their affiliates," he adds. 

"I think life is about being prepared and embracing the opportunity."

One of his first jobs was as COO of the bank's newly acquired stockbroking operation, which he says "was a bit of a scramble at the time, but it’s great to see them rated as best in the market by surveys now.”

When a large Chinese company acquired a stake in Standard Bank in around 2007, it expanded its emerging market operations and looked to expand offices in places like Brazil, Hong Kong, and Russia.

Working beyond South Africa

Grant was offered a position in Moscow. “I worked at the bank there for a year, but then the global financial crisis hit. It was quite an interesting time, because it was a small bank in a big market. Russia is called an emerging market, but it is significantly more advanced than most of Africa.

“There were several challenges, and Standard Bank decided to refocus their strategy on Africa and started selling off or closing down operations in other jurisdictions. They effectively swapped their Moscow Bank plus some cash for a stake in an investment bank called Troika Dialog in Russia. As luck would have it, they needed a new CFO and their senior partner offered me the role.

“I stayed with Troika from 2008 to 2014 when I eventually left to return to South Africa. It was around the time that Crimea was invaded, and it became clear that it was going to be a difficult place for Westerners.”

His daughter was born in Russia, and she was part of the decision to return to SA, says Grant. “The weather is quite extreme, especially for South Africans, who are used to sunny weather. It was not easy taking a baby out in that weather.

“Russia was a huge learning curve for me. The cultural differences were enormous, and some of the technical challenges as well. Troika ran in 52 different companies across about eight different jurisdictions.”

Since Grant kept in touch with old colleagues from Standard Bank, he was notified of the CFO CIB role of Africa regions when he returned to South Africa. “I have been in this role since I returned in late 2014 and the role and the operating environments have evolved quite significantly,” says Grant.

“Our business has really grown tremendously in Africa, and Africa makes up more than half of CIB group’s earnings. South Africa has been a difficult place the last few years, and therefore the rest of Africa’s growth and energy has become an important part of the Standard Bank growth story. We have a great franchise across 18 countries.”

When you ask Grant about his greatest achievements, he mentions that one of them is being part of a team that contributes to the growth of the Africa region. “Africa has a lot of pluses and minuses. The continent goes through phases of FOMO and fear. There are numerous challenges currently with volatility, FX shortages, political instability, governments spending money without return, fiscal strain and so forth. But people in Africa are tremendously resilient; we often think that we are resilient in South Africa, but the same resilience can be found across the continent. Nigerians laugh at us with our energy challenges, as they have lived with worse for many years."

He explains:

"I have learnt much about the different cultures across the markets and I believe that Africa offers tremendous opportunities despite its challenges. The continent’s people are a real pleasure to work with and there are high calibre people across Africa.”

Grant speculates that in the medium term, Africa will continue to do what it has been doing for so long. “Coupled with the demographic dividend, a young population, urbanisation, and a positive attitude, it will give you results over time.”

Being part of a strong team and a growing business is what keeps Grant motivated. “Standard Bank has given me the platform to contribute and to do meaningful work with autonomy to create an outcome. There is a saying at the bank that Africa is our home, and we drive its growth. When you go on trips and see that we are aiding the building of ports, highways and investing in projects that lift per capita GDP, it is clear that we have an impact on the growth of the continent. I am proud of the small part that I’m playing in the continent’s growth.”

Goals and hobbies

Grant has been married for 16 years to Mary-Jane and has an 11-year-old daughter. They live in picturesque Knysna and love spending summer times on the water. Besides boating, he also enjoys cycling with his wife.

“My late father instilled a passion for cycling in us from a young age. I have done the Cape Epic a couple of times, but I haven’t done an extreme race recently. I also get beaten in chess by my daughter occasionally and I play golf quite poorly, but I still enjoy playing it with friends and family.”

Grant’s goal is to continue contributing to Africa’s growth, travel the continent more, to continue learning and coaching. He believes we never stop growing or learning new things and this inspires him and moves him forward every day.

Related articles

Are fintechs the answer to cross-border payment pains?

During a CFO South Africa webinar, Verto experts Tim Rudman and Ola Oyetayo, as well as Hatch Africa CFO Craig Sumption, unpacked the challenges and possible solutions when it comes to cross-border payments.