Mariné van Brakel: Leading finance at RCS Group

Mariné van Brakel, CFO of the RCS Group, relishes the company’s enduring start-up culture.

Mariné van Brakel currently serves as the CFO at the RCS Group, a financial services company that offers credit solutions – including store cards, credit cards, loans and insurance offerings. Since its launch in 1999 the company has captured approximately 25 percent of the retail store card market.

RCS has more than two million active cardholders and services a network of more than 18 000 retail outlets including Edgars, Jet, The Foschini Group, Game, Makro, Pick n Pay, Shoprite and Clicks. The company has a footprint in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, and is wholly owned by French banking conglomerate BNP Paribas, one of the largest banks in the world.

While the company was acquired by BNP Paribas in 2014, Mariné believes it has kept its vibrant start-up culture and energy. For her, this is the best thing about working at the firm. “Every day at work looks a bit different – I work closely with IT, business intelligence and operations. This is a company with an engaging working environment where people have a can-do attitude.” The company was acknowledged as a 2020 Top Employer in South Africa by the Top Employers Institute.

She first worked with the RCS Group in 2014 as a financial consultant and was appointed as central finance and operations manager in 2015. In 2017 Mariné took on the role of finance executive until December 2019, when she was promoted to CFO. Before this, she gained international experience as a management consultant for KPMG International in the United Kingdom. The RCS Group was one of Mariné’s first audit clients. Mariné is a chartered accountant with a BCom Honours in accounting.

New avenues for RCS Group
Mariné sees the RCS Group’s start-up culture expressed by its constant innovation and growth. This includes digital transformation, key acquisitions and new growth areas.

In February 2020, The RCS Group acquired the majority of the Edcon store card book across all its retail properties, which includes Edgars and Jet, from Absa. The transaction, which comprises acquiring a loan book of about R4.8 billion servicing two million clients, is more of a partnership with Edcon, with RCS becoming Edcon’s exclusive finance partner.

A female-first approach
Mariné is proud of the company record in empowering female employees – RCS Group has a 76 percent female staff complement with 46 percent of leadership roles filled by women including 35 percent in top management.

“It’s time for businesses to look at their internal culture and ask themselves if they are doing enough to promote diversity within their ranks. Looking at the financial services industry, there are still several challenges that need to be overcome. Among them is a lack of women role models in senior leadership positions, as well as companies with policies that promote flexible hours,” she explains.

She credits her participation in the company’s women’s leadership initiative for her career progression. “The RCS Women in Leadership programme, which encourages women to succeed in senior and leadership roles, gave me the opportunity to grow my network, share challenges and achievements with incredible women across RCS and BNP Paribas. I am proud to be part of a strong team of women who I can learn from every day,” comments Mariné. She was promoted to a directorship position at the age of 38.

Marine explains that early in her career, she met inspiring women in senior leadership positions at BNP Paribas. “BNP Paribas places emphasis on the importance of gender diversity. Interacting with senior leaders in various roles benefited my career as it showed the impact of these women on this business. This allowed me to see first-hand how more diverse senior leadership naturally leads to a fair and inclusive culture. It allowed me to envision and ultimately carve out my own growth path.”

Her advice to young finance professionals is not to be bound by a job description. “Take time to learn other things beyond finance. The growth in your career will depend on your understanding of the broader business. You will no longer just be crunching numbers in the corner. You need to understand the relationships and the story behind the numbers,” she comments. She believes that finance as a function today is less about signing of the numbers and more about strategy.

A lockdown arrival
Mariné gave birth to her first child during the Covid-19 pandemic and she was grateful for the three months she got to spend with her newborn and husband. This would not have been possible in normal circumstances. “The one silver lining that came out of lockdown was spending quality time with my baby and husband. Working from home is a balancing act, but we have a strong support structure, which makes it manageable. People say it takes a village to raise a child and I am very thankful that RCS is part of my village,” she comments.

She believes that the pandemic has imparted some important lessons. These include proving the case for flexible, remote working and the importance of focusing on those tasks that really make a difference. She definitely sees the value of being in the office as face-to-face meetings and relationship building are so crucial, but she also sees the value of flexibility in the work-from-home model as this has proven to increase employee productivity.

“At the RCS Group we are committed to making a real difference in the lives of our employees and in the community. We experienced this during the peak of lockdown when the company provided private transport, lunch and extra pay for all our essential customer service employees,” adds Mariné.

RCS – a community champion
Aside from its business focus, RCS is committed to supporting various programmes to uplift vulnerable communities. One such programme is the Whitaker Peace and Development programme in the Cape Flats. The programme forms part of a global partnership supported by BNP Paribas and was founded by actor Forest Whitaker.

The main purpose of the programme is the training of young adults to help stem violence in their communities. Due to lockdown there was an increase in gender-based violence, amongst other forms of violence, which this programme addressed.

“I feel extremely proud to be part of a company that contributes extensively towards job creation, assisting small businesses in reaching new heights, providing consumer education on credit, and, through product development, helping consumers reach their financial goals. RCS invests in its employees and clients, always keeping true to our company mantra of ‘let’s make it possible’,” concludes Mariné.