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Absa CEO to retire after steering split from Barclays

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Maria Ramos, who will turn 60 soon, led Absa for 10 years, and will be replaced as interim CEO by René van Wyk from March 1.

Johannesburg

ABSA Group Ltd chief executive officer Maria Ramos will step down after overseeing the split from Barclays plc, an alliance blamed for the loss of retail market share at South Africa's third-largest bank.

The stock rallied the most among its Johannesburg-based peers on Tuesday in the wake of Ms Ramos's pending exit.

Absa, once the nation's largest mortgage lender, fell behind after Britain's Barclays acquired control in 2005. Now that the UK bank has sold down its stake, Absa is plotting how to play catch-up in a country with sluggish economic growth and an unemployment rate of more than 27 per cent.

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"For a long time she was doing what Barclays wanted to," Harry Botha, a banking analyst at Avior Capital Markets in Cape Town, said. "She presided over Absa while Barclays destroyed the retail franchise."

Ms Ramos, who will turn 60 in February, led the Johannesburg-based lender for 10 years, and will be replaced as interim CEO by René van Wyk from March 1, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

With the separation from Barclays on track "and our new strategy as a standalone financial institution in place, Maria feels that this is the right time to retire."

When asked at an interview in Davos last week on whether she plans to retire, Ms Ramos said: "I made a commitment and when I do something I do it completely and totally and when the time comes to do something else I will think about that."

The CEO - who helped draw up South Africa's constitution and served as a director-general at the Ministry of Finance under the late President Nelson Mandela - led Absa through a number of milestones, the lender said. That included guiding the bank through the financial crisis and acquisition of eight of Barclays African units for 18.3 billion rand (S$1.8 billion) in 2013, the largest African purchase yet by a South African bank. The deal transformed Absa into a pan-African lender.

Ms Ramos in March brought in new management and restructured the retail and business banking unit - which accounts for more than half of earnings and deposits and 60 per cent of loans.

Since Barclays sold its controlling stake down to below 16 per cent, Absa has also rebooted its image and revamped its other management teams. It has appointed a new corporate and investment banking head, and expressed the willingness to take on more risk.

The shares climbed as much as 3.9 per cent to 182.39 rand, the highest since May 2018, before paring gains to trade 2.9 per cent up at 180.65 rand as of 9:41am in Johannesburg. The stock has jumped 12 per cent this year, outperforming the six-member FTSE/JSE Africa Banks Index.

"They seem to be on the right path with the strategy," added Avior's Mr Botha. "But they still need to execute." BLOOMBERG