An Interview with Sandra Beswick

SANDRA: Hi, my name is Sandra and I am a recovering banker.

INTERVIEWER: That’s an unusual way to introduce yourself!

SANDRA: Yes. It’s my favourite introductory line. It always gets a reaction.  I’ve used it ever since I decided to leave the world of banking in 2009.

INTERVIEWER: What made you leave?

SANDRA: I was retrenched. I was 58 at the time. So, in a sense I retired. That’s how I look at it anyway.

INTERVIWER: It doesn’t look like you’ve retired.

SANDRA:  (Laughs) No. This should be a time where I’m slowing down, enjoying my retirement and my financial security. I’ll be celebrating my 60th birthday in August. I don’t feel my age; to me age is just a number. Life is all about attitude. So, I decided to reinvent myself. I’ve started my own business.

INTERVIEWER: That must have been quite scary, especially, as you say, you’ll be 60 in August.

SANDRA: I would never have been able to retire and not do anything, but I’ve had to face my fears of insecurity. One thing’s for sure, it’s improved my well-being tremendously.

INTERVIEWER: You really enjoyed banking, didn’t you?

SANDRA: Being a banker was all I’d ever really wanted to do. I loved the adrenaline rush of the cut and thrust, the uncertainty of the financial markets, chasing the deals, negotiating with clients and finalising the transaction, marathon discussions with colleagues trying to convince them of a transaction’s merits, getting credit approval, doing the due diligence, analysing the business, assessing the risk–these things were the fire in my bones.

INTERVIEWER: It sounds frenetic..

SANDRA: It was frenetic. Since I walked away from the industry I’ve had time to ask myself why I enjoyed it so much. Was it the thrust and chase of a deal? Was I driven by greed? The big deals came with large bonuses, you know. Or was it arrogance? I worked for large organisations. Was it the size of those institutions and the inherent power they represented that appealed to me?

INTERVIEWER: And what answer did you come up with?

SANDRA: I think it was the work itself. Banking’s changed enormously over the years, but no matter how it changed I enjoyed every minute.

INTERVIEWER: What kinds of changes?

SANDRA: In the bad old days of economic isolation we had to constantly wrestle with the ever-weakening, volatile currency, sanctions, high interest rates…Dealing rooms were smoke-filled, noisy dens of people, a telephone or two in both hands, yelling prices at each other. God knows how we heard ourselves, let alone made any deals in that din. Trading was done by gut feel and a hell of a lot of chutzpah.

INTERVIEWER: So there’s no gut feel now?

SANDRA: Not like that. Making dealing decisions based on technicalities provided by graphs was unheard of. I remember when the derivative age began; the creation of complex structures and instruments that were not always understood by the creators, let alone the users.

INTERVIEWER: It wasn’t common for a woman to be in the industry, at the level you were at in those days, was it?

SANDRA; (Laughs) Not at all. It was a time when women should have been pouring the tea at meetings rather than negotiating the terms of the transactions.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve spoken about trading, but you held a variety of bank-related jobs throughout your career, didn’t you?

SANDRA: Well, yes and no. Yes, I wasn’t in a traditional bank environment, but no because it seemed I was destined to always be a “Corporatreneur”. My lot in life seemed to involve being hired to manage, or be part of, departments and business units that required change.

INTERVIEWER: Like?

SANDRA: I established a Treasury operation for a large mining company and joined a bank’s mining finance team that was focusing on gold mining at a time when the gold price was only US$250! I managed a high risk enterprise development fund for transactions that wouldn’t be funded by any other department in the bank.

INTERVIEWER: What was the most out-of-your-comfort-zone job?

SANDRA: Managing a fund providing finance specifically to advance BEE entities, or individuals, that didn’t have access to normal banking channels.

INTERVIEWER: Considering you were an international mining finance banker used to interacting with major international companies and transacting in hundreds of millions of dollars, this sounds like a step down. Why did you take it?

SANDRA: (Laughs) I’m not 100 percent sure. Perhaps it was my naïveté and promise of the challenge.  A completely different mind-set was needed. Now, I was looking at transactions of less than R10 million! It took some getting used to. But, this was where I learnt what real business meant, where the people running things were the most vital component, and where cash flow, above all else, was King!

INTERVIEWER: Where there any downsides to banking?

SANDRA: Oh yes. Most working environments suffer from internal politics. It’s more insidious in banking institutions, I think. As a result, burnout was a regular occurrence among my friends and colleagues. The only people that scored and seemed immune to burnout were the ones that actually played the political game, didn’t take too many chances and were able to change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. I wasn’t very good at playing the political game – I always wanted to be true to myself.

INTERVIEWER: Banks, despite their glitzy advertising campaigns, tend to come across as quite staid institutions, but it sounds like that’s not the case.

SANDRA: Not on your life! There was never-ending restructuring of the organisational structure and operating models, or changes in strategies–always with a view to improving the performance and profits of the institution, and not always considering the client’s needs. We seemed to recycle old operating models every five years without fresh ideas. The culture of the organisation was not considered and the only people benefitting from the process were the highly-paid management consultants. Change seemed sometimes to be just for the sake of change. It created an awful atmosphere of uncertainty. Employees became inwardly focused. Battle lines were being drawn in the sand all over the place, every day. Everyone was trying to protect his or her own territory, skins or positions.

INTERVIEWER: What was the pivotal moment for you? What made you decide to leave?

SANDRA: My health was taking a beating because of all the stress. But there was, as you say, a pivotal moment. A light bulb moment. I was enduring yet another highly subjective performance review with my manager. The business unit I was heading had recently undergone strategy changes and I realised that I was being asked to make orange juice from lemons. I’ll never forget it. My manager asked me what I felt would help me with my personal development.

INTERVIEWER: What did you say?

SANDRA: “I’m a 57 year old grandmother. I think I have enough experience to handle my own ‘personal development’, thank you!”

INTERVIEWER: That was brave.

SANDRA: Brave, or foolish, considering I was close to retirement. But I suddenly realised I wanted more flexibility in my day instead of the 8-to-5 routine; I wanted to be able to visit my grandchildren and to take some time for myself. My colleagues were horrified. One of them said that the economic environment ‘out there’ was cold. Better a cold environment than a toxic one, I thought.

INTERVIEWER: Do you miss it? Banking?

SANDRA: For sure! Do I regret my decision? Hell no! My confidence did take a knock at first, my identity was stripped bare, and I had to dig deep into my coping mechanisms and inner strength. The leap of faith has been scary and challenging. I’ve learnt a lot about myself. But it gave me a chance to reinvent myself and create my own destiny. I am learning to widen my vision and become more flexible in my thinking, believe in myself a lot more and not look for gratification from external sources.

INTERVIEWER: How did you survive?

SANDRA: I lived off my savings, I did some ad hoc work and sold shares to meet the monthly drudge of living expenses.  I learned to be more resourceful by creating my own opportunities.

INTERVIEWER: So, where to from here?

SANDRA: Early in 2012, I established a business recovery services company providing turnaround management and business rescue to companies in financial distress. My confidence has been restored. I’ve found my niche. It’s a challenging environment– far more challenging than I realised it would be, and best of all, all my expertise and experience comes in to play.

INTERVIEWER: And there’s August!

SANDRA: Yes! My 60th birthday! I am looking forward to celebrating with a big bash! I’ve got a lot to celebrate! A lot to be thankful for; my family, in particular my wonderful daughter. She has been a source of light and my greatest support system.