Playing and working from Greyville to The Grace

By Renée Bonorchis


IF YOU were going to be locked in a boardroom with a bunch of dreary strangers but could choose one person to take along with you to liven things up, you’d do well to take Fatima Vawda.

She has a way of filling a room. And it’s not the designer shirts or the Gucci glasses: it’s her ability to chat to anyone and to almost levitate with enthusiasm. You would never guess that by training she’s an applied mathematician. Maybe her natural zeal has to do with being brought up in Greyville, Lenasia, the youngest of four kids, by a single mother who made ends meet by selling samoosas.

“From Greyville to The Grace,” has become the family joke, she says, referring to the fact that her newly launched multimanager company has its offices on the ground floor of Rosebank’s swankiest hotel.

That’s where we meet for lunch. It’s easy, the food is good, the service is great and her company, 27Four, runs a tab.

To get business out of the way I should probably explain that 27Four started in October last year. It is one of only about seven multimanagers in the country and it is already profitable, managing R1bn in assets. A multimanager finds companies that want to invest their pension funds and matches those funds with asset managers that have both the right profiles and the right expertise. In 27Four’s case, it likes asset managers with socially responsible leanings.

And if you’re wondering why it’s called 27Four, it’s a play on the date of SA’s first democratic election — the fourteenth anniversary of which was just last weekend.

As we sit down in The Grace’s leafy upstairs garden, with the pool behind us, Vawda tells me she’s wearing make-up for the first time in honour of the photo shoot that’s about to take place.

She doesn’t need a menu — she knows it backwards — and being a vegetarian , she orders a salad and a glass of still water. After some contemplation, I order the bobotie and ask Vawda why she became a vegetarian. I am expecting a deep, philosophical argument.

But no; ever to the point, she says simply that when she was in matric she stopped eating meat because she just couldn’t handle the smell of it.

All of her studies were in Johannesburg, starting out with Greyville Primary — which is where her company now has a corporate social investment programme. Thereafter it was Lenasia Secondary. Vawda excelled at school , acing maths, while working at small jobs to help bring money into her household. But her brain power got her straight into Wits University in 1989, at the age of 18.

She still worked during her vacations, often for the dean of her faculty. She worked her way through an undergraduate degree, honours, masters and started her doctorate, even lecturing in applied maths at Wits before deciding it was time to get out into industry.

Since 1997 it has been something of a whirlwind — from Standard Bank to Wiphold and the Legae financial group to starting her own business.

She has had support along the way. She met her husband at university and they lived in Yeoville as they were starting out. Now she has a house in Kensington, with her mother cooking for the family and a child minder/driver for her kids.

Unlike most financial bosses in the city, she has a dread of Sandton and the city’s north — no fake Tuscan villas for her.

Although she hasn’t taken a holiday since 27Four started, and says she’d rather win a deal than sip cocktails in the Caribbean, she says she stops work at 4.30 every afternoon and goes home to play with the kids. And she doesn’t mean she puts on a DVD for them — no, Vawda plays soccer, swims, careers around and loses herself in playtime. Sometimes those play times even degenerate into food fights and writing on walls.

But it would appear Vawda has always been an extrovert. She mentions some of her favourite pubs have been the Radium on Louis Botha and the old Bob’s Bar in Troyeville. Her taste in music also belies her

Muslim upbringing somewhat — she’s into rock, she thinks Amy Winehouse is tops, she listened to Talking Heads, Nirvana and AC/DC when she was growing up and can’t wait until she’s at a conference in London next week to get her hands on the latest album by R.E.M.

While Vawda listens to a wide variety of bands, her reading is pretty serious. It’s non-fiction, mostly financial journals and a host of biographies. Having loads of different influences around the house helps her kids to grow, she reckons. They go to a Greek school and can speak the language, their child minder speaks to them in Zulu, their grandmother speaks Gujarati and their father is a white South African. Every religious festival you can name gets celebrated in that household — even the Jewish festivals because many of Vawda’s friends are Jewish.

When lunch arrives Vawda’s Mediterranean-style salad is huge and my bobotie is beautifully, if impractically, laid out in little bowls with almonds and apricots, rice and chilli salsa.

While the food at The Grace is far from cheap, Vawda says that the rent is very well priced. In fact, she found the office just three weeks after deciding to go it on her own.

“I left Legae because Wiphold (the parent company) became a partner of Old Mutual’s and we started to compete,” Vawda says. “I built everything from scratch — it was time to take the risk.”

So after waking up at 2am one morning last year and deciding she “had the balls to do it”, she resigned that day. She didn’t take any offers of seed capital, but found her own office, her own staff and her own first client in the form of R500m from the Mines Pension Fund. Vawda was offering sustainability, skills and an empowered multimanager business.

The biggest competitor out there is Investment Solutions — it has about R160bn in assets under management. But 27Four is thinking big. “We want to kick ass against Investment Solutions,” she says. It’s only another R159bn to go.

But Vawda has made sure that there are some crucial differences between her business and those of her competitors. For one thing, 27Four says its fee structures are completely transparent. It is also small enough to customise solutions rather than trying to make one size fit all.

Further, 27Four believes in active social responsibility. For example, it looks for projects that build houses and that are directly involved in uplifting communities. The company was one of the first in this country to sign on to the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment. Vawda is also close to the labour movement and reckons that her upbringing in Lenasia helped her to speak the lingo — this helps 27Four to win union business.

She’s busy, but not so busy she doesn’t have time for her alma mater. As of this week she will be giving a three-week series of lectures at Wits.

This is in between building a business, playtime with the kids, a conference in the UK and Saturday nights typically spent having dinner in Fordsburg. But Vawda says it’s “priceless” to be running her own shop and not having to answer to anyone.

Vawda, despite not being one for make-up, is draped in jewellery. She has a diamond on her necklace and thick gold bracelets on her wrists. But the piece that says it all is her ring — a black diamond set in platinum. Because that is what Vawda is and what she aims to be — a black diamond in South African business.