Nicky Newton-King, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), describes her path to success as if it were a relatively simple journey: A matter of determination and her own clear-sighted sense of the direction that her career could take.
“Since I was 4 years old, I always knew that I was going to be a lawyer,” she says.
Her father, himself an alumnus of Stellenbosch University (SU), had been a lawyer. Nicky followed in his footsteps, graduating with an LLB before gaining a master’s from Cambridge University.
Her next step also echoed her family history, as well as presaging the course of her future career.
“I joined Webber Wentzel in Johannesburg – the law firm where my father was a partner. It was my first job, and the partner I worked for was the outside counsel to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. So, on my very first day as a professional, my very first client was the JSE.”
She soon became a partner at Webber Wentzel’s Financial Services Unit before joining the JSE, where she has played a leading role in modernising South Africa’s financial markets.
“In my career, I have done everything from the legal work involved in moving the exchange away from a physical trading floor, to writing the country’s insider trading legislation; from demutualising and then listing the JSE to integrating it, the SA Futures Exchange and the Bond Exchange into the entity known today as the JSE Group.”
There were also a number of high-profile insider trading cases in the late 1990s that Nicky helped to conclude for the JSE, before turning to issues of executive management and subsequently becoming CEO of the JSE in 2012.
Since then, she has occupied a role that is central to the national economy on its path to democracy and reform. “I accept that privilege and responsibility,” she says.
“I have really enjoyed the opportunity to focus on the transformation of our capital markets. On the one hand, one needs to provide increased access to capital so that more entrepreneurs can find the funding needed to grow; and, on the other, one wants to make it easier and cheaper to trade shares, thereby helping transform the ownership of our economy.
“There is also still much work to do around the transformation of the management and boards of large firms.”
The issue of promoting women’s role in business and society in general is an important one for Nicky.
“People like me have it easier than my mom. But although we have made progress in the number of women in senior roles in business and in society, we are nowhere near where we need to go. There are still too few women in senior leadership positions in South African business – and only a handful of listed companies are led by women.
“Younger women need confidence and role models to help them realise what is possible. In this regard, women who have already achieved senior leadership positions have a particular responsibility to help show other women the path to the top end of the table.”
In relation to the broad issue of economic development, she stresses that the country will not be able to address the socio-economic issues it faces without growth. That said, she recognises the structural constraints that the country faces in seeking to foster growth.
“In the first instance, the government needs to move beyond rhetoric and towards the urgent execution of actions that will help growth.
For instance, where state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are retained, they need to be restructured so that they are able to perform the functions for which they were created cost-efficiently, without being a drain on the national fiscus.
“Similarly, the public-sector wage bill should be dramatically trimmed to create more fiscal bandwidth for the government to invest in infrastructure and public services. If the government is paying for a school, the money has to come from somewhere else.”
“However, the challenges in implementing the necessary actions are myriad, especially since many of them may require decisions that are unpopular in the short term.”
Beyond her role at the JSE, Nicky says that she has an interest in education and how businesses can make a difference to society and hopes to combine these to foster a new generation of leaders.
Her energy also translates into some serious exercise. An avid cyclist, Nicky and her husband try and participate in a triathlon “somewhere in the world” once a year.
Attending SU represents another family tradition. Just as she followed her father’s footsteps, so her two children are following in hers – one is already studying at SU and another is going there soon.
For her part, Nicky fondly remembers a number of “outstanding professors” who, she says, “instilled a love for their discipline and a rigour of thought and approach”. Nicky still remembers vividly her classes in the Ou Hoofgebou and can even quote some of Professor Sampie Terreblanche’s more unique phrases when the need arises.
- By Mark Paterson -