From first impressions Nkazimulo Sokhulu seems like a gentleman of subtle wisdom.
However, after a chat with the insurance disruptor and founding chief operations officer of FirstRand group’s FNB Life, its life insurance company, one discovers why he is causing a stir in the sector with a new adventure.
Sokhulu is the CEO of a black-owned credit life start-up called Yalu.
Born and bred in the KwaZulu-Natal south coast township of Gamalakhe, inland from Margate, to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was a teacher, Sokhulu has always been a dedicated pupil and top of the class.
He started school at Evangel Christian School, a local private school, before heading to Port Shepstone Primary and High School.
Sokhulu’s post-matric trip to the University of Cape Town (UCT) was his first out of the province.
“I wanted to become a doctor – I think it’s because my mother planted it in my head but standard eight came and, as part of a school assignment, I went to the hospital to see what doctors do.
"I witnessed a child birth and I decided there’s no way I would be a doctor, so my father saw it as an opportunity to encourage me to be a chartered accountant,” he said.
Having been a diligent achiever throughout his basic education, he bagged a bursary from one of the major audit firms to study at UCT.
“I chose UCT because it was the furthest away from home. Before then I had not been out of the province so it was an opportunity for me.
“That was a very good decision for bad reasons,” he said.
In Cape Town he said he avoided the city instead of adapting.
“I didn’t adapt to Cape Town. I just avoided it. I became a bookworm. The sponsor had made it clear that I had no choice but to pass which I took as a subtle threat.
“They made sure that I knew there was a lot at stake so I had better not disappoint; so I buried myself in books and it proved to be worth it because I became the only black student who graduated summa cum laude,” Sokhulu said.
The initial intention was for him to study for a BCom in business science and to eventually become a chartered accountant.
However, he became disenchanted with auditing and took a different route.
“Auditing was the most uninspiring course for me. I have never been so uninspired in my life. I passed it but there was absolutely no passion. I loved tax and accounting but not auditing.
“So when Mckinsey gave me an offer and I didn’t have to do auditing, I grabbed it with both hands,” he said.
“The deal was after the two years, I would be offered an opportunity to study for an MBA anywhere in the world.
“I did very well in first year but during the second year, when I was based in Nigeria, it was a huge struggle.
“The second year was a complete and utter crash,” he said.
After a horrible end to his stint at Mckinsey, Sokhulu was not offered the prized MBA.
Depression kicked in as he faced the unemployment queue.
“When I look back, I realise the only things I learnt was to solve problems and create PowerPoints,” he said.
Luckily an opportunity to join Ralph Mupita – then CEO of Old Mutual Personal Finance – as his executive assistant came up.
Nine months later, Mupita told him he was overqualified for the job and he was moved to advising financial advisers, where he stayed for two years before Old Mutual offered him an opportunity to study for an MBA at New York’s Colombia University.
His wife joined him there. “We had a great time.
“I could not go back to Old Mutual because they could not give me what we agreed on ... so I left and, fortunately, FirstRand gave me a ‘blank cheque’ offer,” he said.
THE BIG BREAK
After being offered a job without a particular position by then FirstRand boss Sizwe Nxasana, FNB gave him the task of setting up FNB Life; the life insurance business was born with a R200 million investment.
“I learnt so much from that experience. It also gave me the confidence to start Yalu [a black-owned insurtech company] because I enjoyed every bit of it,” he said.
Asked why a top executive at a top bank would consider opening his own business, Sokhulu took a deep breath and mentioned an encounter with his son that made him change his plans.
“I was listening to my eldest son and he said I don’t sleep. I am on the computer all the time; that just floored me.
“I started asking myself if all that was worth it. That was the genesis for me,” he said.
Starting up Yalu proved to be more difficult than it initially seemed because he had to convince more people than he initially thought and the stringent terms of engaging the Public Investment Commission made the venture even riskier because at that time he was not allowed to seek alternative funders.
When he needed an underwriter for Yalu, he went to knock on Old Mutual’s door.
With the company’s credit life offering being its main income generator, it had managed to disrupt the sector and even made some of the major banks very unhappy because of the alarming rate at which clients were migrating to Yalu, said Sokhulu.
“I want people to think credit life and think us. We had to be at the top because people needed to trust us and I wanted us to be in multiple countries and multiple product lines,” he said, adding that the satisfaction of owning the end result also give him a peaceful sleep.