From refugee to millionaire: Magda Wierzycka leads the women in the Wealth Index

Vuyo Mkize
2018-08-01 10:15
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From refugee to riches, Magda Wierzycka, CEO of Sygnia, is the top-ranked woman on the City Press Wealth Index. Picture: Deon Raath

Magda Wierzycka, CEO of the Sygnia Group, which is listed on the main board of the JSE, came to South Africa with her family as a 13-year-old Polish refugee.

More than 30 years later, she has emerged as the country’s leading businesswoman, commanding a Fintech company with more than R180–billion in assets under management and administration.

Wierzycka (47) is also the leading woman in the City Press Wealth Index, featuring at number 40, with a shareholding of R1 108 billion in Sygnia.

The next woman on the list is at number 69. Sharon Wapnick is the non-executive chairperson of Octodec Investments, with a shareholding is valued at R665.61 million.

Wierzycka doesn’t want to speak about her wealth. When City Press contacted her, a company official responded: “Ms Wierzycka would like to decline, based on the fact that Wendy Applebaum is the wealthiest woman in South Africa, and with the amount of kidnappings, she would not want to bring more attention to herself.”

While Appelbaum may be the country’s wealthiest woman, Wierzycka is the top-ranked woman on the City Press Wealth Index, which reflects the disclosed holdings of JSE-listed companies’ directors as at March 29 this year. These holdings were extracted from company documents, announcements and share registers.

“I came to South Africa at the age of 13, very much a refugee. I spent a year in refugee camp,” she said in a recent Cape Talk interview. “This country has given a lot to me. I’m more of a very proud South African than a proud Pole.”

When Poland descended into economic collapse due to political sanctions and the subsequent imposition of martial law, Wierzycka and her family moved to Austria in 1982 and lived in a Polish refugee camp at Traunkirchen.

The family moved to South Africa in 1983 and Weirzycka started school at Pretoria High School for Girls, not knowing a word of English.

She reportedly worked at a supermarket while in high school, selling cheese and cold meats to earn extra income.

After conquering her command of the language, and conquering the bullying and teasing she has admitted to surviving at school, she studied actuarial science at the University of Cape Town as it was the only degree that offered a full bursary.

She began her career in 1993 as a product development and investment actuary at Southern Life, and this was followed by two years as an investment consultant at Alexander Forbes.

In 1997, age 26, she joined Coronation as a director and head of Institutional Business. Working her way up the corporate ladder, she left in 2003 to assume the position of chief executive of the fund manager, African Harvest Group.

After negotiating the sale of African Harvest to Cadiz in 2006, Wierzycka led the management acquisition of the remainder of the group, which resulted in the formation of Sygnia.

Sygnia provides asset management, stockbroking and administration services as well as savings products, all of which are supported by technology platforms.

Wierzycka grew its assets from R2 billion to more than R180 billion in a little over 10 years, leading Sygnia to become the second largest multi-management company in the country. Sygnia listed on the JSE on 14 October 2015. Wierzycka has been Sygnia’s chief excecutive since 2006.

She has served as a council member of the Actuarial Society of SA and is a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Africa at Harvard University in the US.

She is known for her outspoken stance against corporate corruption and state capture, particularly by the controversial Gupta family.

She is married and has two children.

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