By Tosin Sulaiman and Tiisetso Motsoeneng
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Pan-African lender Ecobank grew too fast in a short space of time, its biggest shareholder said on Wednesday, potentially signaling a slowdown in the rapid expansion that has taken the financial institution to 35 countries.
Elias Masilela, chief executive of the Public Investment Corporation, said the bank, whose chief executive Thierry Tanoh was ousted by the board on Tuesday, needed to devote as much attention to governance as to growth.
"The institution grew too fast in a short space of time. They needed to have taken stock at some point and thought about internal issues instead of focusing on the expansion program only," he told Reuters in an interview. "It would seem like the expansion program preoccupied everything."
Ecobank's board removed Tanoh following months of internal division after Nigeria's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation into alleged breaches of corporate governance.
The PIC, which has an 18.35 percent stake in the bank, has been a vocal critic of Tanoh and in a March 1 letter called for his dismissal to prevent "the death of a pan-African dream".
Masilela said Ecobank needs to stabilize as it emerges from growth and will face a hard task integrating its investments.
"Until it has stabilized it's very difficult to tell where the risk areas are, so at this stage we may think it's a leadership problem and tomorrow it may be something else."
However, despite the recent turmoil, Masilela said the PIC still considered Ecobank "a very good bank with huge prospects."
"All that we need to do is to nurture it so that it delivers as expected," he said.
The PIC's investment in Ecobank has given it to exposure to fast-growing states such as Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zambia as the fund manager tries to diversify beyond South Africa. Ecobank is headquartered in Togo and listed in Nigeria and Ghana.
The money manager, the biggest in Africa with 1.4 trillion rand ($130 billion) in assets under management, invests on behalf of public sector employees. Its top client is the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), the continent's largest pension fund.
It has a mandate to invest up to 5 percent of GEPF assets in other African countries outside South Africa, which Masilela said would generate new business for local companies and reduce unemployment, while helping the rest of the continent to grow. However, he said the PIC still needed to overcome skepticism from some South Africans.
"Do South Africans fully understand that? I am not convinced that they do," he said, adding that some wanted the PIC to focus on the considerable investment needs at home.
So far, the PIC has deployed half the 5 percent allocation in the rest of the continent, focusing on private equity, infrastructure and property investments, given the relatively small and illiquid markets outside South Africa, Masilela said.
"If you look at the capitalization of stock markets across the continent put together, they will account for less than 20 percent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange," he said. "That says to us you can't rely on listed investments."
The market capitalization of the JSE, the continent's most active bourse, is just over 9 trillion rand.
($1 = 10.8 South African Rand)
(Corrects day in paragraph 2)
(Editing by David Evans)