Vincent Mai from South Africa to Wall Street Millionaire

Vincent Mai still has something of a Karoo farm boy about him, even though he now chairs the oldest private equity firm in the US and is a stalwart of the Wall Street investment banking establishment.
"Though my life is here in America, my roots are important to me and I was very much shaped by my growing up in SA. Notwithstanding apartheid, I feel I owe a lot to the country," he tells the FM from his New York office. Born outside Cradock to a sheep-farming family, Mai attended Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, where he sponsors 20 scholarships for township children.
At UCT he qualified in accounting and pursued the sports passion he developed at school where he played first team rugby and cricket and had colours for athletics and swimming.
Then he served articles and qualified as a CA (SA) before heading to London in 1965 to take up a position at SG Warburg, the former merchant bank.
"In those days most South Africans went to London. You either went there for two years and went home, or you would stay on if it was attractive. I wanted some international experience. In my case there was another element - I did happen to feel quite strongly about politics and apartheid. I had worked as a student for the Progressive Federal Party. I never imagined the [end of apartheid] would occur in my lifetime."
But his new London home did magic things for his career. "I happened to develop a close relationship with Sir Siegmund Warburg [founder of the bank] who was a great financier. He took me under his wing and took me with him to the US."
The US struck Mai as the place to build his career, so in 1976 he became a partner at Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, where he eventually became head of its global investment banking business. In 1990 he was seduced back into another business closely aligned with Warburgs - AEA Investors - as CEO, later to become chairman. The business has more than US $2,5bn in capital invested, money raised from 100 of the world's top CEOs and chairmen.
His SA links began to stir again when political change hit SA in the early 1990s. "I feel very connected both to the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. I began going back to those places," he says. He also felt the need to start investing in developing SA. Apart from Grey scholarships, Mai headed a UCT foundation in New York which raised significant funds and was involved in other scholarship efforts for his alma mater.
In the Eastern Cape he is involved in a township community programme to provide social services and an environmental foundation which aims to support sustainable land development. He is also involved with Endeavor, an entrepreneurship promotion NGO in SA, and in human rights efforts elsewhere in Africa.
His focus, he says, is on "giving opportunities to black children who wouldn't have the opportunities. It is all orientated to that because the future of SA is based on bringing up a black middle class and people who have a vested interest in the continued success of the country."
But he continues to attribute much of his success to his formative years, particularly at Grey. "The discipline in the SA education system - which God knows I needed - they just didn't tolerate any bullshit. You were in a school with set standards you had to meet - it was just expected of you... the focus and the discipline and the respect for your peers and elders."
And what of business interests in SA? Mai doesn't have any but says he is working on "one or two" with a group of "distinguished South Africans" which may be announced soon.

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