Pierre van Tonder. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pierre van Tonder. Picture: SUPPLIED

Former Spur CEO Pierre van Tonder, who helped build the chain from 40 to more than 630 restaurants, was skilled in mentoring juniors into senior managers and bringing the best out of people, say former colleagues as tributes poured in for one of the most well-known figures in the restaurant industry.

Van Tonder died in hospital on Sunday at the age of 62, a week after he shot himself at his Sea Point apartment. He is survived by his wife and two adult children. He retired from the restaurant chain in December after spending almost four decades working his way up from a junior restaurant manager to MD and CEO.

He led Spur, which makes money from fees paid by franchise owners, for 24 years as it expanded into 16 other countries and bought the steakhouse chain Hussar Grill as well as the successful RocoMamas burger chain and the Nikos brand.

Van Tonder mentored many franchisees and started training academies for staff and franchise owners and middle management. He had been introducing new virtual brands, including sushi and burgers, sold only over Uber Eats and Mr D and made at Spur restaurants but marketed under different brands to attract a different clientele.

“His death is a loss to the whole industry,” said Restaurant Association of SA chair Wendy Alberts, who also described him as a formidable, respected and impeccable leader.

“It shows how real depression is ... it is not the first suicide in the restaurant industry during the pandemic. What happened to him is a story that has played out through the industry.”

Van Tonder’s retirement came four months ago when the industry’s biggest challenge was filling seats after the government imposed lockdown measures and alcohol bans that left companies scrambling for cash to make up for sales losses and to navigate challenges posed by the pandemic.

She said his tragic death shows the “degrees of difficulty” that many restaurant owners have gone through and how high the stakes are.

“It’s an absolute tragedy,” Alberts said. “Restaurateurs are energetic and lively people. When we can’t operate many suffer from depression.”

Though Van Tonder had called it a day at Spur, he was still a director of Hussar Grill, Spur’s upmarket restaurants.

Ian McMahon, now a ward councillor in Cape Town, met Van Tonder in 1988 when he worked on weekends as a Spur waiter in Welkom. McMahon moved into restaurant management and was hired by Van Tonder at the head office in 1996, rising to group executive for IT and communications.

“I was mentored by Pierre and worked my way up under his leadership,” McMahon said.

Van Tonder “started at the bottom and led from the top. He was hands-on, knew every part of the business and was always there to grow people in junior positions to upper management levels. He had a keen eye for bringing the best out in people.”

In the November Spur results presentation, outgoing CFO Phillip Mattee spoke of Van Tonder’s time at the top as “a job well done”, saying he had left behind a fantastic legacy.

Van Tonder told Business Day in his final results presentation that the Spur group had been “part and parcel of my life” and it was a sad day for him.

In a statement, Spur CEO Val Nichas said: “He was a much-loved friend and colleague to so many Spur employees and franchisees down the years.”

The corporation asked for privacy for his family.

childk@businesslive.co.za

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