Mark Lamberti. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Mark Lamberti. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Imperial Holdings CEO Mark Lamberti, who stepped down on Wednesday after being embroiled in a racial controversy with a woman staff member, has urged business leaders to redress the past "with sensitivity and humility".

In a letter that went out on the same day, Lamberti also apologised to staff for the difficulties they had endured over the past few weeks and thanked them for their commitment to excellence.

He apologised separately to the employee, Adila Chowan, who won a civil case of discrimination against him, when the High Court in Johannesburg found that he had "impaired her dignity".

Lamberti will step down on April 30 and will be succeeded by former group chief financial officer Osman Arbee on May 1. Arbee is now CEO of Motus, one of the group’s two divisions, a role which he will still hold.

Chowan was fired in September 2015 after she laid a grievance against Lamberti, whom she said had referred to her as "an employment equity candidate" and had denied her the promotion opportunities that she had expected. An internal inquiry dismissed her complaint. She then sued Lamberti in a race and gender discrimination suit.

Urging business leaders to tread with care in dealing with transformation, Lamberti’s letter says: "We live in a fragile polarised society at the moment and those of us who are privileged to lead have never had a greater obligation to redress this with sensitivity and humility.

"Many of you have spoken to me about the impact of the current wave of negative publicity on you, your families and Imperial. In accepting the sentiments, content and findings of the judgment, and in noting the media and public response to it, the most appropriate response for each of you will be to redouble your efforts to align Imperial’s employee and leadership profile with the economically active demographics of South Africa."

Lamberti’s exit comes in the midst of a possible unbundling of Motus from the group, leaving the Imperial Logistics division as a JSE-listed transport, warehousing and distribution management company.

'Sorry and thanks'

Lamberti earlier resigned from the board of Business Leadership SA, following his resignation from the board of Eskom to which he was drafted by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to assist in the company’s turnaround.

"Over the next few days I will be handing over my responsibilities to Osman [Arbee] … my relationship with him has been one of the highlights of my 40-year career and I have every confidence that he will lead Imperial and Motus to heights we can all be proud of," Lamberti said.

"Finally, I have two words. Sorry and thanks. Sorry for what you, your families and the company have had to endure over the past few weeks.

"Imperial is a legitimate source of pride for all of us and the pursuit of personal and corporate excellence must continue," he said.

Damon Buss, an analyst at Electus Fund Managers, said on Wednesday that the majority of the initiatives Lamberti had set out to achieve when he became Imperial group CEO in March 2014 had been completed.

He said this had "unlocked a significant amount of value for shareholders".

Buss also said that the outstanding initiative was the spin-off of Motus, "which we assume is largely complete, given the board has committed to making its final decision in the next two months".