Crisis tips from SA’s ‘old toppie’ business pioneers
If it was easy, everyone would have a business empire. It’s not – that’s why the rest of us need to pay attention
The death of Marc Wainer this week got me thinking about how much we can learn from older people, if only we take the time to listen.
Wainer, who was 71, founded Redefine, one of SA’s most successful property companies. He had no formal education beyond matric, but was a fast learner and instinctive dealmaker, who learnt the basics of cash flow, profit margins, work ethic and dealing with landlords while working in the family fish shop in Yeoville.
The last time I saw him, in September last year, it was for a radio interview talking about money. He looked awful. He’d just lost his wife, Lesley, who’d taken ill suddenly and died just two weeks before our long-scheduled interview. He could very easily have cancelled, but he didn’t.
Instead, he used the time to reflect on the highs and lows of his colourful life building a business empire from scratch, starting out with nothing more than a razor-sharp mind, his wits and an appetite to hustle.
His favourite story was a life lesson in always being thorough and prepared. It was how he got the job that defined his career. He knew nothing about commercial property but got the job as centre manager of the Kempton City Shopping Mall in 1973, having been the only candidate to visit and analyse the property beforehand.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. Using my grocery background, I looked at it and I asked how much we were paying for water and how much we recovered, so I started charging everybody a couple of rand. I didn’t know it was illegal, but we did it, and we charged for parking. After about nine months the boss called me. I thought I was fired, but he told me to find my replacement as I was being promoted.”
Without any technical knowledge of the inner workings of the property industry, Wainer had instinctively done the job someone with years of experience might have done. It set him on an extraordinary career path.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time interviewing lots of people who have started businesses from scratch over the years. The internet is full of quotes from global business leaders – here are some of my favourite local quotes and the lessons embedded in them.
“Don’t get too big for your boots” – Raymond Ackerman
Before he built Pick n Pay, Raymond Ackerman was running Checkers for the Greatermans group. At the age of 35, though, he was fired, following a difference of opinion with the board, which wanted him to lift profit margins to those they were accustomed to in clothing.
However, shortly before that happened, he got a call from Jack Goldin, who had started a chain of four stores in Cape Town called Pick n Pay.
“I invited him to come and see me, and on the day he arrived I cleared my diary and went to meet him at the airport. American supermarket operators had always been kind to me when I was developing Checkers, so I showed him around and it’s a lesson that has always stuck with me,” he says.
A few weeks later, after Ackerman was axed, Goldin called him again. He said he was thinking of selling Pick n Pay, and could think of no-one better suited to take over the business.
“All because I took the time and I showed him around. Call it luck if you want, but I made time for him even though I was running 82 stores. [Meeting] him changed my life,” Ackerman said.
“Chaos is Syria” – Laurie Dippenaar
Laurie Dippenaar has a reputation for providing the pithy anecdote.
His comment “Chaos is Syria” came as the era of Jacob Zuma was coming to an end and I was trying to understand how he, Paul Harris and GT Ferreira had built FirstRand from scratch in one of the most hostile business environments on earth.
Dippenaar’s point was that while SA had long been a tough environment from a political, security and policy point of view, it was not chaotic in the sense of a Syria, Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
Institutions functioned effectively, political power was held in check (eventually), and the business environment created opportunity for risk-takers.
A couple of months later I had the opportunity to interview the three founders for the Solutionist Thinking podcast series. They shared some of the secrets of keeping a partnership alive for four decades which had created a business worth R450bn at its peak.
While the Covid-19 outbreak is causing headaches for their successors at FirstRand, for them, the biggest opportunities presented themselves often at some of the darkest times in their history. The period after PW Botha’s divisive Rubicon speech, for example, saw massive divestment from SA but it also rewarded bold risk-takers, those with capital and vision, who were able to navigate uncertainty.
Listen to that interview here.
“Your competitors won’t wait for you to muster your firepower” – Brian Joffe
Another business founded as the era of National Party rule was coming to an end was Bidvest. I once asked Brian Joffe why he’d chosen that moment to start a company that today is one of the biggest private sector providers of services in SA and a dominant global player in food services.
His response was one of surprise. “Why not?” He was a guy with an idea and an opportunity and had two choices: either take the risk or wait for certainty.
What’s abundantly clear talking to older business leaders is that there is no such thing as certainty, no “right time” to do deals. Opportunities are seized and the risks that exist are navigated around as they arise. If it was easy, everyone would have a business empire. It’s not – that’s why the rest of us need to pay attention.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing” – Ian Moir
Like many other SA CEOs, Ian Moir got burnt by overpaying for foreign assets. The now former Woolworths CEO is fixing the problems he bought as boss, in Australia. To be fair, he’s not the only CEO who has been at the wrong end of a foreign deal. Most SA companies that have ventured outside the country have seen massive value destruction.
As FNB Wealth & Investments portfolio manager Wayne McCurrie often says: “Foreign sellers can see an SA buyer a mile off.”
There’s been a handful of very successful transactions. SABMiller is the SA flagship, but many of today’s global resource giants have connections to SA mining firms which successfully spread globally. And of course there is Naspers – whose deal with a little-known internet gaming start-up called Tencent has been a key factor in driving value for investors on an otherwise dreadful JSE for the past 15 years.
“Before foreigners invest in SA, they would look at us if we invest” – Johann Rupert
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s global investment drive to get $100bn of new foreign investment into the economy over five years was going pretty well until January 2019, when Eskom suffered a catastrophic power failure that pushed the economy into a technical recession.
SA had endured power shortages for more than a decade by that point, and its attempts to remedy the energy crisis had been blighted by a mix of incompetence, fraud and state capture. The collapse in the grid last year was like flicking the switch on foreign direct investment. It slowed to a trickle.
In Davos this year, at a meeting with foreign investors, the finance director of Heineken, which wants to use SA as a launchpad to new African markets warned: “Your power cuts really hurt us.”
Johann Rupert believes we cannot expect foreigners to risk their capital in an economy where after rugby and soccer, the national sport is moving capital offshore. We need to get our own house in order to a point where we are choosing to risk capital here – and then the opportunity will become more palatable for foreigners.
“Failure is when you stop trying” – Stephen Saad
As CEO of Aspen, the world’s only global multinational to be headquartered in Umhlanga, Stephen Saad has built a significant company. In recent years, he has been forced to sell some businesses to offset some of the debt he took on to facilitate this growth.
Saad drives his teams around the world hard. I asked him if he punished failure – and this was his response.
Particularly now, lots of mistakes are going to be made. The government, companies and individuals will make mistakes as we try to navigate our way through the crisis. As The Economist put it this week: “The bulk of the Covid-19 story will not be what we’ve lived through so far, but what happens next.”
Saad told me that he was forgiving of failure if the intent was for the good of the business. Mistakes could be made once, he said, but not the same one twice.
“We have no future, unless we create as many opportunities for our people as possible” – Patrice Motsepe
This was long before the current crisis, when unemployment rates were already rocketing. These rates will escalate even quicker now, regardless of the numerous rescue packages in place to mitigate the worst of the Covid-19 fallout.
Now, the biggest crisis facing SA is the risk of starvation in communities cut off from work and government aid. Once the dust settles and jobs become scarcer than ever, we’ll see this scenario playing out.
The government understands this risk and has moved to alleviate some of the most dreadful aspects of the suffering that will accompany the downturn – but the consequences of the sudden stop in the economy will be with us for years.
“Negative people never build anything” – Piet Mouton
Piet Mouton might take offence at being included among the “old toppies” – but the quote is actually derived from something his father, Jannie, said in his book, And then they fired me, which I wrote about recently.
The PSG CEO leapt to prominence this week with an impassioned appeal to Ramaphosa to reopen the economy.
“We acknowledge that this means more people will be infected and that some may become very ill. There will undoubtedly be a cost of lives, but we’re afraid that if we are bluntly honest with one another, we are heading for an immense cost of lives in any event. If not from Covid-19, from starvation, social unrest, crime and a myriad other chronic diseases which will follow,” he said.
Mouton added that society’s fabric will also be damaged – polarisation is being driven to extremes. This is evident in the closing of schools.
“Those with digital means can home-school to some extent, while the poor are again left behind and exposed – and an educated youth is our future. The consequences are severe, no matter which way we argue it,” he said.
Mouton said he’s making this plea not because he’s heartless, but rather because he cares about the future of the country’s citizens. “It is exactly because we care about the wellbeing and the future of our citizens, our children, your children and our country which we all love that we’re speaking up,” he said.
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