Whitey Basson's nose for business
Whitey Basson made the risky decision to take Shoprite into Africa when he sensed, on the streets of Maputo, that there was more money there than the GDP figures suggested
Whitey Basson, who hung up his spurs as CEO of SA’s largest retailer, Shoprite, in December, won’t be taking up any cosy directorships on any “typical SA boards”.
“That is a waste of time and energy,” he says. “Johann Rupert said that before the first board meeting he attended with his father, he asked him how many people sat at his board table. He said he didn’t know but added that it ‘seats 24 and sleeps 22’.” It isn’t just the new rules that irk Basson. “Corporate SA is not driven by the entrepreneurial guys out there, the guys who built businesses, like Brian Joffe. Now people merge businesses, sell internationally. There’s no drive,” he says.
Although he’s retired he won’t be sitting on any boards. But he regrets not having started a bank.
It’s a sentiment that suggests Basson is a relic from an earlier, less complicated era, one who finds himself out of place in a contemporary boardroom, with its endless governance committees. “Every week, when we think we’re just relaxed, King comes out with another set of papers,” he says. The length of board meetings also drives him nuts, with only 20% of the discussion about business and the rest about regulations.
Yet Basson says the one thing he wishes he’d done was start a bank. “The big banks are so dated, with unnecessary forms, they are at the stage where they’re slow. I’ll be watching Discovery now that they have their licence, to see how they operate. I’m sure they will make massive changes.” Perhaps Basson’s master stroke was to steer Shoprite into Africa in 1991, when the continent’s politics weren’t very inviting. For his first trip outside SA he took two campers and a bodyguard and drove with his family through Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
So what made him venture where his peers were wary? It was, he says, what he saw on the streets of Maputo — that the wealth of the country obviously far exceeded the “official GDP statistics”.
“You could see there was wealth in pockets and lots of poverty in other areas. There wasn’t a Pick n Pay breathing down your neck or a very smart marketing guy from some other company. You just had a feeling you could make money.
“And you saw it — the entrepreneurial guys in Africa were making money a long time before me,” he says.
While the African foray was impressive, Basson says his biggest achievement was buying Checkers, which then was about three times bigger than Shoprite. Culturally, there was a huge gulf between the two companies. “Checkers had a building with seven floors and carpets and five people per floor and a big kitchen, with people who wore white gloves and served you.
“We were not used to that: we had sandwiches we brought from home. The first morning I remember we went there and sat at this big boardroom. There was a big kitchen, beautifully done in stainless steel, with two waiters and food for a king.”
Basson told Checkers management: “You guys have heard of a last supper? You’ve just had your last meal from this room”, and locked it. The story typifies his reputation as a hardnosed, cost-conscious businessman, So if he’s not going to sit on any boards, what does he intend to do?
“You will never see a photo of me walking after a tour group with a lady with an umbrella,” he says. “I’m not going to drop the grandchildren at school and I’m not going to buy my wife a newspaper.” Instead, there will be time for golf, fishing in his boat, and collecting cars. He will still have an office in town. “I don’t want to be too relaxed and too comfortable; I just want to get the flames down off everyday routine.
“I’d much rather sit at my house and drink a glass or two of red wine.” Perhaps the most contentious part of his career has been the annual fuss over his huge salary — R101m last year.
Surprisingly, he agrees that what he was paid was crazy — for SA conditions. “I don’t understand the debate, because I work 90% of my time in Africa. I had to take a decision when I was offered great opportunities from overseas companies — I was offered a position by a big company in Canada that belongs to two brothers who offered me a substantial stake for free, just to run it. And I said no to them.” He considers his salary payment in lieu of what he had to forgo. Shoprite investors are glad he didn’t accept the offer.