Last month Edcon CEO Grant Pattison stood up at a conference organised by Absa and boldly told his audience: "This is the most difficult job I’ve ever had." It’s saying something that Pattison bills this as his trickiest assignment yet. He cut his teeth as an engineer at Anglo American and in 2011, as CEO of Massmart, clinched the sale of the consumer goods firm to US chain Walmart. The Edcon story is an intriguing case study, raising questions over how the iconic firm, which owns one-time blue-chip brands including Edgars, Jet and CNA, lost its formidable advantage and failed to adjust to the new world order of global retail. It should never have let this happen. Almost since brothers Morris and Eli Ross opened their first store on September 6 1929 in Joubert Street, Johannesburg under the name "M&E Ross, trading as Edgars", the company has been a pillar around which SA clothing retail has revolved. Until recently, one in five South Africans shopped at one of its 1,350 stores. Even...

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