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

No-one struggled with Mark Lamberti being forced to bow out of corporate SA quite as much as he did. Despite a long and illustrious career, in 2018 Lamberti went from corporate hero to persona non grata in the space of three words — "female employment equity".

Lamberti spent the better part of his career building Massmart into a multibillion-rand retail empire, and in 2014 the entrepreneurial veteran was brought in as CEO of industrial company Imperial Holdings.

But it all went south when Lamberti described Adila Chowan as a "female employment equity" candidate when explaining to her that she would not be promoted to CFO within the Imperial Group as promised.

Chowan wrote to then Imperial chair Thulani Gcabashe and an investigation was launched; the complaint was found to be "devoid of substance" and Chowan was dismissed for abuse of the grievance process. She took the matter to court, which found in April that her claim for damage to her dignity was proven on both a subjective and objective basis.

In the landmark ruling on race and gender discrimination, Judge Piet Meyer noted that "as blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifest itself today".

Lamberti resigned from Imperial as well as from his directorships on the boards of Eskom and Business Leadership SA. In a resignation letter, Lamberti said the matter has been devastating to him and his family. "A lifetime of clear conscience and a distinguished record of business leadership appear to have been in vain," he lamented.

Mbuyiselo Botha, commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality, sees Lamberti’s fall from grace as just what the doctor ordered for business in SA. "Twenty-four years into our democracy, how can you have an executive who does not see the importance of promoting gender, race and class equity in SA? I think it was a wake-up call to corporate SA that transformation is not about ticking a box or a ‘nice to have’. It’s at the heart of ensuring this economy grows."

Karl Gevers of Benguela Global Fund Managers says the case highlights a significant change in society as well as the power of social media, which effectively forced Lamberti to resign in the interests of Imperial. "In the past one could probably have managed through a situation like this, but not today, and rightly so. Like Warren Buffett said: ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation, but it takes a five minutes to ruin it.’"

Lamberti’s dramatic departure tops the list, but a close second is Alexander Forbes’ firing of Andrew Darfoor as CEO over a "loss of confidence and trust". Another worthy mention is Investec’s Stephen Koseff, who retired after 40 years at the helm of the financial institution.

DOWNLOAD FINANCIAL MAIL NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR

The FM has produced its annual 'Newsmakers of the Year' for 2018, which is available as a digital-only e-edition. Download the FM app for either Android or IOS on either your iPad, phone or computer, and read about who scooped the most headlines, who just missed out, who was responsible for the scandal of the year and the deal of the year.

Plus, read about why populism is on the rise in South Africa, our exclusive investigation into how SA firms are dodging R7bn in taxes by shifting profits offshore, and the top books of the year. Also, your favourite columnists too: Justice Malala, Fred Khumalo, Ann Crotty, Sikonathi Mantshantsha and Rob Rose.

Download the app here:

Apple store

Google Play store