A social entrepreneur you’ve never heard of … Raymond Ackerman

When Richard Branson or Oprah Winfrey arrive in South Africa to distribute largess you are left in no doubt that these are television stunts designed to maximise their brands. Too much showmanship in front, and little thinking behind. It’s rich folk lording it over poor folk.

One South African businessman can teach Bono, Branson, Gates and their peers how it is done. That person is Raymond Ackerman, creator of Pick ‘n Pay.

Yesterday I was at the announcement of their financial results. Ackerman, now 76, is chairman of the board, with Nick Badminton his CEO. For the first time I got to see, in action, the problems that professional CEOs have taking over from the patriarch of a large firm. Right through the presentation – where Pick ‘n Pay announced 18% growth (not bad for a major retailer) – Ackerman would leap to his feet to interrupt his CEO.

Not to correct him, but to talk about the things really close to his heart. You see Ackerman is no ordinary businessman. This is a man who picked up social issues before it was even legal to do it in South Africa, let alone internationally popular. He built the first non-racial golf course, stared down the government over bread prices, put thousands through school.

He and his wife started Pick ‘n Pay from scratch, building it from nothing to a R 30 billion (US$ 4.3 billion) a year company over 40 years. He took on all the vested interests in the country. He dramatically lowered prices, fought the government on price controls proving again and again that markets lower prices faster than coercion. In this, their most profitable year ever, can you imagine why he was interrupting his CEO?

Because he is proud.

Twenty years ago he started sponsoring a dance school; only one of thousands of projects and millions of Rands spent by Pick ‘n Pay on social development in South Africa. Children start being taught at eight years old and continue till they are 18.

The reason that Ackerman is proud and kept leaping up to interrupt his CEO is this: The Lion King stage show is coming to South Africa, and one of his graduates just earned the lead part. He is thrilled to bits.

Many years ago I had a radio show dealing with business issues around the country. When we discussed Pick ‘n Pay people would call in droves to tell us how much they love Ackerman.

One top-level government official perked up when I mentioned that I’d met Ackerman.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “we were very poor when I was young and I worked to pay for school as a shelf-packer in a Pick ‘n Pay on weekends. Every few months Mr Ackerman would come and visit and meet everyone working. He had an assistant who would keep track of names and he would ask what our plans were. I told him I wanted to go to university and he made a note and mentioned that there were company bursary schemes.”

“One weekend I was going to write entrance exams for university and I needed to take leave. I arranged everything but my boss at that Pick ‘n Pay wasn’t a nice man. He told me he’d fire me if I didn’t show up. I thought he was joking and I went to write my exams. When I came back he dismissed me. I was devastated.”

“I wrote to Mr Ackerman and told him what had happened. It was amazing. I got a phone call from Mr Ackerman apologising, then the manager who fired me called and apologised. Then I was invited back to work and he apologised again, in front of the rest of the staff. Their bursary put me through university and allowed me to get a job in local government.”

Good luck finding that type of love and adoration for Walmart who have just announced they’ll be opening their first South African stores soon.

5 replies »

  1. There are so many Joe Nacchios in the world, and with our recent spate of bad exec behavior (Rigas, Koslowski, Ebbers, Lay, Skilling, etc.) I get to the point where I forget that they’re not all like that and that it doesn’t HAVE to be that way. I don”t know anything about Ackerman, but I guess I want to now.

    Your comment on how he broke down barriers puts him in some fine company. We were recently discussing Johnny Clegg, whose band Juluka was the first multi-racial band in SA back in the ’80s. And if I recall, that was illegal at the time.

    I suppose great obstacles breed great leaders, and have wondered what percentage of America’s … malaise? … owes to the fact that since Vietnam it’s just been too easy on us. We’ve had nothing to worry about besides being good marketers and customers for consumer goods.

  2. An example of that is the age of “great leading men” that Hollywood had in the 50s and 60s – most of the haggard appearances were the result of being real soldiers in a real war; they weren’t pretending.

    Now I look at the Ben Affleck’s, Brad Pitt’s and sundry others with their soft-pretty-gym-bodies and put-upon expressions and think, yeah, Sheryl Crow and her demands for single-cell toilet-paper use … that’s about as much of an issue as they can come up with.

  3. Thank you for writing this. My father is a former corporate VP who believed that there was more to being a good manager than maximizing shareholder value. Companies had a responsibility to their employees just as they had a responsibility to their shareholders. He resigned jobs over issues like being asked to cook the books (he was an accountant before becomming an operations manager) and fought CEOs over their plans to lay off people just because they wanted an extra 0.05% increase in their multi-million dollar fortunes. My dad is retired now, but I learned more about the responsibilities of managers and corporations and how to manage people effectively listening to dinner conversation than most MBA graduates get with 4 years of graduate studies.

    We need more managers and CEOs like Mr. Ackerman in the world, and we need more of the Nacchio’s locked up.

  4. raymond ackerman you the best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!