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. Itâ€™s rich folk lording it over poor folk.
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 â€“ where Pick â€˜n Pay announced 18% growth (not bad for a major retailer) â€“ 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 â€˜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 â€˜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 â€˜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 Iâ€™d met Ackerman.
â€œOh, yes,â€ he said, â€œwe were very poor when I was young and I worked to pay for school as a shelf-packer in a Pick â€˜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.â€
â€œOne 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 â€˜n Pay wasnâ€™t a nice man. He told me heâ€™d fire me if I didnâ€™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.â€
â€œI 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.â€
Good luck finding that type of love and adoration for Walmart who have just announced theyâ€™ll be opening their first South African stores soon.