Jack Shapiro: an entertainer and a gentleman
In a short tribute to popular stock market personality Jack Shapiro, who sadly passed away on July 6, Radio 702 host Bruce Whitfield asked me to relate an anecdote about the old stock exchange trading floor in the early 1990s that raised questions about the accuracy and source of some of the sensational headlines that cross our desks daily.
Peering through the binoculars from our market desk at the JSE chalkboards sited in front of us, I noticed the price of De Beers moving progressively higher. I turned to Jack, who was seated beside me, and asked whether he had any idea why the share was climbing.
He thought for a moment then suggested perhaps the world's largest diamond trading company might, at last, have reached an agreement with Russian miner Alrosa.
Alrosa was a huge producer that was considering bypassing the distribution of its rough stones through the De Beers-controlled Central Selling Organisation, a monopolistic association that exerted an iron-clad grip on the global trade, keeping prices high and demand steady.
It wasn't long before a journalist from Reuters news service phoned me to query the strong gains in the De Beers share price. I shared Jack's view, concurring that it might be possible that, after months of haggling, Alrosa had finally struck a deal to market its uncut stones through the CSO.
Within minutes of our conversation an item appeared on Reuters' worldwide news network claiming that the De Beers price was running on speculation that the company had finally managed to secure an arrangement with major Russian producer Alrosa.
Jack, reading the headline on the Reuters screen on our desk, grinned and, pointing at the computer, gestured triumphantly: "You see, I was right! I told you so!"
I first encountered Jack when I was a commerce student at Wits back in 1966. One of the highlights of the university social calendar in those days was the inter-varsity rugby match between Wits and Tuks. It was more than just a game between opposing colleges; it was a clash of background and beliefs - free-spirited, liberal, hippie Witsies versus narrow-minded, devout, conservative Tuksies.
For weeks before the event, we would gather at lunch time on the lawns of the Great Hall, where under the baton of our deeply cherished cheerleader, Jack Shapiro, we would rehearse a routine of war cries and other jocular and belittling compositions that poked fun at our bigoted rivals.
Jack was a natural crowd-pleaser, never short of words or a tale that, like a true comic, he would skilfully embroider, enchanting his audience until the punch line, which he always delivered with the flair of a professional entertainer.
My favourite tune, and one that over the years I would continually urge Jack to sing at social gatherings was his Fanagalo (a Zulu-based pidgin language used on the mines) rendition of the traditional English folk song Who Killed Cock Robin, or more specifically, Ubani Killa Lo Koki Robin.
While Tuks generally tore us apart on the rugby field, in the grandstands there was no competition for Jack's rasping humour and spontaneous outbursts of scorn.
He had always shown a keen interest in the stock market and when he closed the furniture factory he owned in 1987, I suggested he consider joining our broking firm. The interview lasted no longer than two minutes. My father, who ran the trading floor and had displayed great affection for Jack, bellowed a loud welcoming "Shappie", engaging him on the spot.
Jack left our employ about five years later, on good terms, for an attractive position at Davis Borkum Hare and Company, another large broking institution (now split into Merrill Lynch and Sanlam Private Investments), where he established his reputation as a market commentator and built an enviable high net-worth client base that he managed with tender care until his untimely end.
It didn't take long for him to endear himself to everyone at his new firm, so much so that when the much revered and esteemed Max Borkum died a few years ago, Jack was asked to recite the customary Kaddish (Jewish mourner's prayer) at his graveside, a high honour indeed.
In the last few years I didn't see as much of Jack as I used to. Still, he would phone me regularly to articulate his well-researched views on the current state of the market, always adding an interesting slant that underpinned his depth of knowledge.
For the past 23 years Jack shared my table at the annual Bidvest chairman's dinner, a banquet event held at the end of August at which the group releases its results. From the minute he sat down, small whisky in hand, he would hold court with all the gantseh k'nackers (big shots), delighting everyone throughout the evening with his witty ripostes. It's a seat that is going to be very hard to fill.