That's no lady, that's the CEO

31 August 2010 - 01:53 By David Shapiro
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David Shapiro: Once again I was privileged to attend the Bidvest annual dinner on Saturday night, a gala evening at which the group pays tribute, in grand style, to its managers and staff from around the world.

This year the company honoured the thousands of women in its employ and the wives and girlfriends of the men who devote so many of their waking hours to corporate matters. And their dedication was manifest in the group's profits, which were surprisingly high considering the current health of the global economy.

As we have come to expect, the Bidvest team laid on an entertainment programme that could easily have matched a Las Vegas extravaganza, a musical show that included a variety of overseas artists as well as our own Yvonne Chaka Chaka. The lavishness of the event and the high calibre of the performers were nothing less than the hard-working people of Bidvest deserved after earnings easily surpassed analysts' forecasts.

Over the past 22 years, Bidvest has matured into one of the country's largest industrial groups with revenues exceeding R100-billion, nearly half of which are earned offshore. It's the kind of company that the legendary investor Warren Buffett would - in a positive way - call fat, over-endowed with talent, skill and a gift for producing sustainable growth.

The group does not owe its success to the production of a distinctive product like a life-saving drug, a fashionable communication device or a material that is in short supply, but rather to simply ensuring that a wide range of its customers, from restaurants to engineering concerns, receive prompt and efficient service.

Bidvest has no proprietary formula that underpins its accomplishments and, by its own definition, is nothing more than a trading and distribution company. But management's ability to extract exceptional performance out of ostensibly ordinary enterprises characterises its uniqueness.

Bidvest is not alone on the local business landscape. There are a number of other seemingly regular companies, among them Imperial, Truworths, Shoprite and Mr Price, that have delivered extraordinary results in very trying economic circumstances, the outcome of management and staff diligence and hard work.

South Africa is blessed with outstanding business leaders who can easily hold their own on a world stage yet their example has somehow bypassed the public sector.

If the public sector were listed on the stock exchange and its operations subject to the same intense scrutiny by investment communities, like Bidvest and other quoted companies, despite the monopolistic nature of its business, its shares would probably trade at a deep discount to its underlying asset value.

On second thoughts, I doubt whether it would even qualify for a listing after a recent report by the auditor general revealed that only a handful of its departments received unqualified audit reports.

To top that, management's failure to keep proper books and records, the corrupt conduct of its senior officers and an apparent absence of internal control procedures would make a mockery of the King Report on Corporate Governance.

High-level incompetence, an inexperienced labour force and outdated computer systems would also raise the alarm bells among potential investors.

But perhaps the public sector's biggest drawback would be an overriding lack of accountability and workers' insistence on being rewarded without the challenge of increasing their productivity or achieving profit targets.

A highlight of the Bidvest gala evening was a performance by magicians Sos and Veronica Petrosyans, whose quick change illusions have won the couple numerous awards. As Bidvest CEO Brian Joffe climbed on the stage to welcome his guests, Sos asked him to step behind a curtain. Literally, within a flash the wizard switched Joffe's dinner jacket and black tie into a glittering evening dress.

A totally flummoxed and embarrassed Joffe was obliged to address his audience in a glamorous designer outfit, black sheen stockings and patent leather pumps.

Bids - and wolf whistles came thick and fast when a picture of Joffe dressed to thrill was auctioned for charity, raising a considerable amount of money. The framed photograph will grace a wall of one of the group's boardrooms.

The real pity was that the German wizards transformed Joffe into a drag queen. They would have done the country a far greater service by turning him into a public service boss.

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