OBITUARY | Raymond Ackerman: the retail king with a heart

The indomitable champion of consumer rights was ‘a profoundly decent man’

07 September 2023 - 10:28 By Linda van Tilburg
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Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman and his wife Wendy. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman and his wife Wendy. Picture: SUPPLIED

“I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” Raymond Ackerman wrote in the introduction of his book, A Sprat to Catch a Mackerel: Key Principles to Build Your Business (2011). The book title encapsulates his belief that what seems like an insignificant event can capture an idea for a business. It is a book that Ackerman wrote for entrepreneurs-in-waiting.

The founder of Pick n Pay was not only a fierce supporter of an entrepreneurial spirit, which he described as the lifeblood of a nation’s economy, he was, according to Bruce Whitfield, the journalist and broadcaster who interviewed Ackerman several times during his lifetime, “an indomitable champion of consumer sovereignty and a profoundly decent man, whose human convictions set him against the business and political establishment of his day”.

Another key ingredient to become an entrepreneur appears to be a push: in the case of Ackerman, getting fired from his comfortable job with a steady income and company benefits prompted SA’s retail king to take the steps to start his own business.

Born in Cape Town in 1931, he was the son of the Ackerman’s clothing group founder, Gus Ackerman, and was educated at Bishops Diocesan College. He studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he was taught about the dangers of monopolies and the importance of the customer in economic relationships. These principles formed the foundation of the policies he adopted as a retailer.  

Respect for everyone has been at the core of Pick n Pay’s success, and I believe it remains the key to our future as a country
Raymond Ackerman

His first job was as a trainee manager of Ackermans in 1951. When the group was bought by competitor Greatermans, Ackerman accepted a position in Johannesburg and persuaded the company to develop food retailing supermarkets. In 1955, he was put in charge of launching the Checkers supermarkets, and by the age of 35 he was the MD of 85 Checkers stores.

It was during this time that Ackerman visited the US with his wife Wendy, where he met Bernardo Trujillo, who was running the NCR Modern Merchandising Programme. From Trujillo he learnt the “four legs of the table” principle for supermarkets that guided his business career for the next 50 years. According to this principle, a business is like a table supported by four legs on which the consumer sits. Each leg — administration, merchandise, promotion and social responsibility, and people — needs to be equally strong and important for the success and continued sustainability of a business.

The turning point that redefined Ackerman’s career

But then came the turning point that defined Ackerman’s life: he was fired by the Greatermans Group, which prompted him to branch out on his own. In his memoir, Hearing Grasshoppers Jump, Ackerman describes how he walked around Zoo Lake lake for several hours to figure out what to do. He told Whitfield that with three small children and another on the way, he considered emigrating, but chose to stay. Using a device taught to him by Trujillo, he wrote down the problem, possible solutions and to mark them out of 10. “Start my own business” scored the highest.

Using two weeks’ severance pay, a bank loan, a modest inheritance and shares purchased by his friends, Ackerman bought four small stores in Cape Town trading under the name Pick n Pay for R620,000 in 1967 from Jack Goldin (who would found Clicks a year later). It was one of the earliest private equity deals in SA and had 50 investors in the unlisted Pick n Pay. The company was listed on the JSE in September 1968.

“Being fired,” Ackermans told the Financial Mail, “forced me to get out of the frustrations [of] having to deal with Greatermans and gave me free rein to build what I wanted to build. There wasn’t a lot of original thinking, but I am a good learner. I learned from American supermarkets and Carrefour in France.”

Whitfield described how Ackerman launched, almost immediately, the “first of his many campaigns against monopolies and price-fixing, instantly earning the animosity of competitors and the loyalty of his customers”.

In the 1970s he introduced the hypermarket concept to SA, offering his customers one-stop shopping with the first hypermarket opening in Boksburg in 1975. He immediately faced a boycott from some of the big-name suppliers like Slazenger and Black & Decker, who did not want their products sold at the low prices that Ackerman was able to offer by virtue of bulk buying.

Ackerman also found himself in opposition to the apartheid policies of the time by promoting black employees to managerial positions, appointing Pick n Pay’s first black manager in his Rondebosch store. In his official résumé, it is described how Ackerman persuaded former prime minister John Vorster to turn a blind eye to this step and how he “scored a singular personal victory when he persuaded Vorster to introduce 99-year leasehold rights for black African employees in urban areas, which enabled Pick n Pay to introduce an assisted housing scheme for its growing number of black employees”.

In an interview with Cape Talk, Ackerman described the fight he had with Prime Minister PW Botha in the 1980s when the government raised the price of bread by 35%. During a meeting, Botha grabbed Ackerman by the collar and shook him, telling him that he had more important things to worry about than the price of bread, to which Ackerman replied: “Mr Botha, take your hands off me; I pay your taxes.” 

He detailed his fight with the government to oppose the price of bread and petrol to Retail Brief Africa. “We were stopped when we tried to cut petrol prices at our Boksburg Hypermarket 52 years ago as fuel producers and the government always held a tight relationship. We weren’t allowed to cut petrol, or the prices of many other essential items, such as bread. We even tried to offer our customers a discount for fuel if they bought food from us, but this was stopped too. Eventually, the government threatened to arrest me if I sold petrol at a discount.”

The petrol price war was one Ackerman did not win. It was only half a century later that the government decided to put a price cap on 93 octane petrol, which meant retailers could effectively sell below the regulated price. The decision was applauded by Ackerman, who said: “By cutting the price of petrol, you give real relief to customers who are taking enormous strain. There’s not good reason why petrol can’t be discounted, just like any other commodity.” Ackerman also lobbied Anton Rupert for cheaper cigarette prices.

Liberation ally

After PW Botha’s Rubicon speech in 1985, which led to a boycott of white-owned shops in the Western Cape coupled with violence, Ackerman founded the Business Initiative and joined other top businessmen in 1986 in calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and for negotiations with the ANC about the country’s future. At the end of the 1980s, they repeated this call during a meeting with FW de Klerk, who took over the reins from PW Botha.

Ackerman was known in the 1970s and 1980s to help customers push their trolleys and put their groceries into their cars. This, he explained, was to keep managers in line, because he then also knew what was in stock in his stores. In an interview with The South African, Ackerman described how he once followed a woman all the way to Fish Hoek to find out why her car boot was full of Checkers shopping bags. She explained that 10 years previously, Pick n Pay did not honour its no-questions-asked refund policy, after which she refused to shop in Pick n Pay again.

Ackerman carved a place in South African history by reshaping the retail sector in the image of the customer and rallying organised business in opposition to apartheid
Bruce Whitfield

This attention to customer care is what turned Pick n Pay into a supermarket giant, not only in SA, but also in other African countries. By the time Ackerman finally retired, handing over the reins to his son Gareth, Pick n Pay was operating 20 hypermarkets and 402 supermarkets across SA, while group turnover stood at almost R50bn. Today, the retailer has 1,700 supermarkets throughout SA and Southern Africa, including corporate and franchise stores with a turnover of just under R90bn.  

Pick n Pay’s expansion was not without its mistakes. Ackerman made two failed forays into the Australian market, he passed up on the chance to buy both Checkers, when it came unstuck following his departure, and OK Bazaars. Both were snapped up by Whitey Basson, who’d started Shoprite. Ackerman conceded that, if there was a big mistake, it was not paying enough attention to global trends.

When Ackerman turned 90 in 2021, he wrote an open letter to South Africans saying he has hope for the country and, that to be successful in retail, a company must care about the community. He described the foundation of his business and the key to its success the principle of consumer sovereignty.

“This is the recognition that the aim of business is not simply to maximise profit, as so many business leaders believe, but rather to respect and be a part of the community. Respect for everyone has been at the core of Pick n Pay’s success, and I believe it remains the key to our future as a country,” he wrote.

Pick n Pay’s founder has been honoured by numerous institutions for his service to both business and corporate social responsibility (CSI), including a nomination by the Financial Times in 2004 as one of the world’s 100 greatest business leaders. He established the Raymond Ackerman Academy (RAA) for Entrepreneurial Development in partnership with UCT and was later joined by the University of Johannesburg (UJ). The academy has produced hundreds of new business owners. He also launched a golf and caddy development programme at the Clovelly Country Club in 2003 to encourage transformation in golf and started the Zama dance school in Gugulethu.

“Ackerman carved a place in South African history by reshaping the retail sector in the image of the customer and rallying organised business in opposition to apartheid,” said Whitfield. “He waged a relentless campaign against the monopolies and price cartels that characterised commercial practice in the early Pick n Pay years, winning lower prices for household staples while changing the face of food retail with constant innovation. He was a dogged opponent of racial discrimination, and ingeniously circumvented apartheid policy where he could, while agitating for its abolition.” 

He is survived by his wife Wendy and four children, Suzanne, Kathryn, Jonathan and Gareth, who all work for Pick n Pay and its charity.

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