Lessons at the dinner table from an old pro

15 November 2014 - 19:19 By Chris Barron
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Mark Lamberti doesn't tolerate downbeat dinner-table chatter
Mark Lamberti doesn't tolerate downbeat dinner-table chatter

Top businessman and determined optimist says he sometimes feels SA is on the brink of anarchy

One of the country's most experienced corporate leaders, Mark Lamberti, says South Africa's problems are structural, not cyclical - and turning things around will take time.

The CEO of Imperial Holdings, the R100-billion-a-year logistics and industrial services company, is determined to be optimistic about South Africa's chances no matter what - and walks out of dinner parties if the talk is too downbeat.

But, he says, urgent action is required.

If the government does not "hammer away" at the National Development Plan, slash public spending and improve service delivery fast, the country's immediate prospects will be dire.

Asked what scares him most, Lamberti reflects on the fact that there are more than five service delivery protests a day around the country.

"That is the thing the government most has to deal with.

"There are times when I feel we're on the brink of anarchy in certain areas.

"You're dealing with testosterone-filled 18- to 25-year-old men who have no education and no purpose in life, and that's a dangerous constituency. Unemployed and unemployable."

Speaking after his company's AGM last week, he says government austerity is non-negotiable.

"If fiscal rectitude comes through and money is applied to infrastructure development, this is where growth will have to come from. The multiplier effect will create huge employment."

Lamberti - who is 64 but says he would rather be in a boardroom than on the beach "reminiscing about my past" - is full of praise for Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and the government's finance team in general.

He tells of listening to Nene and deputy Reserve Bank governor Daniel Mminele at a recent international conference in New York and swelling with pride.

"I was extremely proud to be a South African at that meeting," he says. "Our problem is that we need a few more of them. The gap between the best and worst in our cabinet is too big."

If there were more of the former, then, "with the likes of (Discovery Health founder) Adrian Gore and others similarly dedicated to South Africa, we could do a few things here. It is still a country with extraordinary capabilities and resources."

Many of its problems are shared by other developing countries such as Brazil, with one crucial difference that hits him in the face whenever he deals with their business and political leaders.

They never had apartheid.

"Never, ever underestimate the impact of apartheid. The worst thing it did was to deprive our people of their self-esteem and education. And you don't fix that in 20 years."

The reason there aren't more black entrepreneurs and industrialists - like Gore and Bidvest founder Brian Joffe and, although he would never say it himself, Lamberti, who founded Massmart and Transaction Capital before he accepted the top job at Imperial nine months ago - is apartheid.

This is why he thinks the new ministry of small business is a waste of time and money.

"I don't think that small businesses are grown by a government department. Small businesses are grown at the dinner table when you're 10 years old and you hear your father speak about business and you go out and try it for yourself. That's the part that is not going to be easy.

"When I think of the things I learnt at the dinner table and by watching my father in business and my uncles and other mentors, people I could role-model on - that is fundamental, and that is what most black South Africans were denied."

This is why he believes business in South Africa has a responsibility to "bring along the government by interfacing with them and helping them to understand how money is made and capital is created. That's what we have to do."

Judging by results, not enough engagement between business and the government is happening.

"The problem for most people is that it's below the radar," he says. "There's a lot of engagement at the moment. I think we are being heard.

"When you get into the working groups, real traction is being made - for instance, on the issue of regulatory impact. Because what we have are well-intentioned but unco-ordinated ministers churning out legislation, which, when it devolves onto the small businessman, is almost impossible to deal with."

The issue of regulatory impact studies across ministries is coming to the fore, he says.

"It will make regulators and lawmakers realise that just churning out legislation is not what their job is about. It's about enforcement and making life livable for particularly the small businessperson."

As the CEO of a company that employs 53000 people and a director of Business Leadership South Africa, Lamberti meets regularly with ministers and finds them "receptive".

What about other corporate bosses who say the agreements they reach with ministers are seldom executed?

"Ministers have political constraints that we don't always understand. We as businesspeople don't have a clue how politics works, sometimes even less of a clue than they have about how business works."

Is it acceptable for business leaders to plead ignorance about politics when the stakes are so high?

"There are party loyalties that defy rationality," he says. "It's not easy."

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