Shoprite's Whitey Basson on his thrills and spills

29 November 2015 - 02:00 By Adele Shevel

A new book, South African Business Leaders: What Makes Them Tick, by Adele Shevel, explores the personal stories behind some of South Africa's top brands. In this edited extract, Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson debunks the myth of the Stellenbosch mafia, doffs a cap to his mentors and admits there were some surprises when the business expanded to Nigeria. What motivates you?My work and my friends. When I started, I drove myself to the limit, as I wanted to be better than anyone I knew. The business became me. Now the business motivates me. I have friends who are youngsters who carry me when I'm in bad shape and listen to me when I'm in good shape.It's a great business. It's like golf. You can play until you're 70 or 80 if you play it wisely. I have almost all the things I like to have, so it's difficult to motivate yourself as an individual. I don't want to be the richest man in the world. I have lovely grandchildren, I have children who respect me, or at times don't respect me. They want to spend Sunday lunch with us at our family home.Do you still want challenges?story_article_left1Business-wise, I love it. I take myself into the ring even if nobody invites me. I had a total misconception of Africa. I got into Nigeria and there was not a shopping centre in sight, not an airconditioned anything.How did you know to go into Africa?I always wanted to play outside South Africa. I never had the opportunity to be measured up against an international player, to see if we are really as good a team as we thought we were. I realised the potential of Africa long before most people. The hotels were bad, there were no shopping centres. You either survived malaria or you died; those were your two options. But out there we got the chance to do things that changed people's worlds.You seem to have fewer labour disputes. How?I think most people who work for Shoprite know the business would do things for them which other businesses would not necessarily do. It is not out of the ordinary to intervene with a few hundred thousand rand for someone who has a problem and who has done great work for the business. I don't have to go to a committee for permission if, for instance, someone has overturned his car and has to learn how to walk again. People know that. We have a policy that we employ our own people's children first if they have the ability and meet the criteria for the job.What is your greatest fear?Old age. Not meaning years, but the inability to play on the team. Not as the captain of the team, but I'd like to travel in the bus with the team and make sure their shoes are clean at the end of the day. I have to pace myself. There was a time when I used to fly overseas, land at six o'clock, shower, and at eight o'clock I was in the first meeting. Now I have to fly in, have breakfast, sleep for an hour or two.You're pretty direct. Are you the same with your family?Very direct! My family and I know exactly where we stand with each other. I enjoy my family. I always say they should be thankful ... they probably didn't see their father as often as other people saw their father. I probably didn't attend too many hockey matches or rugby games, but they most certainly have grown up well and have good lives as part of a family unit that cares.How did you make money at university?We weren't allowed to have a holiday. We had to work in our fathers' businesses and on the farm. I worked in my father's bottle stores and in his vineyard in the off-season. I earned extra money to survive and I always had enough to take a pretty girl out to a fancy restaurant.What was your biggest challenge?Buying Checkers. The difference between our profits and their losses was so close, the dice could have fallen either way. I did the same thing the second time with OK Bazaars. It was a challenge each time. I put all my assets and my reputation on the line. I didn't have to do the OK Bazaars deal, but I couldn't resist it. It worked out very well, but I could have blown 20-odd years of good service, money, fame and fortune in a silly moment.Who were your biggest mentors?My mother and father had a big influence. My mother was very bright, but did not show it off. My dad was a very sensible man who achieved a lot with his personality; he had a marked influence on my life. I grew up in a country town, Porterville, but my father was also a politician and I was exposed to Cape Town.story_article_right2In business, the most direct influence was most probably the ex-chairman of Pepkor, Renier van Rooyen, and my current chairman, Christo Wiese. I was fortunate to have people of that stature backing me. It really is something a person should cherish. Christo is like a brother to me. He's one of the cleverest people I know.Is there a Stellenbosch mafia?Not at all. Stellenbosch was a small university town, so it was close-knit. My family were in the United Party and we were regarded as semi-communists. I think what happened in Stellenbosch from the early to late 1950s was that there were a few very successful people who happened to develop there: the Ruperts, the Wieses, the Van Zyls, GT Ferreira.They became very dominant in business. But there certainly isn't a mafia link. I have never done business with any of my old Stellenbosch friends, apart from Christo.Where do your family shop?At Shoprite, and a little Woolworths shop at Engen down the road where we buy milk and stuff, but I always say we could have bought two packets of tomatoes for the one they bought.This e-book, published by Times Media Books, can be purchased at via this link:

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