What I've learnt: Raymond Ackerman

16 April 2011 - 16:23 By Marion Scher
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The businessman on keeping your ear to the ground, picking yourself up when you're down and staying humble

Even though he retired last year and has just turned 80, there's no slowing down the man who changed the way South Africans shopped...

It's really hard to hand over power and step back. Now that my son Gareth is chairman and Nick Badminton CEO, I have to learn to listen and resist the temptation to interfere - it's not always easy ... I offer my advice and sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't. I'm just as passionate about the business, and my new role as ambassador for the company has given me the opportunity to go around this country and Australia and meet our people.

Family-run businesses do work. There's been a lot of negativity from analysts about family-run businesses in South Africa. Ours is the only major one left, with families having sold out or having emigrated. All the things I tried to do when I fought former presidents BJ Vorster and PW Botha to get black advancement was because we had family control.

There's a misconception that family businesses perpetrate second-grade management. This is crazy because our policy has been to make the best person I can find CEO, and the best family member chairman - that's a wonderful combination. Otherwise you become a huge, cold machine.

There I was, 35 years old with a fourth child on the way and I was fired from Checkers - after opening 89 shops for them. I remember walking round and round Zoo Lake thinking, how do I tell my wife, Wendy? She was in bed as the pregnancy was a difficult one, but when I told her she jumped up and said: "Raymond, this is the best day. You've always wanted to go on your own. We'll make it." Within weeks I was offered three Pick n Pay shops - but I didn't have any money, only passion.

At first the banks weren't interested in someone who had no capital, four children and who'd just been fired! It's not easy picking yourself up from these situations, but I'd been told to start something new you need 90% guts and 10% capital - and I had the guts ...

The customer is always right. This has always been our motto at Pick n Pay and even today I still take complaint calls. My answer is always: "You are correct - how can I make it right?" This is often followed up with flowers and even a personal visit.

There's only been one incident when I barred someone from ever returning to our shops. This was when a customer refused to be served by a "black lady". There was a huge outcry and we almost had a strike. I told the customer I no longer wanted her in my stores if she was going to be rude to my cashiers, and we never saw her again.

Not every customer is honest. I had a call from a well-known attorney saying his wife was shopping at Boksburg Hypermarket when a bottle of Jik spilt on her new £10000 dress they'd just bought in Paris, not Parys. He added that they'd flown there first class. Although I was taken back, I offered to give him one first-class ticket and the money for a new dress. My directors wanted to fire me. Two days later he called to say he was just testing me and she did in fact buy the dress in Parys, not Paris! He dined out on this story in many boardrooms over the years - so it paid off.

I'm just not into technology. Even though I've always made sure Pick n Pay is kept abreast of new technology, it's not for me. My cellphone is for making calls only - I don't SMS. When I see Wendy answering 200 e-mails I know that would drive me dilly. My secretary goes through mine and sifts out a certain amount for me to answer. My children and grandchildren tease me all the time and my son threatens to buy me an iPad - which I just don't want.

Pick n Pay is the glue that has kept our family together. We are so lucky that all our four children live in Cape Town, are involved in the business and that we get to see our 12 grandchildren regularly. Our eldest grandson, at 24, has just joined the business.

My biggest thrill is seeing real change in our communities. We've always had social responsibility programmes, before they ever had a name. One of our projects is an academy we run at the University of Cape Town for students who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks. These are kids you see on the streets. We give them six months' business training and many open their own businesses.

When you stop learning, that's when you start really getting old. I'm still learning every day, whether from a new book on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet or a Philippa Gregory historical novel. I've been to America 92 times and always came back with two or three really good ideas.

Don't ever get big-headed. My first book was called Hearing Grasshoppers Jump. The title came from something an American retailer taught me: "Keep your ear so close to the ground that grasshoppers can jump in." I've always lived by that and, unlike many older people, I refrain from saying: "I know that, you don't need to tell me." That's shutting yourself off.

We live in an amazing country - even with its faults. Watching the problems in North Africa, in particular Egypt and Libya, makes me even more aware of how lucky we are to live in a democratic country. We should appreciate what we have. It's easy to talk about HIV/Aids, corruption, crime and unemployment and to forget what an amazing country this is.

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