Obituary: Bertie Lubner, philanthropist, businessman, sanctions-buster

24 April 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron
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Bertie Lubner, who has died at the age of 85, built one of South Africa's most successful companies and was an indefatigable philanthropist.

Bertie Lubner, former joint CEO of PG Group.
Bertie Lubner, former joint CEO of PG Group.

He was also a sanctions buster for the apartheid regime and the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. He was unapologetic about his efforts to circumvent international sanctions.

As he saw it, South Africa was under siege and it was no crime to help save the economy from collapse with the loss of jobs and misery that would ensue.

He also worked closely with the South African department of foreign affairs to assist the anti-sanctions campaign abroad.

He and his brother Ronnie turned a small family business into a building materials conglomerate called PG Group.

Its offshore operations became Belron, one of the world's leading vehicle glass repair and replacement companies. It operates across 34 countries on five continents.

The small business, the Plate Glass Bevelling company, had been founded by the Brody family in Cape Town in 1897.

Lubner's father, Morris, headed the Transvaal operation and when it became bigger than the rest of the group, he took equity control.

Lubner joined the business after graduating with a BCom from the University of the Witwatersrand. He got it going in what was then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa and becoming joint chief executive with Ronnie.

Ronnie led the glass division while Bertie focused on the timber side of the business. When he turned 60, he handed full control to Ronnie and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy of the most hands-on, active kind.

Not someone who believed in wasting time on pessimism or daydreaming, he was in the office from 9am to after 7pm five days a week until weeks before his death.

Even when he was on dialysis three times a week for the last two years of his life, his secretary had to be with him so he could continue running his various nonprofit organisations, and he would hold meetings at the hospital.

His track record for getting things done was legendary. He started several organisations to improve the lives of underprivileged youngsters. One of the organisations is MaAfrika Tikkun (meaning "transformation"), which looks after 10000 children with feeding schemes and life-support programmes in places such as Alexandra, Orange Farm, Delft and many other impoverished areas. It provides computers, broadband, IT systems and whatever other assistance youngsters need to become properly educated, skilled and economically active.

Another is the Field Band Foundation, which he started with a band in Springs on the East Rand in 1997 and which has developed 48 college-style bands in townships across South Africa; these compete at regional and national championships and have provided musical training, life skills and a sense of purpose, pride and hope to about 40,000 young people.

In February this year, in spite of deteriorating health, he insisted on attending the Field Band Foundation's national championships in Soweto with his wife, Hilary.

In 2000 the Smile Foundation was started by the Lubner family after a call from Nelson Mandela, who asked if they could help a young girl suffering from a rare medical condition that caused facial nerve paralysis.

He injected capital, time and business expertise into the foundation, which was run by his son Marc with Bertie as a patron. It has arranged plastic and reconstructive surgery for more than 2000 children.

Lubner was a strong and persistent proponent of public-private partnerships, which he saw as the only hope for South Africa.

"We cannot succeed in this country if government tries to work alone," he said. "Government has got the money, we have got the skills. If you put it together in partnerships then we've got the best chance of success.

"We're at war against poverty. And when you're at war you bring all your resources together, because you dare not lose that war. We are not bringing our resources together. It is the craziest, most frustrating thing."

He championed a southern African common market, which he believed was necessary to help South Africa become internationally competitive.

He cared hugely about South Africa and was terribly frustrated by its failure to achieve what he believed was its huge potential. "We've got so much in this country, and we're just not playing to our advantages," he would say.

The Lubner family came to South Africa from Poland via London in 1903. Bertie was born on March 11 1931 and matriculated at Parktown Boys High.

His annual visits to the World Economic Forum in Davos, which he attended 24 times, were famous.

On one celebrated occasion he responded to an impassioned plea to business leaders from movie star Sharon Stone to give money for mosquito nets.

She pledged $10,000 and challenged "everyone else in the room to join me". Lubner jumped up and shouted: "Yes! I'm joining you, Sharon, I'll pledge $50,000."

This prompted a ribald comment from then finance minister Trevor Manuel, which Lubner dined out on for years. The two remained close friends.

He was also close to Mandela after offering to pay his daughters' school fees at Waterford private school in Swaziland after he was jailed in the 1960s.

When Mandela was released, Lubner convinced him of the importance of attending Davos because of the networking opportunities it offered. Mandela attended the meeting of world capitalists even before he became president, with profound consequences for South Africa's economic course.

Lubner is survived by his wife (he died a day before their 61st wedding anniversary), and four children.

1931 - 2016

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