Alistair Stewart: Venda-born executive at GE and macadamia nut farmer

Farm boy from Limpopo reached the top rungs of General Electric

28 October 2018 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON

Alistair Stewart, who has died in Scotland at the age of 80, grew up in Venda and became a top international executive at General Electric Corp under the legendary Jack Welch when it was the largest company in the world.
He was in Argentina heading its Latin American division when the Falklands war erupted in 1982 and he and his family had to hurriedly seek refuge in Uruguay.
And he was in charge of the GE team in the Middle East when it became embroiled in the Gulf war. He received a special commendation for his leadership of the company there during the crisis.
Stewart was born on October 6 1937 at a Swiss missionary hospital at Elim, Limpopo, and grew up on a dairy farm in Vhembe district of Limpopo in the Soutpansberg.
He learnt to speak Venda while playing with the local children and remained fluent in the language, which he spoke at every opportunity, including when he met Cyril Ramaphosa in New York in the 1980s. They remained lifelong friends.
Stewart went to King Edward VII School in Johannesburg where he became a prefect and won the one-mile race, an achievement he treasured for the rest of his life. He subsequently ran for Transvaal.
He studied accountancy at Wits University while working as an articled clerk because he couldn't afford to be a full-time student.
In 1960, at the age of 23, he graduated as a chartered accountant.
In 1962 he married Helen Cluver, whose father Eustace Cluver was dean of the Wits medical school and a timber grower in the Soutpansberg.
They had met as teenagers on their neighbouring family farms.
In 1965 he graduated with honours from Edinburgh University with a specialist business management diploma. He then studied at the London School of Economics, specialising in productivity. He always said that productivity was the most important single feature that distinguished GE from all other companies in the world.
After working for Unilever in England for a year he returned to SA and got a job with GE in Benoni.
In 1975 he was transferred to GE headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut, and a few years later to Miami, Florida, where he joined the Latin American division of GE.
In 1981 he moved with his family to Buenos Aires in Argentina shortly before it became embroiled in a war with the UK.
In 1983 he returned to the US where he headed the GE International Trade Corp in New York.
In 1986 he was sent to Saudi Arabia as GE's vice-president for the Middle East, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe. This was the year GE left SA in opposition to apartheid.
He led the GE team during the Gulf war, after which he became GE president of an area that included the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Russia, and India, making him one of the top managers in the world.
He retired from GE in 2000.
In 1981, when he first went to Argentina, GE had a market value of $12bn. When he retired, GE had a market value of $410bn, 35 times more. Over this period, GE made 600 acquisitions and he was involved in more than 150 of these.
In 2001 he and his wife Helen relocated to SA. For the next 17 years he mentored young CEOs around the world, and started a macadamia nut farm in Molozi, in Venda, which employed 147 people.
He travelled to every major nut producing country and met with the local nut growing associations. He argued for global marketing collaboration to drive macadamia nuts, focusing especially on their health qualities. He learnt the best practices in the world for growing macadamia nuts, and implemented them on his farm.
After GE, Alistair and Helen spent half their time in SA and the other half in Scotland at Loch Lomond Castle, on the banks of Loch Lomond.
He died in Scotland of a form of lung cancer called mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos during his youth.
He is survived by Helen and two children.

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