business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe 

Raymond Ackerman, the longtime chairman and CEO of the South African retailer Pick 'n Pay - a pioneer there of big box, discount retailing - passed away on September 7.  He was 92.

You may wonder why I bring this up in an Eye-Opener.

In 1992, as part of a round-the-world video project during which I produced video profiles of retailers in Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Africa, I had a chance to meet and interview Raymond Ackerman and see his stores in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

It was a tough time there.  While Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, he was not yet president;  while apartheid laws had been repealed, there was an enormous amount of civil unrest connected to racial inequality and the country's racist history.

Ackerman was a beacon of light in a dark time.  Even when South Africa was deeply locked into a policy of apartheid, he made sure he hired Black people not just to work in his stores, but to run them as managers. When Black people needed to live in places where they were not allowed to own or rent so they could be close to their workplaces, Ackerman and Pick 'n Pay bought and rented homes and let them live there.

My recollection was that Ackerman was both a dedicated capitalist and a committed humanitarian, and saw no distance between the two - he knew that for his business and country to thrive, they needed to get beyond history and embrace a new future.

Ackerman was a remarkable man.

An obituary in the Daily Maverick quotes his eldest son, Gareth Ackerman - the current chairman of Pick 'n Pay - as saying that "importantly, he was at his best when he was a statesman. He was a truly unique human being … he was caring, interested and made special time and space for each of us.”

The obit says that "Ackerman was never afraid to challenge the government or to display leadership in the retail industry or the country when it was needed."  And Gareth Ackerman adds, "This was not often an easy part. But he chose it deliberately and with courage. He could never understand why people would not just do the right thing.”

The Daily Maverick goes on:

"Ackerman’s granddaughter, Nikita Montlake, described Raymond as righteous, kind, humble and 'incapable of complying with systems of oppression', adding that she believed him to be a 'lamed vavnik' – one of the 36 'hidden saints', described in Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, who save a generation."

I've met a lot of wonderful people in my career.  But I can remember thinking, more than three decades ago when I sat down with Raymond Ackerman, that this might be the first saint I'd interviewed.