Please note: This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Bell, P. (1999) “Raymond Ackerman” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.
Raymond Ackerman's father, Gus, founded the Ackermans chain after the First World War with two army buddies . Raymond Ackerman re-invented his father's industry around a philosophy of consumer sovereignty that may have tried him, but certainly never failed him. In doing so he built two groups, the Checkers chain, whose owners rewarded him with the sack, and Pick 'n Pay, which he founded in 1966 as his response.
And a crushing response it was. By 1999, Pick 'n Pay, with 216 stores, 166 franchise outlets, 30 000 staff and a turnover of more than R 1 billion, had a greater market share than all its rivals put together. For Ackerman this has been a triumphant vindication of his self-belief and determination to overcome setbacks, of his business acumen, which was not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom, and of an essentially compassionate nature that readily identified with that core philosophy of consumer sovereignty, yet also understood and unlocked its social and commercial power.
Retailing runs in Ackerman's veins. His grandfather, Louis, sold ostrich feathers until the market crashed. When Louis died, his widow started a shop in Plum-stead, Cape Town. In 1919, Louis' son, Gus, and two friends sank their wartime savings into a chain of haberdashery stores that sold much of their merchandise for "one and eleven" - so many yards of calico, so many pairs of socks.
The retail chain industry took root in the 1920s. OK Bazaars was founded in 1927, Woolworths in 1930. When Harry Herber entered the fray in 1931, Acker-mans was still the benchmark. Herber named his group Greatermans to make the point that it would be "greater than Ackermans". Herber won that round, because by 1946 the pressures of war had driven Gus Ackerman and his partners to sell control to Greatermans.
The year 1931 would be fateful for Herber also, as it was the year that Raymond was born.
Raymond Ackerman grew up in Cape Town, attended the Diocesan College (Bishops), and went on to study commerce at the University of Cape Town. There, in 1948, he encountered WH Hutt, the teacher who was to give him the central theoretical tenet on which he later constructed his business. "Hutt,"says Ackerman, "hammered into us consumer sovereignty. If you fight for the consumer, she will look after you. Fight monopolies, fight collusion, fight apartheid, fight anything that's wrong for the man in the street, be he black or white. This man had a huge influence on me. In those days no one talked of missions; they were saying: 'How much money are you going to make?' Hutt said: 'You'll never rnake money unless you have a mission. Like a doctor serves his patient, you've got to serve your consumer.' Being young, idealistic and enthusiastic, I took it all in. My father thought I was being given terrible training. He said: 'Raymond, Raymond, Raymond, don't listen to Professor Hutt.
Business isn't like that. If you just look after the consumer, you'll be a nice guy but you'll be left behind'."
Gus's advice came barely three years after he himself had been "left behind" by Harry Herber, but as Ackerman remembers it now: "Hutt was so right, and my father was a wonderful man, but he was wrong."Gus by now was a director of Greatermans, and Harry Herber invited the newly graduated Raymond, aged twenty, to join Ackermans as a trainee. In 1955 Raymond was moved to Checkers, but shortly afterwards prevailed upon Harry Herber's son, Norman (who, on the death of his father, had taken over as chairman of the Greatermans group), to send him to the United States to study its burgeoning post war supermarket boom. It was to be his second major learning experience.
There Ackerman met Bernardo Trujillio, a marketing guru, who brought to life the metaphor that became the heart of Pick 'n Pay's operational ethos.
To demonstrate this, Ackerman uses the analogy of a table: "Trujillio showed me this, the four legs of a table. This is very important in understanding how I think. The consumer must sit on top; she is your mission. However, you must have sound administration this is one leg.
The right merchandise for the consumer at the right price is the second leg, meaning you have to fight collusion and cartels. The third leg, which I think is cardinal and other people miss out on, is social involvement. Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, people were talking about this, where as today you hear the words social responsibility. It's caring about your society; the more you give in life, the more you get back. That leg is as important as the other two. The fourth leg is people, and that goes with the third leg."
Thus it is that, aside from Ackerman's reputation as a doughty fighter on behalf of the consumer (who, in "Ackerman speak" is always she), few other companies can claim to have done as much for their people as Pick 'n Pay has. Today, more than 60% of its managers and supervisors are black, because what other companies are trying to achieve in less than a decade through affirmative action, Pick 'n Pay has been practising for almost thirty years. Long before it was either fashionable or necessary, Ackerman simply believed in promoting people on merit.
But all this was still to come. Ackerman returned home from the US bursting with ideas for Checkers, which had got off to a slow start. Of course, people with ideas are often threatening to establishments, and viewed with suspicion.
Journalists Wessel Ebersohn and Eamon Ryan, who profiled the group and its history in 1998, record that Ackerman was sent to Greatermans' equivalent of Siberia the jewellery and gents department of a store whose name, Belfast, has long since faded from retail memory. After six months he was brought back to Checkers and given one of its four stores, in Boksburg. It was "an ugly, dirty little store", as Raymond's wife Wendy described it to Ebersohn and Ryan. He turned it around. Finally he was given charge of the group, and by 1966 he had grown it to 85 stores.
That year, Gus Ackerman died. If Raymond, then 35, had thought he was alive in the Greatermans group on the strength of his performance, it was more likely in spite of it. With Gus gone, Norman Herber may have felt free to dispense with his own father's old sense of obligation. Raymond, whose adventurous approach to retailing was the source of constant differences between him and the Greatermans board, was fired. It was the lowest point of Ackerman's life. His father was dead. He had just been fired brought low; it seemed, by his very success. And he had four children.
Recalling it all, Ackerman returns to that last fact time and again: "I had four kids." Even with the passage of 33 years, that seeps through as perhaps his deepest concern. It is a clue, also, to Ackerman the patriarch father to his children, father to a business, father to its people. He superseded his own father in commercial rigour and achievement. At 68, with his soft spokenness and gentle manner, his authority is nonetheless unquestioned. He combines a calm exterior with an extraordinary force of personality. It makes him a formidable presence.
Jobless but indefatigable, and determined to carry through his ideas, Ackerman found backers, bought four small stores in Cape Town trading under the name Pick 'n Pay, and opened for business. Checkers threw everything it had at the upstart, but Ackerman kept his eye firmly on the ball. By all accounts, he was forced by the intense competition to expand the business faster than he might have preferred, first in Port Elizabeth and then in Johannesburg. By the turn of the century the company had stores and interests in five southern African states, and had twice declined opportunities to buy Checkers and the OK when they had fallen disastrously behind in the market during the 1990s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Ackerman, favouring his third leg (social involvement and the combating of all things detrimental to the consumer's interests), took on successive prime ministers in his effort to seek departures from oppressive laws. Often his efforts were focused on his own people - pushing black and coloured staffers through the barriers of job reservation or residential segregation. He remembers John Vorster as a courteous man who, with "a wink and a nod", would acquiesce in Ackerman's stubborn insistence on defying apartheid laws. The price, in some right-wing areas, was lengthy boycotts of Pick 'n Pay stores.
Or else Ackerman was fighting monopolies, cartels, and government price controls, such as the petrol cartel and agricultural control boards. He remembers going to PW Botha's office in 1980 to remonstrate with him over the cabinet's decision to raise the bread price. The prime minister came round his desk, grabbed him by the knot of his tie, and shouted at him. Ackerman was too liberal he did not care to understand that the government had to look after the farmers. "He said to me, 'I cannot worry about the bread price when I am looking after the nation's affairs.' I said to him, 'Mr Botha, I pay your taxes, just take your hands off me'."
De Klerk he remembers as "so different". During the mid-1980s they struck up a good relationship and Ackerman believes that their meetings, alone at first but later in the company of other business leaders, played a valuable role in clarifying De Klerk's thinking in the years before he became president. "He would take out his yellow pad and say: 'What would you do if you became president of the country?' And we would tell him. And he would say: 'You know, I don't disagree with anything you're saying except one thing. How can we mix the schools?'" "When I look back, it was a risky time. Consumers would say: 'What are they doing, getting involved in politics?' But I told myself that if consumers are important, this must be right."
In a life so bounteously successful, there were bound to be failures and disappointments. The company's failure, thus far, to expand beyond southern Africa is one: the Australian venture of the 1980s, in the shape of a large store in Brisbane, should have worked, but anti-apartheid activists put paid to it; Pick 'n Pay was literally driven out. A partnership with Shell in the Philippines in the late 1990s also foundered. Ackerman puts his finger on the problem: the company, though highly professional, is also very idiosyncratic in its ethos, and is therefore not good at being a partner.
On reflection, it seems to mirror the relationship between Ackerman, the paterfamilias, and his own company, where, although he has appointed a new chief executive, he remains spiritually in command. Ackerman has always done things his way, which would make him, and the company as a whole, more comfortable with junior partners. If so, it may partly explain why Pick 'n Pay has done so well with franchises in the 1990s. These are relationships that do not threaten its right to do things its way but allow it to satisfy its deep-seated corporate impulse to help the little man.
In 1990 Ackerman plunged into his greatest public venture, a bid to bring the 2004 Olympic Games to Cape Town. He gave it his all, and made considerable progress, funding a team to work up the logic of a Cape Town Games while himself wooing as many as 75 of the IOC's 106 members, only to be ousted from the initiative in 1995 by a coalition of the city council and IOC member Sam Ram samy, president of South Africa's national Olympic committee.
Ackerman was broken-hearted. It was, said his wife Wendy at the time, worse than a divorce, more like a death. Again, the process and its outcome were revealing not only of the council and Ramsamy who, in their struggle with Ackerman, were clearly territorial and self-interested, but also of Ackerman himself, who found it difficult to share control of an initiative he had begun and felt ownership of. That having been said, Ackerman wanted nothing for himself. As in everything about his life, he believed in it, and worked passionately for his belief. In the event Cape Town lost its bid two years later, and history may well lodge that failure with Ackerman's ousting.
Ackerman's third disappointment was the succession. His son, Gareth, whom he nurtured in the business, did not take over as CEO. The matter had been under consideration inside the family, which still controls the company, for several years. Ackerman took advice from American professionals with experience of family businesses in transitions of leadership, and formed a family council. The question the council confronted was: should they manage, or control, the business? In the end they opted for control, and finding the best manager to run the business. Gareth himself had concluded that his colleague, Sean Summers, a Pick 'n Pay veteran of 25 years, had the drive, endurance and passionate enthusiasm a retail leader needs. Summers got the job, but the family will keep the company. Gareth, whose strengths are more strategic, will probably succeed as non-executive chairman, and primary manager of the family's interests, when his father steps down.
The episode has been a crucial one in the life and continuation of Pick 'n Pay. Says Raymond Ackerman: "I passionately want to keep control." Indeed he has suffused enough of that passion into his children, three of whom are in the business, to ensure that they retain control after he is gone. For the rest, he has no regrets. "You learn in life to make your choices, and not regret them. Not regret what you didn't do."