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[Transcript] Meet Whitey Basson - the retail genius behind the rise of Shoprite

4 December 2017 6:08 PM
Whitey Basson
Shoprite Checkers
Shoprite Group

[FULL TRANSCRIPT] Basson recounts how he grew Shoprite from tiny, R1 million company into a the largest retailer in Africa.

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Bruce Whitfield: How old is that advert? In the microphone please.

Whitey Basson: I'm sorry... [inaudible]

Bruce Whitfield: R349 for a microwave! You don't see prices like that anymore.

Bruce Whitfield: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to The Money Show, brought to you by Old Mutual, a licenced financial services provider. Today's the day! Get great financial advice. Do great things.

Bruce Whitfield: We have a studio audience! Excellent! Just one hand signal and they... and they obey, which is good.

Bruce Whitfield: Over the past 15 years, or so, I've had the privilege of speaking to tonight's guest, Whitey Basson, on average, twice a year for about 10 minutes a time. That's 300 minutes. That's five hours of discussions. And tonight's the first night I have ever met him face to face. It's a real pleasure to have you.

Whitey Basson: Thank you.

Bruce Whitfield: Explain to me something; it's something that's always bothered me. How does somebody called James Wellwood Basson get born in a place like Porterville in the Western Cape?

Whitey Basson: The birth part was easy. The 'James Wellwoo' was the difficult part.

Bruce Whitfield: Where does 'James Wellwood'come from?

Whitey Basson: It was a Scottish gentleman who didn't have any children and my father decided to name me after him. And it didn't go well in Porterville, so they had to find a shorter name. So I think they kept a 'W'for 'Whitey'.

Bruce Whitfield: So, when did you become 'Whitey' Were you 'Whitey'from the start?

Whitey Basson: Yeah, I think when I was... since I can remember, I had, those days blond hair not white hair, but they didn't know the difference at that stage in Porterville.

Bruce Whitfield: So you were 'Whitey' as a child. But 'James Wellwood' - when you go through passport control - that's what your passport says.

Whitey Basson: Ja. Or my mother talks to me, obviously.

Bruce Whitfield: Absolutely. James Wellwood Basson! Did you get into trouble a lot with your mom?

Whitey Basson: No, not that often.

Bruce Whitfield: When we look at your family history; it's really interesting. Your dad practiced law, went off to the war, came back and actually was in politics with Jan Smuts in the United Party. He was a member of parliament.

Whitey Basson: Yes. I think he and Paul Sauer were the longest serving MPs in those days. So I don't know what happens today. But, yes, he was in Parliament for a long time.

Bruce Whitfield: There's a wine named after Paul Sauer, so what about your dad?

Whitey Basson: I think he probably had a brandy named after him!

Bruce Whitfield: Law runs through your family. Your maternal grandfather was a lawyer. Christo Wiese, your business partner [of] many, many, many years qualified as a lawyer. Why did you choose to become a shopkeeper?

Whitey Basson: I didn't actually. I wanted to become a medical student, but my mother said I was afraid of blood, so I didn't.

Bruce Whitfield: Would you have been a decent doctor, because you did consider it quite seriously.

Whitey Basson: No, I actually applied actually. I actually got admitted to UCT, but I never went there.

Bruce Whitfield: Would you have been a good doctor?

Whitey Basson: I'm not sure.

Bruce Whitfield: I'm looking at your family. I'm not playing poker with your family, by the way, they give away nothing.

Whitey Basson: I'm not sure. Depends what they paid in those days.

Bruce Whitfield: Ja... Doctors get paid a awful lot, but I don't think you would have been happy.

Bruce Whitfield: B.Com... Articles at PwC... You joined Pep, but you had met Christo Wiese at Stellenbosch.

Whitey Basson: Ja, Christo was in Stellenbsoch, like, a year ahead of me. He spent a few years at UCT. And then he came to Stellenbosch, so, obviously when you had your interview with him you can see he's substantially older than me. So it's strange that we're actually friends.

Bruce Whitfield: But did you hit it off right at the start?

Whitey Basson: We were very close at varsity and we were both in the, or, he came from a "SAP" house, if you can call it that way.

Bruce Whitfield: A 'bloed-SAP', he calls himself a 'bloed-SAP'.

Whitey Basson: Ja. So so obviously [there] weren't too many of us, so we were close together. And then, when I did my, when I finished my articles at Ernst and Young, actually, then I went to PwC and I did a few smaller audits for them. And then Christo's cousin who was the CEO and chairman of the company asked me to...

Bruce Whitfield: Because he founded Pep, Christo's cousin, he founded Pep in Upington.

Whitey Basson: And then he came... he came from Upington straight into Cape Town; opened up a couple of stores and in '71 they wanted to do a listing and I was then the auditor for PwC, so he asked me to join the company.

Bruce Whitfield: OK.

Whitey Basson: Which I did. Christo stayed there 'till '74, I think it was, because in October of '74 his uncle thought that [at] the tender age of 28 I should become the business director, or whatever we called it in those days.

Bruce Whitfield: How big was Pep then, was it 20... 30 stores?

Bruce Whitfield: No, it was then already by the hundred there in the '74s. Then Christo went to practice at the bar and then bought the diamond mine, so we only really met up in '80 again when, after I bought Shoprite in '79 and in '80, he bought his cousin's shares so that he became the controlling shareholder.

Bruce Whitfield: What was the secret of Pep? What made Pep great?

Whitey Basson: You know Pep was... Van Rooyen was probably one of the best traders that I've met.

Bruce Whitfield: Van Rooyen is Cristo's cousin?

Whitey Basson: Ja. No. Christo's cousin's husband. Second... second... close to that.

Bruce Whitfield: Familie.

Whitey Basson: Familie. But Van Rooyen was a brilliant man, not just mentally, he was also just a very good marketing man, and he had this passion to supply people with clothing, affordable clothing, not cheap cheap cheap clothing, but affordable clothing, so that everybody uplifts and looks good in his clothing. And he kept that market very much under his hand... in those days against Edgars and a few of the big guys that came in against us.

Whitey Basson: Scotts... there was Half Price Stores... They were smaller, but they were they were all there.

Bruce Whitfield: I mean; when you look at Pep, and Pep grew by acquisition, I think you bought Half Price Stores didn't you?

Whitey Basson: I bought that, ja. I... was actually a nice story which I can tell for your audience.

Bruce Whitfield: Please.

Whitey Basson: The guy who ran Half Price Stores was a young guy called "Sam Stupple" who was a very ambitious guy. But he seemed to follow us with everything that we did. So, I knew that he used to phone me, like, on a Monday, Tuesday and speak to me about the sales figures of the different stores. I knew he had the sales figures in front of him because they were in computer frequence... It wasn't "A", "B", "C", it was "101", "102", etc. So I knew that he had some inside track with us and I thought I'll catch him and I sent out a circular that we get into food and then he started applying for food licences!

Whitey Basson: And I caught him in the death tracks there with about a couple hundred tons on its way from India! So, I sold rice, even in Pep stores, to get rid of it at this stage.

Bruce Whitfield: When you look at Pep, and you look, I mean, what, are there about 1400 Pepkor stores in Eastern Europe... in Hungary and in Poland and the Czech Republic. Can you believe it?

Whitey Basson: Yeah there's more. There's in Czech Republic there's a lot. I actually visited them last year; they are doing very well there as well. Despite that it's Europe, or Eastern Europe, but the GDP per capita in euros is doing very well in a place like Poland, so quite obviously there's a very strong growth in the in the in the in the level of wealth of the Czech people and that helps a lot. How long they're going to be just loyal Pep customers, I can't tell you. But currently they are there. But the new guys are also coming. The British retailers and the German retailers are all coming in there.So it's going to be a nice debate, but there's a lot of countries around it that Pep can still go to.

Bruce Whitfield: Explain to me then please the Shoprite acquisition, because Shoprite was started by the Rogit family and there were eight stores when you decided to buy them. Were you and Christo in business together at this point or was this an independent move by you, or was it a Pep move; what was it?

Whitey Basson: No, no... It was... Martin Shane, the then chairman of [inaudible], actually phoned me and said he would want to sell the company. There was a company for sale with two guys who'd broken up, or whose partnership was being broken up by the friction between the wives or brothers in laws or the family unit. And he offered it to us. Now we... I had then studied, not studied, but went with Renier on a trip to India...

Bruce Whitfield: Who is Renier?

Whitey Basson: Van Rooyen.

Bruce Whitfield: OK. It's like these movie stars who always talk about 'when I was with James and Mary' and we're supposed to know who they're talking about.

Whitey Basson: No, he was the movies star.

Bruce Whitfield: Was he?

Whitey Basson: But he was a lovely guy and between '74... Christo left Pep for long time and between '74 and about '77, '78, I basically ran Pep Stores at that very mature age of 28. And then I... then he came back and, obviously, when the old boss comes back and there's a new boss in place then things don't work out that well. I was very fond of him so I spent days and hours and nights with him just learning business. So I said I can't have a fight with you and you're disrupting what I've actually put into place. So I think must go and do something else. So he says, 'What did you want to do?'. So, I said I think first of all I want to leave you, but secondly... secondly, it would be quite nice to do some fast moving product like food.

Whitey Basson: So we managed to get people in the UK that took us to Europe and we... I first went to have look at the [inaudible]. But they chucked me out every time I went to their stores. They were good at knowing that we were looking at their business. And then I spent time with a company called "Meta" in Italy, which was part of Pam Supermarkets.

Bruce Whitfield: OK.

Whitey Basson: And on the verge of doing a joint venture for a limited assortment for South Africa... I was very fond with them and between them, myself and Pep we would've done a limited assortment... [inaudbile]... And then Martin Shane phoned me and said there's this business that you can buy. It was just so good a buy that that I couldn't refuse it. It nearly went shipwreck at some stage and then a lot of politics and there are still lots of arguments about who should own what. But I then started at... left my office in end of '79 with a car and a briefcase. And Van Rooyen said take five guys with you. They don't have to be clever; they must just support you, because you're going to have a hell of a time. And [I] got into a place in Lansdowne; sat in a chair that kept on tilting because the previous guy that was sitting there was about 400 kilograms. But learned a lot. Every day I walk through a different aisle going to my office. The office was upstairs in the storeroom.. the offices; there were five.

Whitey Basson: But it was also in the way of the chute that was sending the boxes down. So you had time very well to get to the top. And then you start from nothing. There was an old family. Fantastic guys. Gerald would know them. Barney Rogit was also fantastic to teach me food and he then taught me how to run a supermarket. And then I started buying a couple of very...

Bruce Whitfield: We're gonna talk about the deals. I want to talk about the deals. This is Whitey Basson who famously bought a couple of interesting businesses. The Ackermans food business, of course, and then there was that famous OK Bazaars deal. Some liabilities, of course, but he paid a rand. Whitey Basson is our studio guest this evening. We got a live studio audience. More with Whitey Basson in just a moment.

Bruce Whitfield: Deputy Chairman of Shoprite Whitey Basson is our "ShapeShifter" with a live studio audience this evening.

Bruce Whitfield: I just look at the massive success of Shoprite over many many years and think it was probably quite easy but like many people struggle with landlords today, when you started out you had landlords who didn't know that you were going to be big and famous one day, who gave you trouble. They... they... pushed you around; they bullied you.

Whitey Basson: They did. In fact, a lot of the landlords didn't want us in the supermarkets. We probably drew a crowd of people that were...

Bruce Whitfield: Were you a bit downmarket? Were you a bit downmarket?

Whitey Basson: I would say, no, we weren't, but they were but up-market.

Bruce Whitfield: Oh I see, I understand! I understand! At what point did landlords start taking you seriously though?

Whitey Basson: I think at the stage when we bought Checkers, because they didn't have too many options left.

Bruce Whitfield: I mean it's so interesting. I mean you and Raymond Ackerman have been rivals and have crossed paths for decades. You bought the food business at Ackermans food stores in the 80s. It was at that time by then controlled by Edgars. And then you went and you bought Checkers which Raymond Ackerman previously run and so famously got fired from and then gone and started Pick n Pay.

Bruce Whitfield: But you eventually bought Checkers and it was like the fish swallowing the whale. They were three times bigger than you.

Whitey Basson: Yeah it wasn't actually that... OK... We had a big fish that was helping us in the sense of Sanlam.

Bruce Whitfield: Because you knew the Sanlam chairman.

Whitey Basson: Ja, Marinus Darling was a good friend of mine.

Bruce Whitfield: Was Marinus Darling a good friend of yours? Ok.

Whitey Basson: So what happened is that at one stage, I think, Sanlam inherited Checkers with a long story through partners that sold, didn't sell, etc. But they could only get something like 20 or 15 cents of the bottom line coming through to the Sanlam holding a lot of companies in between. And then Marinus asked me to join him and I said I commit suicide on the beach not in my office.

Bruce Whitfield: So, Marinus wanted you to go to Sanlam?

Whitey Basson: Ja.

Bruce Whitfield: To sell polisse [policies]?

Whitey Basson: No, to go and run Checkers. I said no, no it's not it's not a good wish of yours. But I did say to him that one day when you're ready let's merge the companies and then I have got a lot of friends... because then Shoprite was a big company and Checkers was very big; as you say; it's a whale. So I needed people to help me turn that around. And then I spoke him into... Actually, Christo, at the end, was on board with the discussions, because I told him what had happened and we bought, then we merged. We bought a... one of the holding companies of Checkers we bought and then we sold Shoprite into it to get control. To at least get a proper flow through of profits.

Bruce Whitfield: 'Cause Checkers has gone through its heydays in the 1980s. Clive Weil - twolley for twolley - everybody remembers Clive Weil, and then the wheels did come off Checkers. It wasn't a great business. But what's surprising is it took you just nine months to turn Checkers around. That's at least what the research says.

Whitey Basson: Yeah it's true. You know it wasn't... it was never a bad business. It was badly focussed as it could have been. And obviously it had different cultural sort of backgrounds to... The disciplines probably weren't as good as I would have liked them to be in the total group. But they were fantastic guys in Checkers. They just needed support to run the business. Sergio Martinengo, that was their CEO at that stage, stayed on with us for 10, 15 years as running the franchise operation, so it was it wasn't really a bad business. It was a bad business run by people who had different ideas and I went there the first day and then we went into...

Bruce Whitfield: Tell me about lunch. Tell me about that first lunch. Well the last lunch. The first lunch you had, and the last lunch they had.

Whitey Basson: Normally lunch in Shoprite means that at five o'clock you discover that you've missed the lunch so. That's lunch; we don't have starting times and closing times. We don't have lunch times on paper, but we do have... you can ask, they differ [inaudible]... And when I got to Checkers it was fantastic, because they said that about 10 to 1 I have to prepare myself, wash my hands to go and have lunch in this beautiful dining room with waiters with white gloves. It was very nice. I felt like one of those biblical Queens who got fed nice oranges and grapes. And, uhm. So had this lunch and different three courses and everything. And I looked at the people round the table and I said you know guys this is... we're losing 45 million rands a year. This lunch is in... in... conflict with what I think we should be making and where we should be going. And I said, 'Did you guys heard of the last supper?'. I said well this is the second time; this is the last lunch, locked as from tomorrow morning, so we locked it and we didn't have a lunch there again.

Bruce Whitfield: But it shows the importance of culture, I suppose, in acquisitions. And you made multiple acquisitions over a long period of time. Tell me about, I mean, Grand Bazaars. Grand Bazaars... It was a deal that didn't happen the first time. I think you had to go back, at least, two or three times before you managed to buy it. You're buying these businesses in quick succession.

Whitey Basson: Grand Bazaars was a nice deal because Barney Rogit, my partner in Shoprite, he... he... actually was 25 percent or 30 percent partner in Grand Bazaars before he started Shoprite. And he had a disagreement with the then owners, or the major shareholders of Grand Bazaars and, literally, chucked his shares - he was so cross. So when we bought Grand Bazaars, we were in final... We actually, we actually, we were, we were ready to have the cocktail party, the food was already dished up. Then something came up. Manuel [inaudible] who was then the chairman of Grand Bazaars, wanted to stay the chairman. And I said, 'Not a problem with me. We can make you super chairman, or whatever you want to be'. And Barney says he doesn't serve under Manuel. I said well now we've got a problem so we'd have to form another company. But big arguments... and, uhm, ag there were small things there and then Manuel says okay well then he's not selling and, I said, well that's fine. We'll probably meet each other down the road one day. And Carlos Dos Santos is also a very good friend of mine.

Bruce Whitfield: Carlos Dos Santos was a big retailer in those days too.

Whitey Basson: He had the Cash and Carry business. He was very smart.

Bruce Whitfield: Metro Cash and Carry.

Whitey Basson: Very smart guy, really smart. And he went and bought it and kept it for three or four years and then I walked through his fridges one day and I saw, but some of the fridges are switched off. They only stocked Coke and some of Gerald's cooldrinks, which didn't need cooling. So I phoned him I said, 'Carlos, I see you're a bit short of profits and money. Can't we talk about your Grand Bazaars?' And he phoned me and says come and see me Joburg. So we... ag, we did about two hours and we did a handshake deal and that was it. So we bought the company. And, in fact, I'm not sure, but I think we paid slightly less than what he paid.

Bruce Whitfield: I'm talking to Whitey Basson this evening. He is the deputy chairman of Shoprite. Until last year was the chief executive of many, many years standing of Shoprite. I want to talk to Whitey Basson about doing business in difficult times, because so often we feel very sorry for ourselves sitting in South Africa in 2017 with cabinet reshuffles and shake ups. With politics being very uncertain. With an ANC elective conference coming up just before Christmas time. Yet, Whitey Basson decides to list Shoprite in 1986. What was happening in South Africa in 1986? It was just after the Rubicon Speech. We defaulted on our debt. We were in deep junk. We were going from emergency to emergency... recession to recession. And he thinks, "This is a good time to list a company". I think a lot of people would be inspired by that. That's coming up after Eyewitness News.

Bruce Whitfield: Tonight's Shapeshifter, Whitey Basson. Former Chief Executive of the Shoprite Group. We went into the break talking about the crisis of the mid-80s and your decision to list Shoprite in 1986. It feeds nicely into a question from the floor. I'm going to read it. Somebody has written in lots of words.

Bruce Whitfield: What criteria has the board of Shoprite used over the years to justify continuous investment in South Africa? What gives you faith in the future? What gives you optimism? What gives you a sense that you'll get a return on your investment? I'm summarising a bit, but you've kept doing it through thick and thin through crisis after crisis. You've continued to invest and grow.

Whitey Basson: Well I think, if you look at South Africa and the history of South Africa, and the peaks and valleys... you've just spoken about the '76s, etc... There were lots of lots of Rubicons and other mistakes and stupid mistakes happening in South Africa. It's a developing economy. It's not something which will be there for ever. The major portion of South Africa is carried by the growth in population and the genius population of all South Africans. No matter how we fight there's always a solution at the end of the road. So some of us should go to jail. Some of us don't go to jail but, uhm.

Bruce Whitfield: Which category do you put yourself in?

Whitey Basson: I'm not sure. I'm more on of forgiveness side! As long as the business grows and as long as poor people can get... live a decent standard in South Africa I really don't mind that anybody goes to jail or not. But that's my... that's my philosophy about it. But South Africa has all the elements in it to be a world-class country. It can provide... should provide a decent standard of living for everybody concerned. And I'm actually very positive for the next 20, 30 years that the younger generation of South Africans are now connected to the outside world and the standard of right and wrong and their standard of what we are getting a return on investment and not getting return on investment and can see television that there is a life different to the life that you may be forced to live. And for that sake I think they will stand up and actually get back on track.

Bruce Whitfield: [inaudbile] says, "Any chance that you would run SAA for a year or two?"

Whitey Basson: Must I answer?

Bruce Whitfield: Preferably using English words that are in the dictionary, and are longer than four letters.

Whitey Basson: If they can keep the politicians out of the portion that I should look at then I would seriously consider doing it for free.

Bruce Whitfield: So, it's a 'no' then?

Whitey Basson: Ja, well, you know it's the old age problem in the sense that people interfere into businesses. Why is Shoprite successful? Christo never interfered into the run of the business.

Bruce Whitfield: Did you ever have a serious disagreement... where you, were you, were you, were off-speaks for while?

Whitey Basson: Ja. In the last couple of months we were off-speaks for a long time.

Bruce Whitfield: Why?

Whitey Basson: Ag just because, you know, I didn't like the style of his car or something like that.

Bruce Whitfield: Serious issues... I mean, you worked together for 40 years. There must have been a point where you bashed heads quite seriously?

Whitey Basson: No, I don't think in... for most of the times we bashed heads about policy of the company, where we going... Christo actually never interfered in the workings of Shoprite. He is not that type of guy and obviously I didn't interfere into his structures of dealing and switching things around and... He always makes sure that he gets the best deal. He is always a dealer in the pack and I think he's got a joker in the middle where he knows, now I'm in Whiteys territory... dealing softly now, you know? But, no, we never had a problem. And thats the problem; a business can't be run by five different people, or decisions made by lots of people. In South Africa the problem is probably now that weve got so many regulations; it drives you crazy. It's very, very difficult for somebody young to actually, to actually, put down a profitable business. So you buy on the JSE at a 20 P/E. Now thats a job for Warren Buffett not for an entrepreneur. And the young guys can't make it. There are just too many, too many things they have to do. You have to fill in so many forms.

Bruce Whitfield: I got a sense from you toward the end of last year that you just got tired of that nonsense. When I say 'nonsense', I mean regulation is very useful, it protects consumers, blah, blah. But you just got fed up; it wasnt fun anymore.

Whitey Basson: You know I did a lot of things since I semi-retired and now in my retirement... and I changed banks, and did a lot of stuff. And then if you find...

Bruce Whitfield: What did your bank do to you?

Whitey Basson: They didn't do anything to me. They just gave me...

Bruce Whitfield: That's the problem!

Whitey Basson: They gave me 28 pages to sign of a contract which I couldn't understand the first letters. I think I signed four times and initialed 25 or 26 times at the bottom. And I said, 'What is this all about? I don't understand and you don't even understand it, so why you do these things to people?' And the whole world in South Africa is unfortunately turned that way.

Whitey Basson: I had a nice little story but we tried to give away 70 stoves to people that can actually cook, bake bread or milk tarts, etc. And we had three takers in the end, because when they were delivering goods to the supermarket the Health Department said you've got to tie it to the roof... put a thing that extracts the heat, and the cooler can't be more than 70 degrees, etc. And then you drive down the street and you see an ox hanging from a tree. And somebody is chopping it up and selling it. So, formal business is just bedridden by over-administration.

Bruce Whitfield: So [inaudible] question flows very neatly into that. Where do you think the opportunities lie for building for... budding retail entrepreneurs in South Africa? Do you think retail success is dependent on scale? Is there hope for budding entrepreneurs like Tina [inaudible].

Whitey Basson: You know if... Well, how old is Tina?

Bruce Whitfield: 27. I don't know.

Whitey Basson: I give different advice to different ages of people.

Bruce Whitfield: Where's Tina? Put up your hand.

Bruce Whitfield: 35.

Whitey Basson: You look 20, 16. You can start afresh. No, I don't think that there's, there's advice that you can get. It depends on the... on what you want to do and how and how... how that department or that portion of the business is tied into government legislation. Health... Judge King's corporate governance. I mean our financial statements are that thick.

Bruce Whitfield: Ja. He's showing a pile of paper three inches thick, for those that can't see.

Whitey Basson: Ja, and I mean it's... it's... really, it's really... I don't understand what it's all about but I mean you have to write it, so. If you want to start a business stay out of those. I'm not sure that some people start businesses and they're not so good and paying taxes and so on. So they seem to have a better chance in doing business but that's not the way you should go. I think there are opportunities and if I would reinvest today I would probably look at tourism because tourism is one of those areas that if you're good at it you can make a lot of money and it's in South Africa is on the verge of becoming even much better as a tourism industry. Don't get into manufacturing because those things eat at night and when you sleep they still eat your money.

Bruce Whitfield: We get some good advice, good advice. Whitey Basson is our guest this evening. Here's our Shapeshifter here on The Money Show. Some very courageous advertising done by Checkers in the last couple of years. Former footballer turned chef, Gordon Ramsay, has done a couple of ads. Nataniel has done some ads. We might listen to an ad before we go.

Bruce Whitfield: Our studio guest this evening as we wrap up our special Shapeshifters live studio audience is Whitey Basson.

Bruce Whitfield: Gordon Ramsay... Did you hire him just because you wanted him to meet him? An Nataniel and Suzelle?

Whitey Basson: Nataniel, is a good friend. He actually comes from Porterville, he doesn't admit it. He doesn't admit it. He's a bit shy-ish on that one.

Whitey Basson: But Gordon Ramsay, I actually never met. That was then my marketing [inaudible], he's brilliant guy. And when he told me about Gordon Ramsay I didn't know who the hell it was so I said well if you like this British guy get him in. And it... and they actually did work for us because I didn't understand that so many people followed him in South Africa. We actually had poor Nataniel in the in the studio with Gordon Ramsay. We didn't tell Gordon Ramsay who he.

Bruce Whitfield: Het hy bietjie geskrik?

Whitey Basson: Nataniel made him skrik 'n bietjie. So, it worked for us but that wasn't me. I didn't do it to meet him.

Bruce Whitfield: OK Bazaars. 1997. You pay SAB one rand.

Whitey Basson: Ja.

Bruce Whitfield: Did you ever think to yourself that one day you're going to run out of luck? Do you think you were lucky?

Whitey Basson: No, no. That was... that was not a lucky break. In fact, the one rand is not totally correct.

Bruce Whitfield: Ja, but it's a nice story.

Whitey Basson: No, no. That's what we paid. We.. we... may have received something else.

Bruce Whitfield: You've got some liabilities.

Whitey Basson: No, no, no, no, no. That was the... we had a NAV of 130 odd 140 million that we got for our one rand, so it was actually a very nice deal at the end of the day for both of us because SAB lost a lot of money, a couple hundred million rands a year in OK Bazaars. And I.. I tried... I stalked them for three years in the days of [inaudbile].

Bruce Whitfield: Yeah.

Whitey Basson: I remember once coming back from Zambia and I had a terrible upset stomach. And I'm going to wait for him in his office and I said, 'Where's your offices?' He says, 'That big office out there. And I said, 'That big office with that big desk'. He says, 'Yes, that's mine.' And he looked at me and he said, 'Yeah, Whitey, you can have the company.' 250, I think it was, or 350 million upfront. Day after Christmas and you can't look at it, no due diligence. I said, 'Mr. Kahn, even a horse thief is allowed to look at the teeth of a horse before he steals it'.

Whitey Basson: And then three years later we bought it... three years later down the line we bought it, which was a complicated negotiation but worked out for all of us. They did very well out of it because they got rid of a liability which they couldn't run properly and we made, we made profits quickly.

Whitey Basson: They also gave me the opportunity of actually dividing between Shoprite, Checkers and OK Franchise, so I could split the stores to fit the segments of the customers that they served.

Bruce Whitfield: And that's where the game changed, because Checkers could be more up-market, Shopright the middle market and then OK and USave then in more of an emerging market. Was there ever a point in this 40 years where you were... you lost sleep at night... where you got a bit frightened, that maybe you'd stepped... overstepped yourself?

Whitey Basson: No, you know I was so tired. I couldn't lose sleep then I would have died. So it was very hard work because we had to work against a loss of a million rands a day. I mean when you put all your money on the table and there's a million rands being lost by that red company then you work very hard and long hours. But I never had a doubt that we could turn it around. They had very good shops which was just oversized and badly operated. But in principle a very good company. In fact the biggest fears I had was that the Raymond Ackerman would buy. If he had bought it I would have been in more serious trouble than when I bought it, so.

Whitey Basson: When you looked at the rest of the African continent and you looked at the opportunity set that was available for Shoprite that was an 'aha' moment. You were on holiday with your family and I think you went to Zimbabwe and you went to Mozambique and you looked on the streets and said there's commerce, there's activity, there's people spending money here. Maybe it's like this elsewhere on this continent? This is early 90s.

Whitey Basson: Ja. We weren't actually on a holiday, we made it a holiday, but we wanted to sort of see what goes on there. So we had a security guy with a Jeep and campus which I had to drive... the air conditioning flaked out I think at Nelspruit. There were potholes that big. And then we went through Mozambique through Zimbabwe but I always kept my eye on... I knew Mozambique slightly from the times as being a student where the old LM was you know we used to put 10 cent or two cent pieces in the switches, and swithc it on, so to short out all the lights in the hotel... so it was... student play field. But that wasn't... Maputo was an easy country... it was easy, because it was close to South Africa. When we moved up to the north that was more difficult.

Bruce Whitfield: You didn't make it in Egypt, you tried India. I mean you've not had unbridled success.

Whitey Basson: India we would have made it big time if we... I think I would come out of retirement if the Indian government actually allows us to go back in.

Bruce Whitfield: With Modi, I mean, it's political leadership again, isn't it?

Whitey Basson: At some stage we were allowed to open supermarkets. Then we had four different structures etc. With trusts etc.

Bruce Whitfield: And there was paper and you just went 'no'.

Whitey Basson: We traded very successfully. We had a Hyper there. Then we just said no we can't build anything new we can't expand it. But it was a very very successful business for Shoprite. Egypt was a different story. I knew Egypt wasn't going to stand the test of time because we had, you know, I always have contracts which is what we're going to do and what are we going to do. I always have a divorce contract in my contract as well because you have to have that. I didn't have one with my wife. So that's why I can't leave.

Bruce Whitfield: That's why she can't leave you.

Whitey Basson: But if I had one I would have been that much more tough with her. But Egypt, they didn't worry about contracts so it was bad.

Bruce Whitfield: 72 next birthday. You've just finished working. It's been a remarkably long career. A well-paid career. I'm curious as to what your family buys you for birthdays and Christmas.

Whitey Basson: Well my eldest son, Adrian, buys nobody anything.

Bruce Whitfield: So he's been trained by Oom Christo then?

Whitey Basson: No, he just doesn't spend money.

Bruce Whitfield: Good, sensible.

Whitey Basson: We never lived anything of a lifestyle and all the nonsense they read in the newspapers of your salary etc. etc.. I don't think I ever looked at my salary for the last three years.

Bruce Whitfield: You would have got a big fright.

Whitey Basson: What's his name used to remind me in the newspapers... and I would say, 'Are you sure the figures are correct?' And then she... 'Ja, I read it in the financial papers'. But we don't live as a family to say how much money can we spend and what do we drive and what don't we drive and so on.

Bruce Whitfield: If you did it all again in 30 seconds would you do the same thing over? Or would you go back to medical school?

Whitey Basson: I would do the same thing. I would just make sure that that the mistakes I made I didn't repeat and I did make mistakes personal mistakes in the sense of I didn't structure my own wealth structures and my, and my, longevity in the company correctly. But for the rest I would have done exactly the same. It gives me great pleasure to see not the money that you've made but the people that work for the company.

Bruce Whitfield: There are 130 000 people whose lives depend on it.

Whitey Basson: Just take 10 percent of them, and they phone you, and I love them and they love me.

Bruce Whitfield: That's good enough. Ladies and gentlemen please will you give a very warm round of applause to Whitey Basson... Eyewitness News in a couple of minutes time. Thanks very much for listening. Goodnight.

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4 December 2017 6:08 PM
Whitey Basson
Shoprite Checkers
Shoprite Group

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