PIONEERING WOMEN'S RIGHTS

One of the cornerstones of Pick n Pay’s success over the last 50 years and counting has been Wendy Ackerman

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One of the cornerstones of Pick n Pay’s success over the last 50 years and counting has been Wendy Ackerman, an influential figure alongside her famous husband, Raymond, in bringing a vision to the business while helping many good causes along the way

Ackerman was born in Cape Town and studied at the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand and UNISA. She joined Pick n Pay when Raymond acquired the company. While raising a family, Wendy has been completely involved in the Pick n Pay Group’s development of employee benefits and their welfare. She was appointed a Director in 1981 and remains actively involved in the business.

A role model to many women around the county, she is recognised by the SA Nature Foundation for her outstanding achievements and contribution to environmental conservation. She is also acknowledged by WWF South Africa as a Diamond Custodian of Table Mountain.

Ackerman has always been deeply involved in promoting education among the underprivileged in South Africa. She is a trustee of the Ackerman Family Educational Trust Fund, which assists students from all over the country with bursaries for tertiary education.

She is a hands-on and well-known philanthropist both inside and outside the company, involved in a wide range of causes. She is particularly recognised for her role in developing company-assisted housing schemes for staff, working with her husband to secure black managers and staff access to housing in contravention of the Apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act.

To find out more about this pioneer of women’s rights, in and out of the boardroom, a trip to their beautiful Head Office in Kenilworth, Cape Town took place.

You have been in the supermarket business for many years and have seen numerous changes. Please could you tell us more about your role over the years?

A lot of changes, for the better I think. We’ve very, very positive about the future of the company. I have held various roles in the company over the years I started off in the HR Department initially, and whenever there was a job to be done that nobody else wanted to do, it landed on my desk. I had to get on and do it, and be a support for the people in the company.

When they’ve had problems and didn’t know where to go, they would come to me and over the years, I’ve built up quite a network of places where they can go for help. So that’s been my role.

Community appears to be a cornerstone of your business. How important is it to give back to the people who work for you?

Raymond has always said, “Doing good is good business” and it’s been part of our philosophy from foundation—it’s deep within our company DNA. This is about consumer sovereignty and helping people wherever we trade, giving as much back to the community as we can.

What are some of the community initiatives you’ve been involved in over the years that have touched many lives?

There are too many to recall. During the Apartheid years, we started from the word go by promoting people on merit, absolutely irrespective of colour, and then when people started getting into management, our black managers couldn’t get houses.

We couldn’t bear to see some managers living in very nice houses but our black managers living in unspeakable conditions. It took me two years in the Cape to get housing going.

Every time I turned around, there was a brick wall, it was really, really difficult, but we managed to achieve getting them houses by renting the land from the council at a R1 a year, building our house on it, but if they needed the land, we would have to move our house.Raymond allowed me to go ahead and do this. It was a big risk and, needless to say, we couldn’t get a building society loan because they couldn’t possess the land, so we funded it, we acted as the staff building society and after three or four years through the Urban Foundation, we were able to accomplish 99-year leases.

They all came bouncing into my office very excited, I said, “No, leave it, wait. In two years, I’m quite sure you will get freehold”. This actually happened, and so we were able to say that all the money they had paid towards their rent could be the down payment on their house and then we were able to get them bonds for the rest.

Next, we built houses in Soweto, we built in Vosloorus. All over the country, through the Human Resources Department, we tried to give people housing loans or took the opportunity to build houses for the staff. We did projects in Mitchells Plain, Eersterivier and Belhar, to name a few.

Is it true that many of those managers achieved executive positions in later years?

Oh, absolutely, yes. Perhaps the most famous one is a former trolley-porter who became a director of the company in later years. And another one saw me building houses in Vosloorus. He had once walked past as a barefoot schoolboy and said, “One day, I am going to work for Pick n Pay and get a nice house with a bathroom inside and be able to feed my children after Wednesday”.

This is because when they were paid weekly, their money only lasted until Wednesday and they went hungry on Thursday and Friday until they got paid. So, he joined us, and became a General Manager. Now he owns two of our franchise stores and is also a qualified Advocate.

Going up against the establishment must have taken a lot of courage?

It was very wearying, in fact, Raymond caused a great deal of trouble in the-then Cabinet. We subsequently heard half of them—the Cabinet—wanted to arrest him for breaking the law and the other half said no, he will get too much publicity and it will be bad publicity for them, so they didn’t arrest him.

They called him in and said, “We know you’re breaking the law but we’re not going to arrest you”. They literally said that to him.

Where does the ethos of equality and looking out for one another stem from?

It’s instinctive for both of us, and it actually goes back to the Second World War, the Holocaust and the discrimination. We both suffered discrimination when we were at school and we know what it’s like not to be accepted by society. Raymond was ejected from the first rugby team because he was Jewish and it happened to me, I was at a convent—we knew about discrimination and we felt for people who were discriminated against.

Was taking the plunge and starting your own business after Checkers a gruelling experience?

It wasn’t gruelling, it was exciting and it was hard work—and I had a new baby at the time. We came to Cape Town, it rained for three weeks and I wanted to go back to Johannesburg—those were the days when we received rain, unlike today. In the beginning, Raymond worked terribly hard and long hours and, after the children were in bed, I’d go down to help in the store because we were open late hours, or when the stores closed they were bombed out, and we had to relay the shelves every Friday night.

Then one day, he (Raymond) phoned and said, “I’m really under pressure, please come down and interview some people for me”. And that was the thin edge of the wedge.

What do you think the keys to your success were early on?

Hard work and bringing the work ethic of Johannesburg to Cape Town because Capetonians, at that stage, were much slower to respond. Raymond taught me this: if you are given a job to do, do it now, don’t let it hang over your head. So, if people phoned with a complaint, we responded immediately, we didn’t put it in a pile and let it get lost. Whatever we had to do, we did with enthusiasm—we brought a lot of enthusiasm with us. We were young and excited.

During the early years, you spent some time in the USA. What did you learn about the ins and outs of their dynamic supermarkets?

We went south from Dayton, Ohio, stopping in little towns where the population ratio was the same as in South Africa and, wherever we went, the markets were packed and they were thriving. We learnt a basic lesson there, that when you take something away from people, for them to accept it, you have to give them something in return. This is why Greatermans failed. The initial mistake Greatermans made was, they had a lot of very small departmental stores. They gave credit, service and delivery, and then they took all these things away and turned into a self-service store—no accounts, no delivery, nothing, and no low prices, so it couldn’t work.

Thus, we went to America and discovered the secret of supermarketing and when we came back, the board rejected all his ideas, saying, “Oh Raymond, you’re being carried away by your trip to America, go and work in a departmental store”.

Why were they so resistant to the American ideas?

People don’t like change. And in one day, we broke the rules again—we’re very good at that.

We’d take basic products that people wanted—tea, oil and candles, these were the basic products that people needed, everyone in those days didn’t even have electricity—we’d take the labels off certain products and tie them together, for example, we’d tie tea and candles without their label on and cut the price of that. They papered the windows of the store with newspaper, wrote wonderful lines on the newspaper and, in one day, they did three times the turnover of a normal month’s turnover. In one day!

Raymond would have wonderful specials days. He’d go off, buy watermelons and fill a parking lot with them—it was the biggest mess you’ve ever seen—and sold watermelons for one cent, and then there were carrots, there was a glut of carrots and he’d do this. We had really exciting times and the people would just pour in.

When we started Pick n Pay, we had one price war after the other because resale price maintenance was still very much around. There were boards for everything: potato boards and wheat boards and banana boards, you name it, there was a board. And they controlled the price of everything. We cut the price of everything including the price of bread and that’s how we really got established, because the price of bread went up and people were really struggling at that time. There was a major crisis, so we cut the price of bread because we worked out that we could afford to and still make a very small profit, and the people needed low prices. Well, this caused an enormous amount of trouble.

When you groomed the business for the next generation, your sons and daughters, what were the keys to running a successful family business?

I suppose you would really call us workaholics. The children used to come down, Gareth—now the chairman of Pick n Pay—certainly used to come down when we first started. He was ten years old, wearing one of his father’s ties, which virtually came to his knees, and would pack butter. During his school holidays, he loved to come down and work in the stores—he had to sweep the floors and push the trolleys.

The day we opened our hypermarket in Boksburg, all the children were there in the store and Gareth was trying to sell white goods—fridges and stoves—not that he knew anything about it.

We had a line of Duffel coats, which were in the front end and Suzanne, aged 12, stood there and said, “Mom these are so hideous, I’m going to sell them all”, and she did. Jon was there, he was seven or eight, helping her and so on. They grew up knowing about supermarkets and being involved because we always had family meals, every day. Even when Raymond was away, we had the family sit around the dinner table every night and discuss the day and, obviously, a lot of business talk went on as well as political talk. We never excluded the children, they were part of the entire scene from the word go.

And then handing over some of the power to them, was that a difficult process?

It was a very long process.

Is there any sibling rivalry?

Yes, every family has a bit of that. However, our one daughter is an artist and she was never really interested in joining the business but she runs our family foundation and is very involved with our academies.

Pick n Pay has always been giving back, what are some of the initiatives you’re involved in at the moment, which are helping people in the communities?

I was amazed! Our full-year result came out and one of the statistics, which actually astonished me, was the 2 000 small business initiatives that are part of our community programme. They supply goods to us in one way or the other. Suzanne runs workshops regularly and her department gives guidance and help to small businesses with regard to how to become more sustainable and really professional, for example, if small suppliers are growing food, they have to be mindful of all the hygiene and all the health rules that have to be followed to get it up to SA regulatory standards and, of course, Pick n Pay’s standards.

Being a pioneer of women in executive positions, did you ever have any push-back in the early years?

A lot, it was a big fight to get acknowledged. Recently, there was a movie called The Post about Washington Post and it was owner, Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep. She went into a boardroom as the only woman, all these men in their black suits and ties ignored her, and I said to Raymond, “I relate to that, that’s what happened to me”. Sometimes it was subtle and other times less so: for example, if I sat at a table I’d put up a “no smoking here” sign and they would come and sit right next to the no smoking sign and take no notice. It was a fight, it was a fight to be heard, but I persevered.

What is the best advice you would give to anybody looking to follow in your footsteps?

Never be emotional as a woman; never let a man see you cry because you’re finished if you cry in front of a man in their office. Be assertive, don’t be aggressive, and there’s a big difference. Sometimes, it would be said, “You’re being so aggressive”. I said, “No, I’m not, I’m being assertive. This is aggressive, this is assertive, you see?”

You talked about the Holocaust. In terms of the state of the world today with regard to politics, are we going in the right direction?

Who knows? It’s very sad that we don’t have enough strong leaders in the world and it’s very sad that, although the Americans are coming around to their president because he’s dropped their taxes, his behaviour is not acceptable. Maybe we’re old fashioned but in an office like the President’s, there’s a certain decorum that one has to observe. People have to look up to a person who is a president or a head of a country, and it brings the whole country down if you don’t behave in a civilised way. 

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