She is often portrayed as a tough and ruthless businesswoman, who doesn’t take prisoners. But face-to-face, Wendy Appelbaum shows she is anything but. Open, warm and witty, she makes it clear that being rich comes with the heavy responsibility of giving back to society.
With an estimated net worth of $183 million, Appelbaum is said to be the wealthiest woman on the continent. It’s a ballpark figure she dismisses as “complete rubbish”, while declining to comment further.
“I don’t think the point is how much you’ve got. The point is what you choose to do with it,” she says in her deep, guttural voice. “The more you have, the more responsibility you have to share it with those who don’t.”
She certainly takes this responsibility seriously. Philanthropy has been her focus and passion for years, with a large proportion of her charity work targeting women. Appelbaum has her fingers in many pies. She is a member of the Global Philanthropists’ Circle run by David Rockefeller’s daughter, Peggy, through her New York-based Synergos Institute; a member of Harvard University’s Women’s Leadership Board; the Helen Suzman Foundation as well as the International Women’s Forum and Women Moving Millions, an initiative started by Swanee Hunt, one of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt’s daughters, who motivated 100 women from all over the world to commit a minimum of $1 million for women’s causes, raising a total of $187 million in only a few months.
“For me it’s a no-brainer. It’s an honor and a privilege to give back to the society in which I live,” says Appelbaum, noting her surprise at how few rich women are involved in the world of philanthropy.
“If you look at Harvard’s reserves, or elsewhere, it’s an old boys’ club. It’s because for most of the world’s rich, charity is much more about status than helping the less privileged. Philanthropy is a sign of success. A sign that you have spare capacity. It’s what I call a pissing contest. Pure ego coming back in chunks.”
That needed to change, Appelbaum thought and co-founded the Women’s Investment Portfolio Holdings (Wiphold) in the 1990s, soon after the end of apartheid. A South African woman-controlled company that raises capital for major investments in large corporations, like Old Mutual and Nedbank, with the profits accruing to the trust.
“We were 11 women on the board. The timing was perfect. BEE [black economic empowerment] was becoming the sexy thing of the day. And when you coupled that with women… the deal flow was extraordinary,” Appelbaum recalls.
In just four years, Wiphold turned from an initial $60,000 investment into a $120 million debt-free enterprise listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Part of Wiphold’s business philosophy is to benefit poor women. The management team tutored women in townships and rural areas in basic finance and business skills and helped them to form groups to buy shares. Her peers of that time describe Appelbaum as an astute businesswoman, who poured lots of energy into finding solutions to complex matters and new investment opportunities.
“Failure did not exist in her books,” remembers Wiphold group CEO Louisa Mojela.
“Beneath that toughness there is an element of softness, kindness and a huge heart to give to the previously disadvantaged. She treats her colleagues with a lot of respect and humility.”
Appelbaum left Wiphold shortly after it listed, selling her own shares so that previously disadvantaged women could fill her space.
“I thought there was enough strength in the company to continue without me. Although a white woman fell into the previously disadvantaged group at that time, I certainly didn’t feel it myself. I didn’t think I should benefit,” she explains.
Appelbaum looks back at that time with utter satisfaction.
“It was probably one of the most effective boards I have ever sat on. There is no bullshit with women. We don’t waste time out of politeness,” she says.
Men, by contrast, operate in business with an entirely different strategy to women, she believes.
“Men look at life differently. They are not as upfront and as honest as women. They compete in a relatively underhand kind of way.”
It is exactly this different approach to doing business that companies could enormously benefit from if they only realized how much a combination of men and women’s different visions enhances corporate environments, Appelbaum says.
“Women have intuition, which men don’t have, and probably a softer side to us, on a certain level, where compassion does come in, it gives you a much more interesting and varied vision of the world. Men see the big picture, women see detail. And it’s when the two work together that you get a much better outcome for the business. That’s why congruent boards are much more successful.”
Appelbaum, who is often described as being frank to the point of being blunt, certainly knows what she is talking about. In the past 25 years, she has sat on countless boards—most of them dominated by men. She was deputy chair of IT and retailing company Connection Group Ltd and is still a trustee of investment holding trust The Tribune Trust as well as director of Sphere Holdings Ltd, to name a few. Her very first seat, however, was on the board of her father, Donald Gordon’s Liberty Group, when she was made director of Liberty Investors Ltd, the group’s previously listed holding company.
When Gordon appointed his daughter in the early 1990s, he certainly didn’t expect to be challenged by her. You can be sure the feisty Appelbaum had no intention of a subservient role. She piped up at her very first Liberty board meeting, raising questions. Gordon kept a straight face but took his daughter aside as soon as the meeting was over, firmly instructing her never to question him in his boardroom again. Appelbaum remembers how she stood up to him.
“I said: ‘What do you think I’m doing here? If you want a rubber stamp go to the post office. I’m not here to rubber stamp everything’. Nobody else would take him on. I was always the one who had to do it.”
One of the things that irked her most about her father was that “he was a sexist”, she frankly admits. Apart from his own daughter, Gordon never appointed a woman to a management position. He also described businesswomen who didn’t speak much as “very clever”.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, you have a problem.’ I never saw him put a woman in an important position, ever. It frustrated me,” says Appelbaum.
Her father’s condescending attitude was an eye-opener that led her to become a feminist, she says, with American women’s rights activist and author Gloria Steinem, one of her role models, who later became a friend.
“I’m not a bra-burning feminist. I associate closely with Gloria because she has been able to maintain her femininity despite her belief in equality. I believe that women are equal to men if not better. There is nothing, aside from perhaps hard physical labor, that women can’t do as well as men. Many women just haven’t had opportunities.”
South Africa has had a slow start to acknowledging women’s rights and equality. The first recorded woman to work in an office was Miss Letty Impey, who was employed as a secretary by Johannesburg solicitor Henry Lindsay in 1894. Her employment caused such scandal that Impey had to work behind a screen in the open-plan office because it was regarded as “not quite proper” for her to be seen. She even became somewhat of a showpiece as curious men visited the solicitor’s office, peeking behind the screen to catch a glimpse of the female staff member.
Much has changed since then for women, but not nearly enough. South African women continue to struggle for equity in both their personal and business lives. This becomes particularly apparent at management level and in boardrooms, says Appelbaum, who to this day often remains the only female representative: “There are still some boards who really believe that women should be seen but not heard and who are taken aback when you give them an opinion.”
It takes someone of Appelbaum’s poise and unshakable self-confidence to operate and make her mark in those corporate patriarchal environments. Perhaps it is the constant head butting with her father that taught her how to stand up for herself. Perhaps it is the security of her family background and wealth that make her undefeatable—although Appelbaum, who is in her early 50s, says she never once in her life felt she had to prove herself for being more than “just Donald Gordon’s heiress”.
She believes what made her strong and independent is that, apart from her stint as one of her father’s directors at Liberty, she was always an entrepreneur who worked for herself.
“I’ve never felt like a quota. If I wish something to be offensive, I make it offensive. Sitting on boards is not about making friends. It’s about doing the right thing for your shareholders. Corporate governance, for me, is absolutely paramount. But I think it does bother other women in that they feel marginalized.”
And so it became a vital imperative in Appelbaum’s life to help close the gender gap by blazing a trail for other women, something that is done far too little, she says, noting that few women who have made it in the business world care to promote their peers.
“You just have to take a look at some of the women-headed companies in this country and their female representation. You’d be deeply disappointed. Perhaps women don’t want to be seen as rocking the boat or showing prejudice.”
Appelbaum also complains about what she calls “repeat board seats”, where a number of select few women sit on multiple boards, causing the false impression that the gender glass ceiling has shifted upwards.
“If you look at how many women are exposed, it’s very low. There’s no point in one woman sitting on 10 corporate boards and filling out long forms of conflicts of interest prior to meetings. That’s nonsense. Women must get to the point where they widen the spread of individuals exposed at those levels. We’re making slow progress in giving women the equal opportunities they so rightly deserve.”
She believes the 2008 global financial crisis from which the world is struggling to recover offers an opportunity to women to re-position themselves in business and get breaks that usually wouldn’t be accessible to them.
“Companies are struggling due to the recession, and women tend to be much cheaper hires,” Appelbaum explains.
“One of the reasons for that is that women don’t have the confidence to negotiate for themselves. So they tend to get bullied. But they are getting the hires at the moment because their cost to company is lower. There’s a gap and they seem to be taking it. I think the glass ceiling is finally shifting a bit.”
Appelbaum had the benefit of growing up in a family environment where the glass ceiling didn’t exist, where entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen were passed down to her and her brothers, Richard and Graeme, every day.
“My father had a wonderful way of verbalizing what he was doing,” she says, joking that every dinner table conversation in the Gordon’s family home was like being at Harvard Business School: “It was like living in an MBA class.” It was her father who taught her how to identify opportunity and maximize its benefit.
Although a great admirer of her father, Appelbaum is keenly aware that he was far from perfect and has no illusions that her free business education came at a price.
“He wasn’t interested in your opinion; he was interested in you as an audience. My father needed to be told how clever he was all the time. There was that need for affirmation, which most serious executives need. They really need their ego stroked. That’s why, when you look at corporations, very often the succession is not there because they had a bunch of yes-men behind them, telling them that no matter what they did, they were marvelous. And they love that. My father was no different.”
While her brothers found their father intimidating, Appelbaum insists she never did: “I’m not easily intimidated, by anybody. In fact I can’t think of anybody that I find intimidating.”
It thus comes as no surprise that it is her—and not her two older brothers—who tends to be described as a chip off the old block.
“It’s not a bad old block to be a chip of. I am definitely the most similar to my father,” she laughs.
Coming from a family of European immigrants who arrived in South Africa in the mid-1920s with absolutely nothing, Donald Gordon knew from an early age he wanted to make money. Although his dream was to be a scientist, he decided to become an auditor instead, and one day, when auditing an insurance company, he noticed the firm was making profit despite the fact that it was badly run. ‘Surely I can do a much better job,’ he thought… and started the Liberty Group, which later became a major insurance and investment emporium.
Decades later, Gordon sold the Liberty Group to Standard Bank. All three of his children pursued their own business interests, but business associates say he would have handed the firm over to his daughter instead of one of his sons, had he not sold it. Appelbaum, however, says she has no regrets about the sale of the group and is skeptical that a close working relationship with her father—necessary to build up her succession—could have worked out in the long-term.
“I would have found it almost impossible to work for my father; because we are so similar, we used to argue a lot,” she admits.
Since then, she has proven herself many times as a businesswoman in her own right, with pretty much all of her ventures ending in success. She bought De Morgenzon—the Morning Sun—a wine estate in midst of the Stellenbosch winelands, 45 minutes from Cape Town, with her husband, Hylton. Their maiden vintage, a 2005 Chenin Blanc, became the first wine to get five stars in South Africa’s leading Platter’s Wine Guide.
“I’m an absolute perfectionist,” Appelbaum, who also breeds racehorses, describes her modus operandi.
“Whatever I decide to do, I will drive myself insane until it’s right.”
A game player at heart, which she says is based on her deep competitiveness, she was a provincial tennis player as a child and a provincial golfer as an adult, although she only took up the sport at the age of 30. Business to her is like a game, too, one that demands strategic thinking, passion, skill and stamina.
Going into the wine business has been one of the greatest challenges of her career. To produce a top quality organic wine, she has planted wildflowers between the vines for natural pollination, while Baroque music softly floats throughout the vineyard to bio-dynamically support plant growth. Appelbaum has also taken utmost care in selecting the right winemaker for the estate.
“I had four or five winemakers making wine for me. Not only did I look at the quality of the wine they made, but for a number of years, I interacted with them to see who I would get on best with. The winemaker is the one who grows the grapes to their best advantage. What I have to do as the entrepreneur is to give him every single opportunity to make the very best wine he can,” she says.
But there is one major component to wine making that is out of every farmers’ control: the weather. It’s an aspect, Appelbaum admits, she struggles with.
“For a control freak like me, the wine business is a hell of a challenge. It’s very frustrating,” she says.
That’s why she is as hands-on with the day-to-day running of her wine farm as her time allows. The Appelbaums live in a beautiful mansion on top of the highest point of the farm, overlooking the vineyards and the far-reaching, picturesque views of Stellenbosch’s rolling hills.
From here, Appelbaum manages the estate, admitting that she can be a little bit authoritarian.
“It’s my way or the highway. But only because I’m so sure of what I want.”
Her staff appear to appreciate her driven, forthright management style.
“What you see is what you get. She has a very transparent management style. She tells you things straight. She leads with integrity,” says De Morgenzon tasting room manager, Diana Renke.
Integrity is a trait Appelbaum rates highly, and it was when she auctioned a second wine estate, Quoin Rock Winery and Manor Estate, for $6.5 million in December and sniffed corruption that she decided to publicly take on a multi-million dollar industry—to protect her own integrity while fighting a battle for South Africa’s greater good. She laid a complaint with the National Consumer Commission (NCC) after discovering she had competed for the estate with a ghost bidder, someone hired by South Africa’s largest auction group, Auction Alliance, to drive up the price.
Suddenly, Appelbaum, who doesn’t like the limelight and chose not to keep her maiden name because she “did not want to be just associated as Donald Gordon’s daughter”, suddenly found herself in a very public spat with Auction Alliance CEO Rael Levitt.
“Mr. Levitt took me out of my comfort zone because he chose to fight me in the media. That fight with Mr. Levitt was a fight for good. For me, there’s either right or wrong. There’s nothing grey in matter. I believe that I have done South African society a great service because corruption is rife in this country.”
The outcome proved her right: in March, the NCC found Auction Alliance guilty of contravening the Consumer Protection Act by conducting a mock auction and fined it 10% of its annual turnover.
Appelbaum’s love for a “good” fight stems from a friendship with well-known anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman, who was a family friend of the Gordons and later in life became one of Appelbaum’s mentors.
“She was a no-bullshit woman; tough, clever and not intimidated by anybody. She encouraged me to be feisty and cheeky. She’d fight anybody as long as it was for somebody’s benefit,” remembers Appelbaum.
Appelbaum is a woman without regrets. If there were one, it would be that she never became a doctor—a profession her father, who wanted her to take up accounting, didn’t approve of. When she wasn’t accepted into medical school due to strict quotas on women at that time, she studied psychology instead, with economics as one of her subjects. But her interest in medicine became a lifelong passion, with a large chunk of Appelbaum’s philanthropic investments going towards health.
She is a trustee of her father’s Donald Gordon Foundation, one of the largest private charitable foundations in Southern Africa, which includes the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg. She is also a trustee of CHOC (Children’s Haemotology Oncology Clinics) and recently founded the Wendy Appelbaum Women’s Health Institute for the advancement and improvement of treatment for disorders affecting women.
Only now, much later in her life, has she found time to pursue her childhood dream somewhat: She recently enrolled in a course at Harvard Medical School to learn about the connection between human rights and healthcare.
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