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.
Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing
As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed.
Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.
Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.
Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.
A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.
We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.
As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”
With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.
Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.
In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.
For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.
Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.
– Unathi Shologu
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.
In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.
On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.
“I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra.
That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.
The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.
The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”
He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.
“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.
“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”
Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.
It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.
But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”
And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.
The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.
Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.
“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”
Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.
It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.
READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.
That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.
She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.
One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.
Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.
-Jill De Villiers
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