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Africa’s Sam Walton

From shirts to furniture to groceries, Christo Wiese sells billions in low-cost goods to a continent clamoring for them. America could be next.

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Table mountain, the striking mesa above Cape Town, lords over another impressive African monument: the multistory Golden Acre shopping center. Lunchtime crowds pour into the glassy, brightly lit structure, and from within it is impossible not to notice the dominance of South Africa’s second-richest man, Christo Wiese. His bargain-bin clothier, PEP, pulls foot traffic to the basement. Above it, you’ll find his more upscale Ackermans chain. Around the corner is his OK Furniture and his grocery chain, Shoprite, which takes up two floors.

 

 

By and large, they all carry the same message. PEP’s window ads, accented in canary yellow, proclaim it the home of the “Lowest Price in South Africa.” Brightly colored bunting in OK Furniture heralds a similar promise. Shoprite (among its many slogans: “Lower prices, that’s our promise”) will even play moneylender, fronting customers up to R7,500 (roughly $470).

“The business has basically been built on one slogan: Low prices you can trust. Just very, very low everyday prices,” says Wiese (whose name, fittingly, is pronounced VEE-sa, like the credit card). “I suppose we could be described as the Wal-Mart of Africa.” Underscoring the cost-conscious philosophy, the 74-year-old is telling me this at his company headquarters, in an industrial area that abuts a composter and Adult World, which sells what you think it does.

His offices, like his stores, are decidedly spare: drab beige enlivened only by some hotel- quality art (a portrait of an elephant herd hangs outside the door of the conference room he uses as an office). “People have very limited budgets,” continues Wiese, clad in a capitalist’s power uniform – blue suit, blue shirt – the very picture of the lily-white executive that still controls most of South African business. “They have to get extremely good value for their money.” His hunch – that value trumps everything – led him to create the largest retail business in Africa. Publicly traded Shoprite does revenue of $9.9 billion a year, while PEP’s parent company, Steinhoff, brings in $11.8 billion (some of it from selling cellphones and home furnishings). Combined, they net almost $2 billion in annual profits, operate more than 9,000 stores in 30 countries and employ over 200,000 people. No other African retailer comes close to rivaling their breadth and depth, and Wiese controls both.

Those stakes are largely what makes Wiese one of the planet’s richest people, with a $5.8 billion fortune. More than 60% of his wealth is in Shoprite and Steinhoff, while another 30% or so comes from his shares of Brait, an investment vehicle Wiese uses to buy other companies, many of them outside South Africa. His stock in Tradehold, a real estate firm, accounts for much of the remaining 10%.

But if Wiese is to continue his expansion he must move outside of his African comfort zone. The continent isn’t booming the way it once was. Economic growth across Africa has slid from close to 7% in 2007 to about 4% in 2014, the last year for which data are available. In coming years it isn’t likely to much surpass that figure. South Africa, still Wiese’s most important market, is emblematic of the larger trend – stuck at sub-2% growth for the foreseeable future. The slowdown gravely threatens Wiese’s ambitions. He can shut his eyes and picture his empire twice as big as it is today, but for it to grow that large, he must look beyond Africa.

And he’s already started. PEP is expanding rapidly in Europe, while Wiese is snapping up all sorts of companies through Brait, including majority stakes in British discount retailer (sound familiar?) New Look for $1.2 billion last June and Richard Branson’s fitness center chain, Virgin Active, for $1 billion a month later. Put broadly, Wiese is a little Sam Walton, in terms of his focus, and a little Warren Buffett, in terms of amalgamating a portfolio. As a matter of fact, he’s beaten Buffett handily lately. His holding company, Brait, has trounced Berkshire Hathaway in total returns over three years (160% versus 31%), five years (230% to 51%) and ten years (314% to 121%).

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – APRIL 22: Billionaire businessman Dr. Christo Wiese on April 22, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Sharief Jaffer)

“Christo has been a massive risk taker his whole life,” says Syd Vianello, a retail analyst in Johannesburg, who has observed Wiese over many decades. “Africa is not a place for sissies. You’ve got to have nerves of steel. In Africa they see him as a genius.”

The breathtaking views of Cape Town, where land and sea dramatically converge to produce vistas of green mountains towering above deep blue water, can be quickly forgotten on a nine-hour drive north to the dry, hot savanna city of Upington, an unsightly provincial town alongside the Orange River, close to the Kalahari Desert. Upington does possess one unique site: a statue of a donkey, a rare tribute to the quintessential beast of burden. It is not undeserved. Starting in the 1880s, farmers, employing donkeys to pump water, tamed this rough part of the country with an almost puritanical determination.

Wiese’s father was one of those men. He owned a sheep and cattle farm, as well as a car dealership in town. “People in Upington were hardworking, very neat, very orderly – disciplined,” says Wiese. “People who were not neat always stood out like a sore thumb.” For college, Wiese attended Stellenbosch University, one of South Africa’s better schools, situated in a sleepy area awash in wine and vineyards. He studied law and became head student of his residence hall and an active member of a progressive student organization.

After graduating in 1967, he decided he’d rather return home and join the small retail business owned by his cousin’s husband than become an attorney. The company had around ten discount stores near Upington, which were called PEP. With Wiese on board and helping guide expansion, sales went from 4 million rand in 1970 to 29 million rand (around $100 million today) four years later. Fast growth, but Wiese lost interest after a moment of self-discovery.

“I had worked out for myself that I’m not really” – he trails off, as if about to utter a dirty word – “a number-two man.” There was another concern, too. “I started thinking about getting married,” he says. “And the way I lived in those days, I was away from home 20 days a month. That’s no way to build a marriage. So I thought if I go and practice law, at least I’ll be home much more.”

While working as a barrister in criminal and commercial law in Cape Town, Wiese, restless still, made a futile run for parliament in 1977 on the opposition party ticket, partly inspired by his new father-in-law, a controversial member of parliament expelled from the ruling, pro-apartheid party for dissension. Wiese also grew interested in something that has always attracted the ambitious in South Africa – diamonds. He found a mine nearer his hometown, in Richtersveld. (“The area has a stark beauty, like a moon landscape. Very sparse vegetation, very little rainfall.”) He bought it for about $20 million in today’s currency and began mining and trading diamonds.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 12: Billionare businessman Christo Wiese on June 12, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Hetty Zantman)

Five years after purchasing it, in 1981, he sold it, and looking for his next chapter, he turned to his cousin and PEP, which by then had 450 locations, including a grocery business, Shoprite, it had added a few years earlier. In taking a check (worth roughly $100 million in current terms) for his successful, middling business, the cousin was set for life. Wiese, no longer number two, pictured something much grander. “Maybe I was more ambitious,” he says, quietly, eyebrows arched.

What Wiese envisioned was retail at its rawest, and he understood how attractive it could be. In modest, unadorned storefronts, PEP sold only the simplest kinds of clothes (“underwear, schoolwear, very basic stuff”). The choice between a white shirt and a blue one was often the most complicated one in the store. Shoprite did the same with groceries. All that mattered to Wiese’s target market – poor whites and a black population kept systematically impoverished – was price.

In a perverse twist, apartheid ensured him a gigantic customer base of some 20 million nonwhites, who made up more than 70% of the population. They were incapable of climbing the ladder or earning more money – or shopping elsewhere. And the heavy economic sanctions against South Africa meant little in the way of foreign competition. It was a perfect market: massive and artificially protected.

“Wiese saw the opportunity faster than anybody else,” says retail analyst Vianello. “He targeted the bottom end of the market, and nobody could argue his business had any element of waste. He cut out all the extravagance and gave people what they wanted at the lowest possible price.” The concept proved popular enough for Wiese to begin expanding aggressively, sometimes opening as many as 100 new stores a year. While other retailers concentrated on stores in large markets, he eagerly plunged into rural and poorer areas. He’d rather his customers spend their money in his stores than spend it traveling to them.

Wiese was maniacal about costs, a business necessity in lowmargin retailing and perfectly fitting with his personality – a billionaire who keeps spare change neatly stashed in a tiny bottle inside his Lexus SUV. “Christo is stingy,” says James “Whitey” Basson, Wiese’s right-hand man at Shoprite since day one and an old buddy from Stellenbosch University. “He’ll give me the nicest bottle of champagne as a present, and I’ll open it up, and I’ll see he forgot to take out the message: It’s a bottle from Lord So-and-So. He’s a regifter.”

To guard against corporate expenses, PEP manufactured many of its clothes in 11 factories; one was situated next to the company’s modest offices in Parow Industria. Most important, from almost the start PEP relied on a central distribution system with warehouses to store goods, a total departure from how most South African retailers operated (with many deliveries from many suppliers to each shop). “That was a no-brainer,” Basson says. “Getting one truckload to a store is substantially cheaper than getting 30 trucks to wait outside the store and offload 30 different times.”

In 1986 Wiese spun off Shoprite and PEP into separate public companies while maintaining control of both. Good timing. Four years later Nelson Mandela was freed after spending almost three decades in prison. Apartheid was ending. South African companies were no longer pariahs, and Wiese began to expand elsewhere in Africa. A year after Mandela ascended to the presidency in 1994, Shoprite opened its first store in central Africa, in Zambia, followed by Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Uganda. PEP had a similar trajectory. Their stores’ simple model made them easily exportable.

“Wiese and Basson sat down and took a view that they could conquer Africa, and they went out and conquered Africa,” says Vianello. Shoprite’s size ($2 billion in 1996 sales with about $120 million in cash flow and little debt) allowed it to move more quickly than local rivals. “How long does it take to clear a container in Angola or Nigeria? What bribes do you have to pay to get supplies in? Who on earth would finance them to put up stores? They had to build their own stores themselves. No one else would.” (Wiese insists he has spent not one rand on bribery.)

Other growth came through acquisitions. By the 1990s he had already made six purchases to expand both Shoprite and PEP, pushing PEP’s operations as far as Britain and its sales to more than $2 billion. In 1997 he bought OK Bazaars (and its nearly 300 grocery and furniture stores) from South African Breweries for just one rand. The catch? OK Bazaars was losing around $40 million annually, which was just about how much Shoprite was booking in annual profits. It could be kept on life support for just so long.

“We bet the farm,” says Wiese. He reached for a familiar page from the playbook: “cutting frills, lowering overhead,” including renegotiating several onerous leases. As it turns out, OK Bazaars had good bones and had simply been mismanaged. “Christo is a fantastic corporate deal thinker,” says Basson. “He always makes me think: What would the alternative be if I didn’t make a deal? What happens if the opposition buys the company?”

Wiese didn’t really develop a profile outside of Africa until recently, and to his annoyance, his arrival was trumpeted not by a cunning deal but by something more ignoble. It came after U.K. customs officials detained him at London City Airport in 2009 with two suitcases filled with nearly $1 million in cash. They seized it, suspecting illicit origins. The British and South African press merrily picked up on the incident – apparently suspecting Wiese had been nabbed for money laundering – and were further emboldened by Wiese’s stubbornness in fighting for the funds’ return and his insistence that the amount was “insignificant.” (The Daily Mail’s gleeful headline: “It’s Just Peanuts To Me.”) The government ended up returning the money – interest attached – but the damage was done. He still won’t talk publicly about the incident, and until recently, it was pretty much the extent of his reputation in the West.

That’s now beginning to change, and much of his activity is still in Britain. When his holding company, Brait, first showed an interest in stretching beyond South Africa in 2012, it invested in British supermarket business Iceland Foods and added to its position in November 2015, when it paid about $275 million to increase its position from 19% to 57%. Two more deals came last year: the stakes purchased in discount retailer New Look and gym chain Virgin Active. A second Wiese company, Invicta, has put its capital into industrial companies: unsexy firms with predictable, recurring revenue streams, like Singapore-based Kian Ann Engineering, a distributor of heavy machinery parts. And a third Wiese vehicle, Tradehold, watched the value of its U.K. property portfolio increase by about 50% to roughly $120 million in February 2015 (the latest full-year results available), driven substantially by new investments in the British real estate market, where it owns residential, industrial and office space.

PEP has charged into eastern Europe, too. After its initial move into this part of the continent in 2005 (Poland mostly but also the Czech Republic and Slovakia), PEP has proven its model successful there. Its eastern European stores do about $1,800 per square meter, a 60% increase from 2012 and roughly double what a comparable competitor might do. The region is now 11% of PEP’s $2.9 billion in annual revenue (up from 5% in 2012).

As PEP broadens its store expansion into Britain it will likely run up against the most entrenched competition, including venerable discount retailer Primark. Considering this, Wiese blithely expresses a malapropism: “There’s the old American saying that only three things are certain: death, taxes and competition. You can’t shy away from competition. You’ve just got to go meet them.” And besides, Primark tries to be fashionable, while PEP proudly does not. “We don’t have fashion. You can’t come into our stores and expect a wide selection of colors and pattern,” says Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste. “Our stuff is for people who have to have it, not want to have it. It offers value to the bottom-end customer and gives them some dignity in what they wear.”

Last December expansion-minded Steinhoff began trading on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in addition to its long-standing listing in Johannesburg. But not before Wiese got slapped with a reminder that his international ambitions wouldn’t proceed without a false step. A few days before its Frankfurt debut German tax authorities raided local Steinhoff offices as part of an investigation into its accounting. Steinhoff dismisses the investigation as baseless, but it certainly spooked the company’s investors. The stock dropped about 15% in a month – wiping away almost $600 million from Wiese’s personal fortune.

Having long parried advances from those interested in buying his companies – including a visit by Wal-Mart heir and then chairman Rob Walton several years ago – Wiese sees himself firmly in command of his empire for the foreseeable future. Ahead, there’s one obvious final frontier for Africa’s retail pioneer: America. “We’ve been hesitant to plunge into the retail industry there. What can we teach them?” he says. “But we’re looking at getting involved there – one or two opportunities.

“In a decade I’m hoping you’ll find the business has grown, hopefully at the same pace as the previous decade. That will require a lot of thinking, a lot of commitment and a lot of energy – and I’m hoping that you’ll find me right here still.”

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Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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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

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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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.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “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. 

Beyond economics.

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.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“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.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

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.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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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.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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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