What are we reading this festive season? Whitey: The Rise and Rule of the Shoprite King

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FIFI PETERS: Let’s move on to the next book that we are reviewing, because today Shoprite is the biggest retail company in Africa and the biggest employer outside of government. But back then, back in 1980, Shoprite was an underdog, a mere shadow behind the big fishes in the retail pond at that time – being Pick n Pay Checkers and OK Bazaars. But in my view, from my interpretation of this particular book, it seemed like there was a clear vision, working hours on end, very long working hours on end to raise a sharp strategy, and ultimately an unmatched passion for retail that drove the former CEO of Shoprite, Whitey Basson, and his team to flip the retail script, as it were, to make Shoprite the behemoth that it is today.

In the biography ‘Whitey’, author Niel Joubert documents The rise and Rule of the Shoprite King, and he joins the Market Update.

Niel, thanks so much for your time. I want to start off with the opening pages, where you write about going out to meet Whitey and going up to tell him that you wanted to write a book about him, and that you thought that you were the best person to write it. I’d like to understand where that inner passion came from, and what made you believe that you were the guy that had to tell his story.

NIEL JOUBERT: Thanks, Fifi. It was 2019 and I think it was just after Whitey left Shoprite, and then also the Steinhoff debacle that happened. I always thought Whitey was a remarkable person and businessman.

As a financial journalist I had the privilege to listen to him a few times at Shoprite’s results presentations.

And he always had this quirky sense of humour. It just was a remarkable story of how he built this amazing company over the course of 40 years.

I had been a Shoprite shareholder for a while as well, since the early 2000s. I knew the company, I knew the retail industry, and I thought with my financial journalism background I was the right person to tell the story, and luckily convinced him to trust me with his great story.

Three years later we’ve this book on the shelves, and I’m very happy with it.

FIFI PETERS: Yes. I must say that you did a fantastic job on it. A lot of people I know are reading it and they are saying they can’t put it down. You started it in 2019, and the pandemic introduced a bit of complexity and a bit of delay in your initial target. So tell us about that and what you learnt, more importantly, about writing a book during lockdown.

NIEL JOUBERT: Yes, that was quite challenging. I met Whitey in person at his farm in Stellenbosch in January. We spoke for a few hours, and in February again. Then the hard lockdown came and everything came to a standstill for a few months with so much uncertainty around what was happening, what was going to happen. I think everyone was scared.

And then we decided after a few months, in the middle of 2020, that we needed to get moving again, and like everyone else we started doing Zoom calls. So I sat in Pretoria and phoned Whitey in Stellenbosch. Once a month we chatted for a few hours on a Thursday and every Friday morning. So we spent hours and hours together.

It was quite challenging doing it over Zoom. It’s always better to have someone in the room, to be able to read their body language and those kinds of things. But I got the basis of the story from Whitey and then luckily when hard lockdown ended I could go and meet him again in person.

Yes, we spent hours and hours together. From our discussions, and discussions with his friends and family, I built the story.

Obviously Shoprite and Whitey’s family have a massive archive of articles and letters and emails. I went through all of them. I went through all of Shoprite’s annual results.

Pep Stores had this internal newspaper. I went through all of those.

There was a lot of research and, like you mentioned, Whitey’s work ethic was something to behold – and that’s something I learnt as well. You need to work very hard to write a book.

FIFI PETERS: Is it just hard work, though? I’m glad that you mentioned Pep, because a lot of us associate Whitey Basson with Shoprite, but you go into the background of his days at Pep. He was one of the early guys who worked at Pep as a financial director and made Pep the leading affordable value clothing retailer that it is today. One has to wonder if it hadn’t been for his touch at the store at the time would we be speaking about Pep the way that we are speaking about it today – particularly from a shareholder perspective.

But I’d like to know, based on your work with him as a journalist, based on the investigation that you did in putting the book together, do you reckon that in Whitey’s case it all was about hard work or just something in his DNA about mastering retail and actually being a retail master, as it were – or a combination of the two?

NIEL JOUBERT: A good question. Everyone always asks me what made him successful.

I think you can’t get past the fact that hard work is crucial. Retail is very hard work, but also he had a knack for it.

I think they always say retail is in the detail. And Whitey Basson?

In the book there are numerous examples of how detail-orientated he was. The things he could spot that others didn’t are legendary. He always had his finger on the pulse of the business.

Going back to Pep, Renier van Rooyen founded Pep and I think Whitey learnt a lot about retail from Renier. It’s that thing of not managing your business from your office but on the floor, on the shop floor, and knowing what goes on in your business, living your business, and that focus of cutting costs and giving not ‘cheap goods’ but ‘value goods cheaply’ to consumers, knowing what they want. And with that focus, he took that to Shoprite.

I don’t think a lot of people know his story from the Pep [stage]. At a young age, in his 20s, he basically took over the Pep brand. He always had that vision of building Shoprite to be bigger than Pep one day, and then taking the same philosophy to food retail.

FIFI PETERS: Which he did, and the rest is history! A quote that I love is where you quoted him in terms of how he thinks as a leader and as a business visionary. There is a common saying of ‘Oh, there’s a gap in the market, there’s a gap in the market’; but he’d always push back and say, ‘Is there a market in the gap?’ which I thought was absolutely remarkable.

I’m out of time, but I’ve got a parting question for you because you mentioned all the other amazing retailers in South Africa’s business landscape. There was Renier van Rooyen, founder of Pep, as you said; Whitey learnt a lot from him. Also there’s Raymond Ackerman, who made Pick n Pay the wonderful company and the behemoth that it is in its own right. And it was really wonderful colour to learn that Raymond was actually fired from Checkers back in the day. Then he said, okay, let me show you what I can do – and he did do better.

But in your view who’s the best retailer?

NIEL JOUBERT: Well, that’s a good one. It’s like asking people who the best soccer player is, and you say ‘Ronaldo’. I think Whitey and Raymond were different, maybe different eras. I would obviously say Whitey; it speaks for itself.

I had a look at the market caps of the two companies today. Pick n Pay stands at R30 billion and Shoprite stands at R140 billion.

So that speaks for itself.

FIFI PETERS: I could go on, but it’s going to take away the motivation to get people to go and read this book. I think it’s a fascinating account of the retail landscape and the changes and shifts, and how Shoprite came to be the way it is. And also [there are] wonderful lessons and motivations from a great business person, Whitey Basson.

Niel, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll leave it there, sir.

NIEL JOUBERT: Thank you very much.

FIFI PETERS: Niel Joubert is the author of Whitey: The Rise and Rule of the Shoprite King.

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