The year 2015 marks the golden anniversary of the opening of the first Pep store in Upington. Fifty years later, Christo Wiese, chairman of Pepkor and controlling shareholder of Shoprite, speaks to Fiona Wakelin about his journey – and doing business in South Africa today.
“I was born in 1941 and we lived on a farm until we moved to Upington in 1947. It was a fascinating place to grow up in because, in those days, it was still very much a frontier town. It was out in what people would refer to as ‘the bundu’.
People were isolated in a very harsh, very beautiful part of the world. They had to work hard to do well for themselves – but the town itself was dynamic. It was post the Second World War. There were lots of things that just weren’t as available as they are today. But what was fascinating is how, in one generation, in my lifetime, I saw people who had been a relatively poor but very proud community, becoming very prosperous.
“Today when you go there you notice how neat the town is. There was a lot of pride. And people who didn’t live by the cultural standards stuck out like sore thumbs. People had very clear pointers in life.
“I was fortunate in that I grew up in a business home. My father had a farm but he also had a business in town. Eventually my mother had her own business. And so I learned about those things, in a way, almost subconsciously. Today I notice how many people there are that are well educated but simply have no idea as to how a business works. Sitting around the dinner table while things are discussed – you become aware of the very basic principles. You know that the customer is king and you’ve always got to be ready to render the best possible service. So for me it came very naturally.
“Although when I grew up I didn’t plan to make business my career. I wanted to be a lawyer, actually. I started off by saying I wanted to be a magistrate – I thought that it was quite romantic. Intellectually it appeared to be challenging. But as I say I’m very grateful for the fact that I grew up in the home that I did with parents who loved life but had very clear beacons. My dad died young, he was 64. But my mum lived to the age of 94 – she was a remarkable woman.
“I left Upington at the age of 15 to go to school at Paarl Boys High; then I went to university and until my 24th year never even considered not going back to Upington, because it was my world. And then, one day I got up and I knew that I would never go back there permanently.”
AND THE HISTORY OF PEP?
“PEP started as a very, very small business. It was literally one room. There wasn’t an abundance of capital and it started out there in Upington. Infrastructurally, it was adequate, because it had rail and one plane a week to Cape Town and it had roads, although mostly gravel, to the big city. But in terms of starting a small business, we experienced all the challenges that every small business experiences – there was never enough money and it was difficult getting credit. We had to find the right people to work in the business – the list of challenges that every small businessperson will be painfully familiar with. But the point I always make is that all big businesses have one thing in common, they all start out as small businesses.
“There were a few other challenges that I would rank pretty high in priority. We’ve been through our share of recessions, where the economy just slowed dramatically, where it currently is very slow going. We’ve gone through all the political turmoil of the ‘80s and then the speech in 1990 and the advent of the new South Africa. Those were all challenges that we had to face. But there’s nothing unique about it. People in other countries, other societies go through far worse upheavals and the trick is to adapt and to learn to live with it.”
“Right at the outset Renier van Rooyen, founder of PEP, who is one of South Africa’s great entrepreneurs, said we had to articulate our values, or our philosophy, very clearly so that everybody would know the kind of drumbeat to which we march. We used five words: faith, positive thinking, hard work, enthusiasm and compassion. Faith can mean many things – faith in yourself, faith in your fellow man, faith in a higher being, in your country. Hard work speaks for itself. I always say to people when they ask ‘what is the secret to success?’ – very simply, it’s a four-letter word, spelled W-O-R-K. If you work the solutions will come. Somehow some people think they can skip that and it will all happen. If your business culture is based on sound principles, people who are not comfortable with that culture will stick out. So it is a sort of a natural process of weeding out those who do not contribute.
“One of the strengths in PEP was that it was like a family business. Family members all joined and then friends and then the family of the friends. So that formed the nucleus and that, I believe, contributed to establishing and developing the culture. And today, one of the things I’m very proud of: PEP is totally reflective of the demographics of South Africa – and has always been, even in the really bad, old apartheid days. So that’s been a wonderful experience.”
MOVING ON TO THE CURRENT SITUATION IN SOUTH AFRICA
“The one point I often try to make to people, when they complain about South Africa, the question always has to be – compared to what? Just look around you. What must it be like to run a business in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen? But people always want to compare South Africa to Switzerland. And then you go to Switzerland and you find they’ve got their own problems.
“South Africa is going through a tough patch currently in its trajectory but it’s not the toughest patch that it’s been through. Look at the South African war and you can imagine what happened to the rural people, both white and black after the scorched earth policy. They had nothing left – and they’d entered a new century and the world was changing. So the patch we’re going through at the moment may seem pretty tough – but if you compare it to others, it’s actually less so … “
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