Business Maverick

Business Person of the Year 2020: Runner-up – Martin Kingston

By Sasha Planting 4 January 2021
Martin Kingston. (Screenshot: Youtube / GIBS Business School)

In an ordinary year, one would typically judge the performance of a business person by the performance of the company they lead and its returns to shareholders and society.

First appeared in Daily Maverick 168

But how does one judge performance in an abnormal year, when the challenges faced were new and unusual and when, in general, returns fell through the floor?

You judge them on how they stepped up to support a government facing a global pandemic with limited capacity and resources, and you judge them on how they stepped up to help salvage an economy that contracted at a terrifying rate, haemorrhaging jobs along the way; and you judge them on how they stepped up to help pull a country back from a possible tipping point.

Applying these metrics produces a select list of people from across the business spectrum. These are people who rallied to the call for assistance and worked extreme hours for no fee or reward.

They include the likes of Busi Mavuso, Stavros Nicolau, Rob Lee, Norman Mbazima, Nolitha Fakude, Adi Enthoven, Nomkhita Nqweni and many others.

But there is one person who went above and beyond the call of duty. That is Martin Kingston, the executive chairman at Rothschild & Co, a board member of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), and chair of the steering committee of Business for South Africa (B4SA).

Most people still thought the virus was a localised problem in Wuhan when Kingston recognised that it posed an existential threat to South Africa; that it needed to be met head-on, and that the best defence was a collective defence.

He recognised that for business to provide any kind of support to government, all the ‘sharp edges’ needed to be set aside – personal ambition, politics and business affiliation. And so it happened that before the first positive case was identified in South Africa, B4SA had been born. It’s a business agnostic, virtual platform designed to pull business resources and capacity in behind public sector initiatives.

Kingston, whose business and political connections run deep and wide, was well-positioned to pull in people as and when they were needed. “I had a gut feeling we needed to resource more significantly than appeared at first blush,” he tells Business Maverick. “The future was going to present us with circumstances we could not anticipate.”

At the same time, between business and government, the idea of a solidarity fund was born. While it was independent of BUSA and B4SA, Kingston ran with the concept and began drafting in the necessary leadership, legal, financial and IT resources to support it.

The successes of B4SA are too many to list, but undoubtedly the procurement of 90 million pieces of personal protective equipment when South Africa had almost nothing in stock, was one. Another was the UIF/Ters intervention and the support for small businesses. Without this South Africa’s social catastrophe would have been orders of magnitude greater. Other workstreams – risk assessment, civil society co-ordination, the project management teams – contributed immeasurably.

It wasn’t that Kingston came up with all the ideas all the time. Rather, it was the fact that he spearheaded and helped to drive them on an unrelenting basis. “His energy and attention to detail never flagged,” says one person close to the action. At its peak, B4SA had 10 workstreams, with well over 100 people working 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

He also oversaw the authoring of the 1200 page economic recovery strategy, following a personal request from President Cyril Ramaphosa. Over 250 people were involved in this project, which included subject specialists from most sector organisations, big business and small business, and which took 3 months to complete and is now integrated into government’s recovery plan.

As the scale of work tackled by B4SA winds down questions are being asked about its impact. There is no doubt that Kingston and his team galvanised a level of expert support across the business community and solidified relationships across society in a way that hasn’t been since 1994 and arguably wasn’t seen anywhere else in the world. Without this support, ‘forged in the furnace of the pandemic’ as Kingston describes it, South Africa’s response to the pandemic would have been far less effective.

So what now? Can B4SA survive, does it need to survive, and will the goodwill that has been created between government, business and labour be maintained?

While B4SA has been scaled back, and business school case studies are being written about it, there are projects it has seeded that need to be ‘rehomed’.

Kingston is optimistic that the forward momentum will be maintained. “When you see government, business and labour talking off the same hymn sheet at the investment conference you know that something fundamental has shifted. “We will not always agree, but where there is common cause we will leverage off that,” he says.

Kingston is adamant that B4SA’s achievements would have been made without him. “I was just the person in the right place, at the right time and had the capacity,” he says.

But, for an initiative that reached as far and wide as it did, others might disagree.


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