Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman portrayed as ‘inspiring, generous, positive and warm’
The retail giant’s founder has left a profound mark on the local industry, with former associates describing him as a great man, who championed fairness, rights and doing good in society.
Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman, described by two close associates as an “inspiring” and “wonderful human being”, has died at the age of 92.
Two of his closest associates, Hugh Herman and Tamra Veley, have spoken fondly of the man widely celebrated for championing fair pricing, equal rights and especially philanthropy.
The retail entrepreneur founded Pick n Pay in 1967 with his wife Wendy, after purchasing four stores in Cape Town.
Over the subsequent 56 years, the retail group grew to more than 2,000 stores across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Nigeria, Eswatini and Lesotho.
Made for greater things
Born in Cape Town in 1931, Ackerman’s father Gus founded Ackermans clothing and helped establish the Red Cross Children’s Memorial Hospital in 1956. Ackermans was sold to the Greatermans group in 1940.
Raymond Ackerman was educated at Diocesan College (Bishops) and UCT, where he studied commerce.
At the age of 20, he joined Ackermans as a trainee manager in 1951. He then moved to Johannesburg and persuaded Greatermans to invest in modern supermarkets.
In 1955, he was instrumental in helping Greatermans launch Checkers supermarkets. Within 10 years, at the age of 35, he was the managing director of 85 Checkers stores. A year later, in 1966, Ackerman was fired for wanting to lower prices for customers.
He famously used his two weeks’ severance pay, a bank loan, a “modest” inheritance, and shares purchased by friends, to buy four small stores in Cape Town. The first four Pick n Pays were set up for R620,000.
Ackerman quickly threw his weight behind the first of many campaigns against monopolies and price-fixing, and rubbed up the apartheid government, his competitors and suppliers along the way.
In September 1968, Pick n Pay listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Ackerman’s “petrol war” with the government started in 1975, at a time when he was selling discounted fuel at his Boksburg Hypermarket. Ultimately, he went to court 26 times on petrol price cutting but lost. Ackerman also took aim at wine giant KWV for price-fixing.
By the late 1980s, Pick n Pay had grown to 12 hypermarkets and 81 supermarkets across South Africa, and
Ackerman was said to be a compassionate employer and a committed philanthropist, who promoted all employees into managerial positions – in defiance of apartheid.
In 1978, Ackerman not only persuaded then prime minister John Vorster to introduce 99-year leasehold rights for black African employees in urban areas, which allowed the group to assist black staff with housing, but also to allow the Clovelly Golf Club – which had been founded by his father in the 1920s – to become South Africa’s first non-racial golf club. Ackerman was a committed golfer.
An argument over the price of bread got Ackerman booted out of the office of the Groot Krokodil, PW Botha, then still Prime Minister PW.
Ackerman then called on other food chains to join his business in setting up a private bread subsidy. When this failed, Pick n Pay established a R1-million subsidy scheme. He also famously pioneered the “No Name Brand” concept, to make daily essentials more affordable to consumers.
He was active in the Urban Foundation, a privately funded think-tank and housing developer set up by Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert in the wake of the 1976 Soweto riots, becoming a prominent champion of equal opportunity policies and merit-based salaries and wages. He was an outspoken opponent of sanctions, believing they destroyed jobs and worsened poverty.
In 1989, Ackerman and a group of seven other businessmen met then president FW de Klerk soon after his appointment and called for the release of Nelson Mandela.
Mandela and Ackerman met on numerous occasions.
Five years later, when Pick n Pay was hit by a devastating strike, Mandela and then labour minister Tito Mboweni stepped in to help.
Once it was resolved, the business was bruised. Ackerman acted swiftly by launching a restructuring project which introduced staff incentives and initiatives, including literacy programmes.
Pick n Pay also launched its hugely successful Family Stores at that time – a move which the retailer later was said to have regretted.
In 2004, he established the Raymond Ackerman Academy for Entrepreneurial Development in partnership with UCT and later the University of Johannesburg, which has produced hundreds of new business owners.
In 2010, Raymond and Wendy retired from the board of Pick n Pay Stores Limited and became honorary life presidents.
By the time their son Gareth took over, Pick n Pay had 20 hypermarkets and 402 supermarkets across South Africa, with group turnover of almost R50-billion.
He received seven honorary doctorates from local and international universities, including UCT, Rhodes and Rutgers in the US.
In a statement, the PnP group said that from the outset Ackerman lived by the core values that the “customer is queen, that we must treat others as we would wish to be treated, and that doing good is good business”.
“These values have guided the business for over 56 years, and today the Pick n Pay Group serves millions of customers in more than 2,000 stores across South Africa and seven other African countries.”
Ackerman’s business philosophy was underpinned by the “four legs of the table” – administration, social responsibility and marketing, people and merchandise, with the customer on top – which was first introduced to him by Colombian-born American marketing executive Bernardo Trujillo, widely credited with influencing the development of the modern supermarket.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Doing good is good business: Reflections on my 90th birthday
The group said that from the very beginning Ackerman was known for being on the customers’ side and that he was dedicated to giving customers the best possible products, the best value, and the best service in his stores. “He would stop and ask customers walking home with shopping bags from rival stores why they had not shopped at Pick n Pay.”
PnP described Ackerman as a “man of the people; never too busy or too proud to make time for others”.
“He remained humble throughout his life, and passionate about building a more just future for South Africa. He was an enduring optimist about South Africa’s future, and his passing leaves a great void for us all.”
Hugh Herman, the long-time chairperson of Investec and formerly a lawyer at Sonneberg, Hoffmann and Galombik, joined Pick n Pay in 1976 as executive director before later becoming the retailer’s first managing director in 1986. He worked with the Ackermans for more than 50 years and retired in 2022, although he remains on the retailer’s board in a non-executive capacity.
Herman said Ackerman, whose favourite expression was “never let the sun set on a problem”, always dealt with issues forthwith.
“He was very dynamic, very energetic and a great marketing person. He was very keenly involved in philanthropic activity. He built Pick n Pay [with] determination, marketing flair and great attention to detail.”
Tamra Veley, the founder of the leading communications consultancy, Corporate Image, and who worked with Ackerman for 34 years, said: “He was extremely warm, very humble, incredibly generous and very inspirational.
Pick n Pay was Veley’s second big client.
“What struck me was the very close relationship he had with people at Pick n Pay. He would walk into a store, and not only know a cashier’s name, but also start talking about their relatives and their children. He never lost sight of the fact that Pick n Pay was a family business and treated people exactly like that.”
Veley said Ackerman was known for stopping pedestrians who were walking with competitors’ shopping bags. “He would ask them why they weren’t shopping at his stores – and he did it often. Of course, having met and interacted with him meant they would be shoppers for life.”
He was “humble, hugely moral, just wonderful”, she added.
Tributes poured in this morning:
The South Africa Chamber of Commerce and Industry said Ackerman was an entrepreneur par excellence and a giant of the business and SA community who was a pioneer and innovator in business. The many jobs created by PnP, millions of taxes generated to the fiscus by the PnP ecosystem over the years, and the creation of the many businesses that are dependent on PnP, is a testament to his pedigree, excellence and massive contribution to SA.
BUSA CEO, Cas Coovadia said, “The loss of Mr. Akerman is profoundly felt across the length and breadth of South Africa. His legacy is one of resilience, integrity, and dedication. Raymond Ackerman was a trailblazer in the truest sense. We aim to honour him by continuing to drive business growth, unity, and prosperity in our beloved nation.”
I express my sincerest condolences to the family, loved ones and colleagues of the late Raymond Ackerman. 🕊️ https://t.co/DPajCVXEhU
— Premier Alan Winde 🇿🇦 (@alanwinde) September 7, 2023
My sincere condolences to the Ackerman family and to @PicknPay on the passing of Raymond Ackerman. My thoughts go out in particular to Mrs Wendy Ackerman.
He was a truly great Capetonian!Raymond leaves a huge legacy in the economy of our country and the civic life of our city. pic.twitter.com/Idj1lm6JFM
— Geordin Hill-Lewis (@geordinhl) September 7, 2023
A South African legend, pioneer and giant has passed.
Raymond Ackerman made an exceptional contribution to our beautiful country and her people, in so many powerful and positive ways, that his impact and legacy will be always be felt and remembered.
Few people fight for their… https://t.co/VrvegPH6Pi
— Mike Abel (@abelmike) September 7, 2023
Rest in peace Raymond Ackerman, a genuine South African business icon with a great story and no shortage of people with authentic, lovely things to say about him.
— The Finance Ghost (@FinanceGhost) September 7, 2023
RIP Raymond Ackerman
A true South African legend.
It’s entrepreneurs and visionaries like him that change the world. https://t.co/9lfMxQDq9R
— Dinesh Govender (@dineshgovender) September 7, 2023
Raymond Ackerman leaves his wife, Wendy, four children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Wendy Ackerman has played an integral role in both her husband’s life and the development and growth of Pick n Pay. DM