Retail turnaround kingpin and Shoprite founder Whitey Basson could bring the lights back to power utility Eskom

Whitey Basson. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Whitey Basson. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Published Dec 19, 2022


Johannesburg - There is something about the genius of Whitey Basson that leaves friend and foe alike with no choice but to take note of the man.

It is easy for his detractors to say he made it because of the Apartheid laws that were favourable to Afrikaner business at the time but the man’s work ethic surely must count for something. It is the only reason why the eight small stores he initially purchased in the backwaters of the Cape eventually morphed into a Southern African retail giant and JSE-listed company posting over R145 billion (2018) in turnover annually.

Granted, Apartheid legislation smoothed the path for white business across the spectrum at the expense of others but this did not guarantee success as evinced by the fall of OK Bazaars, that South African Breweries (SAB) eventually and reluctantly had to sell to Basson for the princely sum of R1.

The story of the birth of Shoprite and Checkers and subsequent acquisitions along the way is one of the modules at business schools. Perhaps entrepreneurs are born. Why else would James Wellwood Basson make such hard work look so effortless? When businesses failed, he picked them up for a song and added them to the Shoprite portfolio, where they thrived.

His mentor Renier van Rooyen at Pep Stores must have taught him well. Up to this day, Basson still places a high premium on the teachings of Van Rooyen. What began as a hunch to make it in business for the boy from Porterville would in time morph into a behemoth that showed Raymond Ackerman at Pick n Pay a thing or two about the business of retail.

What started as a chicken and baked beans endeavour became the grocery go-to place for millions of South Africans, in time, for Africans too. In due course, people would go to a pharmacy, send and collect money on top of buying chicken cheaply. The Money Market counter became the hub of convenience for doing personal business, especially for low-income groups.

Basson puts his faith in marketing, among other tools of doing business. It is not by accident that Shoprite, Checkers, Usave and every other entity he’s brought into the fold are such household names. Over and above radio adverts speaking to his target market in their language, Basson brought in celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey to talk up Checkers steaks on television and put the meat in his restaurants.

He visited Scotland to source special whiskies to bring to his supermarket shelves. Virtually the only CEO to walk the factory floor and inspect every aisle at every store he visits, he was one of a kind. The head honchos sit in their air-conditioned offices from where they think they run stores. It is this hands-on approach that helped his group to take advantage of the government’s added spending on social grants.

He not only waits in ambush to seize a gap in the market but he’d do his spadework first and assure himself there’s a market in the gap.

The competition is still playing catch-up. Black Friday deals? It was Basson who imported the retail idea into the country after observing it in the US! He studies the competition, and knows a lot more about Pick n Pay and Raymond Ackerman like he was doing a PhD thesis.

Of course, he’s experienced failure. He had to close business in Egypt and India, stalling his expansion vision. Nigeria also failed to do well in the end. He is willing to learn. He travelled to Bentonville in the US to meet with Sam Walton of Walmart but could not see the latter as the Yankee suddenly fell ill. He gives credit where it is due and thinks the world of Amazon and Jeff Bezos.

An honorary doctorate in commerce from his alma mater, Stellenbosch University – where he studied towards a career as a chartered accountant, was merely to confirm the man’s rare business acumen.

Today, Shoprite is in the Top 100 of the world’s largest retailers at 86th.

It is the largest food retailer in Africa. It is the largest private-sector employer in the country.

From the eight small stores he initially bought in the Western Cape, his vision is now emblazoned on the emblems and successes of 2 800 stores of Shoprite, Checkers and Usave in South Africa and the continent, where foot traffic keeps the tills ringing nonstop.

Basson can turn any business failure around. Bring him out of retirement and give him Eskom to run. There will be uninterrupted light(s).