He may have just announced his retirement after nearly 50 years in business, but Donald Gordon, the founder chairman of Liberty Life, hardly looks cheerful. An existential sorrow seems to have descended upon him.

"My retirement means that I will stop being chairman of eight public companies and deputy chairman of two more, and now just be chairman of two," he says.

Gordon will be 70 shortly, and his appetite for business has begun to diminish.

By retiring, if that is what he is doing, he will bring to a close one of the most spirited, buccaneering careers of the post-war financial world. Liberty, the business he started in 1957 with capital of R10 000, is now valued at more than R30Jbillion. Along the way, Gordon has accumulated a family fortune worth more than R5 billion.

Noticeably absent from statements on his retirement are any references to his children. Gordon and his wife Peggy have two sons, Richard and Graeme, and a daughter, Wendy. Both the boys, who are now in their thirties, have worked at Liberty Life. But now only Richard, aged 39, still appears in the annual report as a non-executive director, alongside Wendy's husband, Hylton Appelbaum, who serves as an executive and runs the Gordon family charity.

Would he not have preferred that one of his sons had taken over from him, I ask.

"They are fine young men, but I don't think they really showed the flair or ambition to run the company.

"The only one who showed any interest was my daughter, Wendy. She is really quite a formidable young woman. She always gets terribly upset when I say this, but I thought she was better off at home looking after my grandchildren than getting involved with business."

So she is unhappy about the business being solde

Gordon nods, his expression suggesting such things are of little consequence; blacks may be acceptable in South African business these days, but it seems women are still kept in the kitchen.

"She gets terribly miserable about the whole thing", he says. "Perhaps I made a mistake in not letting her have a role."

For a successful entrepreneur, Gordon seems short on dynastic sentiment, displaying almost as little interest in his forebears as he does in his heirs.

His father was a Lithuanian Jew who escaped what was then part of tsarist Russia before the first world war. The name Gordon comes from the 17th century Scottish mercenary Patrick Gordon, who joined the Russian army, saved Peter the Great's life and rose to become commander-in-chief of the Russian fleet, for which he was rewarded with large chunks of land in Lithuania. Thus, large numbers of Lithuania's Jewish population wound up with a Scottish surname.

"Given that droit du seigneur was still practised in that part of the world at the time, it is quite possible that I am literally descended from Patrick Gordon as well as by name," he says, his tone alarmingly earnest.

"He was the greatest general Russia ever had, you know."

Has he been back to Lithuania, I ask, to see the place from where his parents camee

Gordon shakes his head vigorously. "That is the last place in the world I would want to go," he says.

In South Africa, Gordon's father worked as a credit manager for a laundry.

Donald was his only son. Educated at the King Edward VII school in Johannesburg, he was bright academically but he never showed any interest in going to university.

Instead, reluctantly, he started training as an accountant before hitting on the idea of setting up his own insurance company.

"The hardest thing I ever did in my life was raise the money I needed to launch the company," he recalls. "I had to persuade friends and contacts to invest #100 here and #100 there before I had enough."

The prospect of retirement preoccupies him. "I will resist the urge to get involved in something else," he says. "But sometimes something comes along that is impossible to resist."

Donald Gordon's working day:

Liberty Life's founder is an early riser. Most mornings, he wakes before four and starts work almost immediately.

"I spread out all my files on my bed," he says. "I have a big bed, so I just put everything there and read for three or four hours. One of my problems is I read quite slowly."

The first part of the day completed, Gordon is driven to the office, where he starts a round of meetings.

His policy is to keep his diary as light as possible, refusing, as much as he can, to book up his time in advance.

He is a crisis junkie.

"I seem to encounter a crisis at least once a day," he says. Problem solving is, he believes, his key contribution to the companies he runs.

"You do get a bit tired of it after a while," he says. "You have to be constantly playing nanny to everyone."

Vital statistics:

Houses: One in Sandton, Johannesburg, a beach house at Plettenberg Bay and a penthouse in London.

Cars: Jaguar XK8 and two Lexuses.

Favourite book: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Favourite films: Titanic and Random Harvest.

Favourite composer: Tchaikovsky.