Elegant, composed, and in charge. Seated at a corner table in the up-market Quarters Hotel restaurant in Durban’s trendy Morningside is the doyenne of the South African retail industry.
As I approach her breakfast table Wendy Ackerman leans forward, her determined eyes twinkling, as if to let me in on a company secret.
“I’m terribly excited,” she says. “We have just won our court case in Australia. The phone has been ringing since dawn with all the family.”
Pick n Pay’s Franklin’s group in Australia won its 18-month legal wrangle to sell the business to Metcash.
The retail giant bought the rundown stores and built them up over the years but faced formidable opposition from local retailers.
“Coles and Woolworths did everything to keep us out. We couldn’t get sites and they blocked us at every corner and then their ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) disallowed the sale and said Metcash would monopolise the market.
“I haven’t seen the judgment yet – it came out at 1am this morning. Hearsay is they won’t appeal so we are really thrilled,” Ackerman says.
Ackerman, who declines to divulge her age but happily reveals her husband, Raymond, is in his 80s, still has both hands firmly on the wheel.
A busy day lies ahead with a Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry lunch at which she is the speaker, before flying home to Cape Town for an evening business meeting. And Raymond is apparently also “still working like a galley slave”, according to Ackerman.
“Retirement is just not in our dictionary,” Ackerman says. “The only way we can get away from the business is to go away on holiday.
“We have a ridiculously young retirement age. A lot of our good people have to leave at 60. I am fighting to change it.”
In between raising four children – who have given her “life’s big bonus”, 12 grandchildren – Ackerman’s life is peppered with philanthropy, fighting injustice and trolleys full of hard work.
Ackerman recalls how Pick n Pay dared to promote black managers ahead of whites during apartheid, cheekily placing them in a Rondebosch store frequented by parliamentarians’ wives.
“We have become friendly with the De Klerks in the past few years and he has said ‘that it is good that you challenged us all those years’,” Ackerman says.
Likened to Margaret Thatcher, staff have fondly described her as a “champion of the disadvantaged”.
“I don’t tolerate fools, I’m afraid, or laziness. I have never been lazy and I have always pushed myself. I don’t know where the stamina comes from,” Ackerman says.
“From a small child I realised I was in a privileged position. I saw those who did not have a chance for an education and my heart went out to them.”
She worked at a teachers’ academy in Soweto in the 1960s and was there the week before the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.
“From when I was 18 I have been going into townships. I have never once had an incident and I have never felt afraid,” Ackerman says.
While visiting a store in Australia in the mid-80s she saw a headline that shocked and spurred her into action.
“A 14-year-old child had been given a blood transfusion with Aids-contaminated blood.
“I called our human resources department and said it’s going to be a huge epidemic but the doctors said ‘no it will never come here’.”
Pick n Pay became the first company to give staff free anti-retroviral treatment at a time when the government remained in denial.
“There was a house in Observatory where young people were living because they had become pariahs of their family and we had them come and talk to our HR department,” she says.
Back in the stores Ackerman recalls how “we never allowed any discrimination” and how she deliberately hugged an HIV-infected man in front of staff.
“My door is the last door for despair. People with insoluble problems come to me. Over the years I have had to deal with the most unbelievable problems. I’d try to open doors that can’t be opened,” Ackerman says.
People Ackerman has helped through the Ackerman Family Educational Trust are today surgeons, doctors, lawyers, dentists and teachers. Pick n Pay’s present human resources director, Isaac Motaung, worked his way up from being a trolley pusher, illustrating the company’s commitment to internal promotion.
Ackerman recalls how she threatened to resign if Raymond did not change his mind about building a hypermarket in the picturesque Constantia valley.
“I went in my best pin-striped suit, very professional, and handed him my resignation. He was gobsmacked. I said ‘the day you put up a hypermarket in Constantia is the day I am out of here’,” Ackerman recalls.
“I was backed by the ratepayers. It was quite funny. They came to our AGM. We had a power failure and they came to the boardroom and we were sitting there in candlelight.
“They said, ‘we will lie in front of the tractors’,” Ackerman recalls.
Asked whether the family remains positive about the future, she says: “Raymond has this thing that South Africa is in its teenage years and we all know teenagers can be troublesome and we will get through it. It has been hard for us because a lot of our friends have emigrated to America, Canada, Israel and everywhere. So many people decide they are leaving to be with their children to make a new life. My husband is a great believer in balance sheets and we did a balance sheet and decided to stay.”
As the interview draws to a close Ackerman suddenly pulls out her lunch invitation and indignantly points to the offending words “wife of Pick n Pay mogul”.
“This makes me cross,” Ackerman starts.
“Don’t introduce me as the chairman’s wife. I have had to work very hard. I want to be recognised as a person in my own right.”
Is she a feminist?
“Yes,” she replies and then retracts with “I am not a feminist in that I would not run around and burn my bra. My philosophy has been fighting discrimination.
“Women should earn equal salaries for equal work and to say women retire at 63 and men at 65 is absolute rubbish.
“If a person is healthy and doing a good job, it should be optional.”
The Ackermans celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary this month.
“I have been tremendously lucky,” Ackerman says.