Adila Chowan

Durban - When a three-year stint at a subsidiary of vehicle giant Imperial Motor Group ended on a humiliating note after she was marched out for criticising her lack of upward mobility, chartered accountant Adila Chowan refused to take things lying down.

Offended by being described as nothing more than an employment equity candidate, she took the company to court, suing for injuries to her name, dignity and character - and won.

In a recent judgment handed down by the South Gauteng High Court, Judge PA Meyer rattled Associated Motor Holdings (AMH), Imperial and its boss, Mark Lamberti, for summarily dismissing Chowan, 43, its group financial manager, and backtracking on its promise to promote her to chief financial officer.

The amount of the damages will be determined at another hearing.

Believing she was being discriminated against, Chowan was deeply hurt and insulted.

“I had built my career. I had been a chief financial officer. And in Mark Lamberti’s eyes I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female,” she had testified.

“All those achievements (were) not being recognised, apart from the fact that I am now being objectified in terms of being a female empowerment equity candidate.”

Lamberti and Imperial also received a tongue lashing from the judge for promoting males - seven whites and one Indian - as executives.

Chowan, the court had heard, was promised by Lamberti in 2012 when she joined Imperial that she would be promoted to chief financial officer by the following year.

That did not happen. Instead Peter Hibbit was appointed as chief financial officer and after he resigned Ockert Janse van Rensburg took over.

Van Rensburg had no experience in the motor industry when he was appointed, said Judge Meyer.

Matters came to a head at a meeting chaired by Lamberti in June 2015 which was attended by Chowan and Imperial executives.

That day Chowan was very upset after Lamberti referred to her gender, race, employment equity and remarked that she needed another three to four years to hold a leadership position.

Chowan said that even though she had the right credentials to be the chief financial officer, in Lamberti’s eyes she was nothing more than an EE (employment equity) employee.

She lodged a grievance against Lamberti with Tony Gcabashe, Imperial’s chairman.

In her complaint, Chowan sought an apology from Lamberti.

Gcabashe got a law firm to hold an inquiry into the complaint and after the firm found that it had no substance, she was fired.

Lamberti, who was recently appointed to the board of Eskom, resigned from the power utility last week following the scathing judgment.

In a statement he said the court did not say he was a racist. However, he apologised to Chowan for the hurt caused.

By the time she was head-hunted for the position of group financial manager at AMH, Chowan already had extensive experience as a chartered accountant and in the corporate world.

Once she qualified as a CA at the end of 2000, she worked for auditing firm Deloitte for about a year and thereafter about a year in the UK at Ernst & Young. 

Upon her return to South Africa, she joined Rand Merchant Bank for about three years.

During 2004, she joined the Central Energy Fund, first as financial manager and she was later promoted to the position of chief financial officer.

Before starting at AMH, Chowan had asked, and was given, the assurance that opportunities would be available to her within the Imperial group “for career progression”, the court had heard.

“I really enjoyed working at Associated Motor Holdings and I had seen myself actually growing within the Imperial Group,” she had testified.

But she was bypassed when opportunities for advancement came up.

Instead, in the company’s search for a “top flight chief financial officer” a total of 154 candidates were sourced and 10 shortlisted. 

Three potential candidates were identified, all white males, and one of them was appointed.

“Ms Chowan testified that she had been disappointed and had felt let down by the company,” the judge said. 

She handed in her resignation on June 25, 2014, but withdrew it after Lamberti reassured her that she would be appointed into a chief financial officer position within one year, not necessarily within AMH, but within the Imperial Group.

According to the judgment, Chowan did not consider the new chief as being “a top flight chief financial officer”.

She related one incident in which he came to her office and discussed the new company vehicles that were being given to employees.

“During the conversation she complained to him about the colour of the car that had been given to her; it was in a shade of brown. Mr Janse van Rensburg then made a comment, saying ‘well the colour of the car suits your skin’.”

When she objected, saying to him that that was an inappropriate comment to make, he replied that he had a light or white colour car that suited his skin colour,” the judge said. 

“Mr Janse van Rensburg admits that such a comment would have been inappropriate, if made, but he denies that he made such an inappropriate comment to Chowan.”

However, the judge said that what made Chowan’s version about that incident even more plausible than that of Van Rensburg, is the fact that she at the time mentioned the incident to Uvasha Singh, a group accountant at AMH, and also volunteered to take a polygraph test. 

But her request was not acceded to.

“That comment, Ms Chowan testified, made her feel insulted; she ‘never had anyone objectify (her) and say that (her) skin colour is similar to the colour of a car’.”

Chowan had said that in March 2015, after Van Rensburg had returned from a meeting with Lamberti, he had told her that Lamberti had told him to tell her that she would never be a chief financial officer in the Imperial Group, and that he did not believe she had what it took to be one.