A simple yet powerful idea

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At the beginning of the 1980s I worked as an editor for a supermarket business magazine. I spent some time meeting people in the industry, storeowners, store managers, buyers, operations personnel. I worked afternoons for three months in a Spar in Midrand learning the basics of supermarket retailing from a Greek storeowner who was passionate about retailing.

 One evening my publisher and I attended a function at the Pick ‘n Pay hypermarket in Boksburg. Raymond Ackerman came over to say hello to my publisher who introduced me, saying I had recently joined him to cover the supermarket beat. Raymond said he and his managers would make themselves available if I needed any information from Pick ‘n Pay.

Some may have looked at such an offer cynically in those days when there was much publicity about him as being the consumer’s friend and his philosophy of consumer sovereignty. I interviewed many managers and executives while I was a business writer on a financial weekly but no one made such an offer to assist.

It is difficult for people today to comprehend just how inaccessible executives were those days. Public relations or corporate communications was in its infancy in most companies, many of which didn’t even have a formalised function or relied on public relations agencies.

Over the years I have seen how that small gesture represented more – it was part of an attitude and philosophy that had a strong foundation. Although the Pick ‘n Pay managers at the time were tough, they were all accessible.

I never had an opportunity to thank Raymond for that gesture, which was singular for me.

On 13 October 2010, I had the privilege and honour to sit next to Raymond at a lunch to raise funds for orphans of HIV/AIDS through Noah. He was there to talk about his new book “A Sprat to Catch a Mackerel”. During the lunch, I mentioned his gesture way back in the early 1980s and how it touched me. He said it was a long time ago but he would like to know if he and his managers had lived up to his promise. I said that they certainly had and, in fact, and gone beyond what I had expected. He talked briefly about consumer sovereignty and the importance of practising social responsibility.

After Raymond talked about his new book, I reflected on how over all those years all the CEOs who were prominent at the time were now mostly forgotten. Almost none of them stood out. What was the reason? Was I missing something?

Then it hit me.

I was fortunate in recent months to be exposed to a session on strategy and management by an expert who lectures at St Gallen University in Switzerland. He held a discussion on the “why” of marketing and positioning. We were shown a video by young American who passionately explained how leaders such as Steven jobs and Martin Luther King had developed a compelling “why” behind their approaches. They understood why it was so important to stand for something greater than the “what” of their message, product or company. If you’re interested in the video, I attach the URL link here How great leaders inspire action. It seems to go to the heart of what Raymond Ackerman had grasped way back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Customer service, serving people, to be real and credible, has to be part of a deep belief system acted out in a sincere and positive way.

P.S. I am interested in ideas, producing ideas and the commercialisation of ideas. Raymond Ackerman bought four Pick ‘n Pay stores in Cape Town in 1967 from entrepreneurial retailer Jack Goldin, the person who started Clicks in 1968. I interviewed him only once — for a financial weekly when Clicks was considering branching into the United States. It is interesting that Goldin devised ideas for starting these two businesses.

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