“One usual working day during 1965, I picked up the phone to find Jack Goldin on the line. Predating his days as king of the Clicks’ empire, Jack was interested at that time in developing Cape Town grocery stores in a modern way. Strictly speaking, he was the opposition but I remembered how kind and accommodating the Americans had been to me when I wanted to inspect their stores. I told him that he was most welcome to have a look around. I met him at the airport and personally gave him a tour. Afterwards he said he had been amazed at the courtesy and friendship I had showed him. This event had an unexpected repercussion a little later, when I ended up acquiring as my own a store into which he had incorporated all of my best ideas.
I received a phone call from my brother-in-law, Issy Fine, in Cape Town, who at least offered some opportunity for action. “Get on a plane, Raymond,” Issy enthused, “and come and see a wonderful little chain called Standard Provisions that’s going very cheaply.” If Standard Provisions didn’t fit the bill, Jack Goldin had three little stores called Pick ‘n Pay with a forth cash store, Suburban Provisions, on the market although at an asking price way out of my league.
As I put the phone down, surprised by the surge of intuitive excitement I felt, a recent conversation flashed into my mind. I had been mulling over my future options with my friend Ivan Lazarus, wondering whether I really should start a new retail chain, when Ivan suddenly said, “Look out for a business where there’s tea already been made, Raymond.” He meant that I should look out for an exciting business that was already trading, where I wouldn’t have to start from scratch.
A few days later, I flew into Cape Town to look over Issy’s finds. It was a Tuesday – always my lucky day – I had my baby son Jonathan – always my lucky charm – with me. I handed the baby over to his grandmother and set off with Issy to look at his first choice chain, Standard Provisions, on offer at R150,000. Before leaving Johannesburg, I had arranged a facility for that amount with my bank in case I found I shared Issy’s enthusiasm, but after we had toured the little chain I had to tell Issy, bargain or not, it wasn’t for me. I did not want to start a chain of my own, but not with these stores, which were too general. I really wanted to concentrate on food, start from scratch with a proper supermarket, not take over department stores with small after-thought food sections – the problem at the core of many battles I fought with Greatermans.
Issy, meanwhile, was treading the path of prudence. He kept reminding me that the price ticket on the remaining purchase option – the three Pick ‘n Pay stores and cash store making up Suburban Provisions – was way out of range at an asking price of R620,000. But I was strangely drawn and still anxious to look them over. The fact that these were Jack Goldin’s stores struck me as an omen. Jack, you might recall, had contacted me in Johannesburg while I was still in charge of the Checkers chain, to ask if he could tour our stores as he was looking for ideas to incorporate into this very chain of his in Cape Town. I had gone out of my way to make him welcome, to show him around and to share expertise just as my American mentors had done with me.
Now, in an ironic twist, I found myself looking over shops organised precisely according to my own ideas. Jack had put what he had learned from my Checkers stores into practice in the very stores I was now hoping – tremendously – to buy. When I spoke to Jack Goldin that Tuesday in 1966, he told me he wanted to sell because the pressures were too great. He knew his asking price was high but this was what he intended to hold out for. He also suggested a partnership as an alternative, but I was still too bitter after my experiences in Greatermans to want anything other than complete control.
However, I also wanted Jack’s business – badly. Once Issy saw that my mind was made up, he took me off to meet with his brilliant young accountant, Harold Gorvy. Harold saw my steely resolve and immediately started working on ways and means. He told me I would have to go back to my bank in Johannesburg to raise extra funds, but that it should also be possible, with my reputation, to enlist the participation of vendors from Johannesburg and Cape Town, to raise loan capital in such a way as to allow me to keep the control that was so close to my heart.
The hours flew past. It seemed we had only just talking when Jack Goldin arrived with his advisers. We all sat down around a green baize card table and negotiations started in earnest. Just as he had said he would, Jack held out for his R620,000. Issy and Harold advised to go in at R580,000, maximum R600,000. Arguments went back and forth, but all the time, with all my being, I could feel how badly I wanted this deal. In the end, I said to Jack that I would give him his R620,000, whereupon Issy kicked me so hard on the ankle under the table that it took me a year to get my ankle right.
I offered to settle the asking price as R600,000 cash with R20,000 provided to Jack in the Raymond Ackerman shares I was going to issue. The shares were offered as compensation for Jack helping me in the hand-over of the business. He would work for me for six months while I assemble a team. Jack’s advisers were very against allowing him to accept my offer, but he finally decided to follow his own council and agreed to my terms of payment. By 1.00 a.m. on Wednesday morning the deal was done.
This ushered in a period of frenetic activity on our part because now we had to find the money that Jack Goldin and his advisers assumed we had had all along. I was required to transfer the funds on Friday, so we had only three days.
Organising the funds for Jack Golding blurred into a few nail-biting days of enormous nervous intensity. When the necessary funds were to hand and I was able to breathe freely again, I suddenly remembered the strange incident in Kirstenbosch Gardens when I had heard the voice of my deceased father telling me to return to Cape Town. As an utmost sceptic when it comes to matters psychic or paranormal, I now knew I had received guidance. I was returning to Cape Town.
When I acquired Pick ‘n Pay, I didn’t know a great deal about buying – the crucial component in retailing. I was therefore very pleased that Jack Goldin had agreed to stay for six months to help me with the company, particularly as he was an absolute, if unconventional, master at the art of buying. Jack’s buying skills were to tide me over until John Lawley, a big, vibrant, personality-plus Scotsman I had hired from Greatermans for his wonderful, aggressive buying skills, could join me in Cape Town.
In those early days, I learned an enormous amount just watching Jack outmanoeuvre the big chains. His real forte was in chicken buying, where he would play intricate games with suppliers, negotiating tough deals when they were at a disadvantage. I didn’t always agree with all the tactics, in fact I very often disagreed, but I loved to listen to it all. Jack had an especially wily way of dealing with Des Lurie, supplier of County fair chickens. Knowing that Des played golf every Wednesday afternoon, Jack would make a point of opening tough negotiations with the County Fair people at those times. As arguments flew back and forth, frantic County Fair Chickens people would keep contacting Des, who was vainly trying to get through his match. In the end, Des would always come on the line, fuming, and tell Jack out of sheer exasperation that he could have his price if Jack would leave him alone to finish his round in peace. I had the utmost respect for Jack’s talent as a buyer and as a merchant.”
Source: Book title: Hearing Grasshoppers Jump
The story of Raymond Ackerman as told to Denise Prichard
Copyright 2001 Raymond Ackerman