“Determined commerciality and generosity of spirit”: in conversation with Richard Brasher, CEO at Pick n Pay

Every year in December I make my annual trip ‘home’ to Cape Town. It is something that I have done for the past 30 years, and this year was no different. But, no sooner had I arrived than the country went into lockdown:  a strict curfew from 9pm to 6am; strict wearing of masks; no alcohol sales; no gatherings, and all the beaches closed. Compared to the UK, people here seem to listen and the numbers seem to be coming down. But with my flights still cancelled, I am still here and so it felt fitting that I write something about South Africa.

So, earlier this week, I caught up with Richard Brasher – not only to congratulate him on his retirement from the South African supermarket giant Pick n Pay, but also to celebrate and reflect on his incredible career. “I think 35 retail Christmases is quite enough!” he told me when I picked up the phone.

Richard and I spent the first part of our conversation reminiscing about his 26 years at Tesco, where Richard went on to become UK & Ireland CEO. Richard joined the grocer in 1986 after beginning his career in FMCG at Unilever. Those early days at Tesco, we agreed, were something of a heyday for the retailer.

“The reality is we had an amazing time,” Richard told me. “It felt great to be in that group of people and to be a part of what felt like an unstoppable force.” Indeed, like Richard himself, his peers at Tesco – Mike Coupe, Andrew Higginson, David Potts and Tim Mason, to name but a few – went on to be some of the biggest names in grocery. The bulk of Richard’s time at Tesco was as Commercial Director where he took over from the legendary John Gildersleeve.

In conversation with Richard Brasher, CEO Pick n Pay

Richard left the company in July 2012, not long after Terry Leahy had stepped down and appointed Philip Clarke as his successor. Being a Man U supporter, I remember thinking the same thing when Sir Alex appointed his own successor – it very rarely works.  What a shock it was for the industry when Richard did not get the top job.

By December of that year, he, his wife and son, Jack, had relocated to Cape Town to join Pick n Pay as CEO.  I wondered what made him choose South Africa as his next chapter?

“I didn’t want to leave retail, but I also didn’t want to do the same thing in the same place,” he told me. “It would have been difficult to do another grocer in the UK. I met Raymond and Gareth Ackerman, and I thought: maybe it’s time for an adventure! I’d always been excited about Africa, so on 29th December 2012 we upped sticks and moved out here.”

Richard’s task was not any easy one. In 2012, Pick n Pay was struggling, with a very low operating margin and profits which had almost halved. I asked Richard how he found those first few years. “I like a challenge,” he laughed, “and I like fixing things.  Pick n Pay gave me the opportunity to do just that.

“And it’s a great brand,” he continued. “Over my time we have created a strong team just as I did at Tesco, and there’s a real desire to be better and to learn. Ensuring the business was motivated and ambitious turned out to be a very enjoyable challenge, and whilst it was hard work, it was very rewarding.”

A Pick n Pay store selling fresh produce

Richard tells me his greatest achievement was reigniting a sense of ambition in Pick n Pay.  “For a long time, the company had been looking backwards not forwards, which felt like living in a black and white movie. I like to think that I helped Pick n Pay look to the future.”

“For a long time, the company had been looking backwards not forwards, which felt like living in a black and white movie. I like to think that I helped Pick n Pay look to the future.” 

“We now enjoy playing against the competition – because we believe we can win, and we are now growing market share again. We really are an exciting business: with 2,000 stores, 100,000 employees and our Boxer brand (limited range discounter) which is the fastest growing retailer in Africa.”

Richard certainly has a lot to be proud of: notwithstanding Covid-19, Pick n Pay’s sales have doubled, and its profitability has tripled since he became CEO. The business is now a slick, fully-centralised operation, with a strong online presence.

I spoke to one of Pick n Pay’s suppliers who told me that he thinks Richard has saved the company. “Richard tore down the siloes that existed and looked to not only develop the talent internally but bring in talent too,” the supplier told me.  “He slowly weeded out the old guard which was resistant to change and brought clarity and cohesion to the company. Richard’s biggest success has been the growth of Boxer. With 55 million people earning very little, and about 18 million people on social welfare, growing a discount chain with an outstanding management team has been exceptional.”

Inevitably, Richard and I turn the conversation to Covid-19.  The impact of the pandemic was felt much later in South Africa than the rest of the world, and I wondered what insights Richard had gleaned from watching other grocers respond to the crises.

A Pick n Pay store selling fresh flowers

“We had seen it play out in Asia and Europe, so we were able to predict how the South African customers would react,” he told me.  “The impact of Covid is pretty modest on grocery retailing – as people will always have the need for groceries.  What changed a lot was their attitude to shopping.

“We learnt from other retailers how to protect and motivate our colleagues and how to reassure our customers that they were safe in our stores.  It was useful to be able to look at best practice from around the world, but also for us to add to it.”

Richard’s focus on digital transformation has paid off, too. “South Africa is behind Europe and North America when it comes to ecommerce,” he told me, “but Covid has given us a glimpse of the future.  Online grocery probably accounted for around 1% or 2% of total sales pre-Covid, but since curfews and stay at home messages have been in place our ecommerce arm has grown by about 5%.”

One key differentiator in South Africa has been government sanctions on alcohol and tobacco products during lockdown.  Designed to curb the spread of the disease and bring down hospital admissions, the policy has caused significant disruptions for retailers and manufacturers across the country.  “It’s a trade off,” Richard suggests, “but on balance I am not convinced by the merits of the argument and I think that the consequence has been significantly higher than the benefit that has been achieved.”

“The reason I came to South Africa was to prove that the good guys can still win.  I’m pleased that I’ve been able to show that, and that the values Raymond instilled in Pick n Pay all those years ago are still relevant.”

Throughout his time at Pick n Pay, Richard has been known for his focus on values which have matched the contribution that the company and the Ackerman family make to South African society.  During the pandemic, Pick n Pay has delivered 24 million meals to families living in extreme poverty.  At a time when businesses the world over are thinking about stakeholder capitalism and how to become purpose-led organisations, I wondered if Richard has any advice?

“The combination of determined commerciality and generosity of spirit is key,” he told me.  “You can have wonderful values and a desire to do good, but you won’t be able to make a difference unless you run a successful business.  The reason I came to South Africa was to prove that the good guys can still win.  I’m pleased that I’ve been able to show that, and that the values Raymond instilled in Pick n Pay all those years ago are still relevant”.

Quick-fire questions

Born? In Hong Kong in 1961. My father was doing national service as a doctor in the army.

Grew up? Around the world, but Hampshire became home.

School? Worth Abbey, a Catholic boarding school in Sussex, and then to Reading University.

Mentors? I don’t have any mentors as such, but I deeply admire Ken Morrison and Raymond Ackerman – and I guess would have to add Terry Leahy (‘my tormentor’ he says as a joke!)

Legacy? I’d never use that word! I just wanted to leave Pick n Pay in a better shape than I found it.  A strong team, a bright future and a fitting end to an unforgettable career.

Moira.benigson@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup