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News > Passing of friends > Raymond David Ackerman. An Encomium of a truly great former Bishops student, and OD.

Raymond David Ackerman. An Encomium of a truly great former Bishops student, and OD.

"When you are in the presence of a great man you walk away feeling great" - said of Raymond Ackerman by a former ODU Chairman.

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Class of 1948

Raymond David Ackerman (1948S) was born on March 10, 1931.  He entered Bishops in January 1944 as a boarder in School House. In his matric year, he was a school prefect and a member of the prestigious society known as the Ten Club, consisting of the top ten senior academic students, chaired by the Principal.  It was in this school society where on 13 May 1948 he read a paper entitled “The influence of the film on modern society”. After explaining the film as an art-form, Raymond criticised the lack of thought in modern films.  He argued that film directors were too focused on the box-office profits rather than on the making of the film.  In this speech, he expounded on the role of censorship of films and the psychological effect on children and adults.  He nevertheless closed on an optimistic note by saying that the cinema showed signs of an increase of responsibility and intelligence.  Members of the society were made to think carefully on the great fundamentals related to film making, because of his talk.  The approach he took in presenting this paper demonstrates a critical mind and not being satisfied just to accept things for the sake of accepting them.  

Raymond displayed an open stance as a student at school, including the various extra-curricular activities he participated in.  He was a committed member of the Bishops Night School that educated black staff members in the offering of a range of subjects.  This activity, that went well beyond the call of duty, shows Raymond’s strong social consciousness, already present from his school days. 

Mentioned already is Raymond’s academic ability.  In those days, only a handful of the students managed to get an ‘A’ symbol for matric; he was one of them.  His all-roundedness meant he was also very talented as a sportsman.  He participated in games such as cross-country, cricket and especially rugby.  The school magazines from the time reflect his giftedness as a sportsman; particularly as a team-player.  There was an incident in his sporting career that Raymond spoke about as recently as a few months ago, when he visited The Mitre for a celebratory luncheon held in his honour. Ahead of the 1948 First Fifteen Rugby tour to Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe), he was ‘dropped’ from the touring side.  One can imagine the horror of discovering that he was excluded from the team because he was Jewish.  He had been one of the stars in the team, with his lethal boot slotting over many a ball, to bolster the score.  Raymond is open about the effect it had on him; particularly how this incident gave him purpose to triumph in the face of adversity.  He also explains that, on an occasion, the very coach who was responsible for his exclusion from that rugby team in 1948, approached him for a monetary loan, which gave him the opportunity to remind him of his hurtful event.  The magnanimity of the man did not prevent him from allocating several shares to his former teacher.

Raymond emphasized that it was incidents such as these, learnt whilst he was at school, that kept him going.  He shares the great respect that he had for some of his teachers such as Dr Solly Satchel responsible for challenging his mind, making him think hard about things; whilst “Agape” (the Reverend Leslie Irving) was a source of refuge to discuss personal issues.  From the accounts above, one sees a young mind open to challenge, thinking critically and understanding one’s dependence on others. These attributes and factors were to be among the philosophies which he took with him in his life and of which some were applied for creating the enormous enterprise, the Pick ’n Pay group. 

Having matriculated in 1948 in the first class from Bishops, Raymond went to the University of Cape Town to study for a B. Com. degree, which he obtained in 1951.  He subsequently joined the Ackermans department store chain that his father Gus had founded in 1916.  He started off as a trainee manager in 1952 but after the group was bought out by Greatermans in 1955, he established the first true self-service supermarkets in South Africa, Checkers.  Having built up the Checkers business to 85 stores, he was dismissed by Greatermans in 1966.  Using his two weeks’ severance pay, a bank loan, a modest inheritance and shares purchased by friends, Raymond bought four small stores in Cape Town trading under the name Pick ’n Pay.  Since then, the company has grown exponentially into one of the largest supermarket- and hypermarket- chains in Southern Africa where it is a household name. 

Raymond’s philosophy has always been to put the customer first.  Whilst organising the company around this unbreakable principle, he also invested heavily in aspects such as staff training, promotion from within (on merit), and created one of the first broad-based employee ownership schemes, with the emphasis on encouraging all employees to think like owners.  The company today employs 85 000 persons in eight countries.

Raymond’s contribution to South Africa, other than pioneering and developing supermarkets to a world class-standard, has been to encourage and involve communities in the commercial and philanthropic objectives of the company.  In addition to commercial operations, he established the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development for youth who have had limited access to tertiary education.  He is also the benefactor of the Raymond Ackerman Golf Academy which assists the education of disadvantaged youth through the medium of golf.  Among the many awards conferred on him are several Honorary Doctorate Degrees, one more recent (2016), from Rutgers University in the USA.  In her citation, the Chancellor, Phoebe Camden, said:

As a business leader during South Africa’s apartheid period, you defied the South African government to protect the most impoverished and vulnerable of your fellow citizens. Despite crippling government fines, you subsidised bread prices to make certain that basic food items would remain accessible to the majority of South Africans. Your life’s work has grown economic opportunity and expanded opportunities for equality in your home nation of South Africa. Your business philosophy inspires entrepreneurs worldwide to strive toward a future where doing well and doing good are twin prerequisites for economic and social success. 

The 2011 CNBC All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) noted in the citation:

Through incisive leadership, Pick ’n Pay has achieved remarkable status in the Southern African retail landscape … it introduced black ownership through its very successful franchise division, introduced the concept of sustainability nearly a decade before other retailers and invested in growing small farmers and BEE suppliers in order to help address and avoid national food security and safety issues. Apart from that, the group and its leadership have chosen to take principled positions on issues that they believed directly affected the future of South Africans. Ackerman's stand on apartheid, monopolies, cartels and regulated consumer prices has been widely publicised. South Africans have come to expect a 'voice' from the group and its leaders on social issues, which could have a material effect on their future safety and prosperity.

Raymond was an enormous benefactor to his alma mater, Bishops and the ODU, benefiting all walks of the community—students, staff, and ODs alike.  His philanthropy earned him not only the highest awards both locally and internationally, but also the most prestigious award that his school can bestow on an OD—the Robert Gray Medal Award for an exceptional contribution to society—which he received in 2018 as one of its first ever recipients.  His love of his school is characterised by his frequent visits, as recently as earlier this year when he attended a special luncheon to honour him.  There it was announced that an annual award would be made to a student at Bishops, named after Raymond and Wendy Ackerman, in acknowledgement of their selfless contribution to South African society; and recognizing a spirit of entrepreneurship, innovation, and service to others. 

Always someone by his side was his wife Wendy, the Cape Town businesswoman who received the Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 annual Forbes Best of Africa Awards. Wendy is as much involved in the development of the Pick ’n Pay brand as her husband was.  Wendy became the first female director of a retail chain in South Africa when she joined the company in 1967.  Raymond was always supportive of her ventures such as in the 1970s, being instrumental in having women recognised in corporate companies, as leaders in their fields. 

Raymond Ackerman is the author of several inspirational books:  His book The Four Legs of the Table (2005) reveals the secret of his success, a marketing philosophy that can be applied worldwide.  It also explains how he has been remarkable in the way he built his retail chain during the time of apartheid, and subsequently.  Hearing Grasshoppers Jump (2001) which appeared first, relates examples of his practical wisdom in a time of a highly politicised society. Significant are his passions and sound business ethics which have enabled positive engagement in his own life, and with South Africa.  A Sprat to Catch a Mackerel (2010) includes important accounts of his strong ability to overcome adversity, with examples from his own life.  At the heart of it stands his experience when he was at school where his Jewishness was seen as an obstacle as explained earlier.  He explains these experiences as important lessons not only in building strong character and to overcome adversity, but to ensure that such experiences are never repeated.    

His generous endowments include the current building that houses The Mitre at Bishops, the Home of the Old Diocesans Union (ODU).  Today, this and the related buildings are known as the Raymond Ackerman Centre.   

In the year 2000, Raymond was acknowledged for his services and contribution to the ODU and Bishops, when he was appointed as a Vice-President of the Union. In 2014 he took office as President. In 2018 he became the Patron of the ODU, retiring from that position only recently, in 2023.  As a final farewell, the ODU hosted an intimate luncheon where, amongst others, the OD Chair, Martin Bey (1990B), the 15th Principal of Bishops, Tony Reeler and the President of the ODU, David Carter (1958G) were present.  

A former Chair of the ODU, Brian Robertson, said the following about Raymond:

It is said that tough times don’t last but tough people do. My committee and I saw living evidence of this in Raymond as President. The more difficult the situation, the more we drew comfort in the knowledge that we could rely on the invaluable insight, experience, and knowledge of a man who had faced some of the most feared, notorious individuals in South African history. We figured if Raymond could tell President Vorster that he could shout all he wanted but he would open Clovelly to all races, and do so; we could, and did manage our particular challenges. Balanced with that anchor-like resilience is the most extraordinary vision to tackle the future with optimism and hope. When you are in the presence of good men, they remind you of just how good they are. When you are in the presence of a great man you walk away feeling great. Raymond is a great man; I was honoured to have worked with him.

The day after Raymond’s passing, the Principal of Bishops, Tony Reeler announced it to the students and staff at the weekly Assembly. 

He delivered the following message: 

"Mr Ackerman matriculated from Bishops in 1948 and played fullback in the First XV.  His service to others began at school where he initiated a programme to help educate the support staff.

He is best known for his role in building Pick 'n Pay, an iconic South African retail business, but those who knew him well, know of his countless efforts to help those in need through his generosity and kindness.

He was a regular visitor to the school, the most recent being attending the First XV game against Wynberg.

Mr Ackerman supported Bishops not only financially but with messages of encouragement and by being at the school often to show his support.

We send our deepest condolences to his wife Wendy, children Gareth, Kathy, Suzanne and Jonathan as well as his grandchildren and great grandchildren and give thanks for the extraordinary life of a special man.

The Jewish faith has a word that best describes Mr Ackerman - a "mensch".  This is a person of integrity, morality, dignity, with a sense of what is right and responsible.  Mr Ackerman was indeed a true mensch, and we honour his memory here today and through the flying of our school flag at half-mast.

I ask you to stand now in a moment of silence to honour his memory."  

On behalf of Bishops and the entire Bishops community and the ODU, we send our deepest condolences to Mrs Wendy Ackerman and their four children, Kathy, Gareth, Suzanne and Jonathan and all the Ackerman family including the twelve grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Requiescat in Pace, Raymond David Ackerman.        

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