Part one: How Brian Joffe became a serial dealmaker

The entrepreneurial dynamo reflects on building Bidvest and why being optimistic about South Africa matters.

As Brian Joffe discusses how good quality education has the potential to build great entrepreneurs, his thoughts instantly turn to his dislike for reflecting on only the bad things happening in South Africa.

“You have to take the country in its totality to see that things are not so bad,” he says during a Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) Africa interview from his Johannesburg office.

It’s not that Brian, the 71-year-old entrepreneurial dynamo who turned industrial group Bidvest into a multibillion-rand conglomerate, isn’t au fait with South Africa’s perennial problems.

But he prefers to inject a healthy dose of optimism instead of the usual pessimism that dominates talks about countries in slow reform like South Africa, which is hampered by limp economic growth, intensified power cuts and stubbornly high unemployment levels.

“I think the spirit of South African people is unique and resilient. What we have today is a whole lot better than the 80s and 90s,” he says.

“There is an emerging middle class. There are more black entrepreneurs coming on the scene. There is a movement now by the current government to create more jobs. The South Africa challenge is how to get more people to share in the pie.”

Brian’s optimism about the country isn’t misplaced.  After all, he has navigated South Africa’s darkest periods in the 80s and 90s as an entrepreneur when state of emergencies, politics-fuelled violence, and international sanctions imposed on the country made operating a business difficult.

After turning 70 years, Brian published a book featuring his nature photography and inspirational quotes of entrepreneurs he admires like Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm Forbes, Bill Gates, and John Sculley. It’s not a coincidence that the book, which was gifted to his close friends, is anchored on photography and entrepreneurship. Both are Brian’s passions. In fact, his glass-half-full approach is evident when talking about South Africa’s entrepreneurs, whom he has high praise for.   

“The difficult circumstances that South Africans grow up in have made them good entrepreneurs. During apartheid, things were simpler. If you were a white man, you were a protected species and business life was a lot easier. But when we got into the 90s, things changed quite dramatically.”

“Think about South African Breweries (SAB) and how it went from a little beer company born in South Africa to became one of the largest breweries in the world. That is no mean feat. That happened in South Africa, our little place. The country has very good and competitive entrepreneurs.”

Along with SAB, which is now a subsidiary of global beverage company Anheuser-Busch InBev, there is no doubt that Bidvest is another entrepreneurial success story.  And you cannot separate Brian from the Bidvest story.

Making a businessman  

Born to a South African father and a Lithuanian mother, his foray into the entrepreneurial world started when he worked as a birdseed packer for a family grain milling business. He would also help his uncle, a pharmacist, to count tablets.

In a 2011 interview with the Financial Mail, Brian recalls that he longed to be a school teacher. His parents didn’t support his teaching ambition and convinced him to enroll for a medicine-related degree at the University of Witwatersrand in 1966.

Within weeks Brian decided to switch to accounting after refusing to dissect a frog. After graduating, Brian completed his articles and spent some time in Israel.

His big business break came at the age of 30 when he acquired a 50 percent stake in a small pet food business for about R49 000 in 1978, with borrowings from his parents. Two years later, he bought out his business partner and aggressively expanded into the canned dog food segment.

Eventually, Brian sold the company for more than R1 million. Flush with cash, he decided to move with his wife to the US, where he retreated to a golf course as part of early retirement.

Fed up with playing golf, Brian returned to South Africa in 1982 and did various jobs including being a consultant for Standard Bank and industrials company W&A Holdings.

The start of Bidvest would manifest through Brian buying Chipkins, a food services company supplying caterers, in 1988 for about R23 million. It was the outgoing Investec CEO Stephen Koseff that would be instrumental in Brian’s purchase of Chipkins as he backed the purchase of the business with a R25 million loan. Other deals followed fast and Bidvest went from being an aspirant food services company to a logistics, automotive and financial services behemoth.

Today, Bidvest has a market capitalisation of R67 billion, revenues of R77 billion and employs more than 140 000 people globally.   Brian’s last gift to Bidvest before stepping down from the company as group CEO three years ago was the unbundling of Bidvest’s foodservice business in 2016 into a separate JSE-listing called Bidcorp. 

The unbundled entity, which is one of the world’s largest foodservice companies with a geographic footprint over four continents, pulls in revenues of about R119 billion and employs more than 26 000 people.

Brian regards building Bidvest and Bidcorp as his proudest moment.

“I want to know that people who were part of my life during the Bidvest years learned something out of it. Money was not an achievement. I hope that a large majority of people that I touched found that it was a worthwhile experience.”

Part two will explore Brian's efforts to build Long4Life, a lifestyle focused firm.