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28 NOVEMBER 2012
Mark Lamberti: Man with a mission
by Peta Krost Maunder

Business powerhouse Mark Lamberti is a man with a mission - for business and life. He shares his philosophies with Peta Krost Maunder.

Most companies have mission statements, but I have only met one person who has his own personal and business mission statements – and he happens to be one of South Africa’s most esteemed businessmen and entrepreneurs. Mark Lamberti hasn’t just written these mission statements, he is so committed to them that he carries them around in hard copy wherever he goes, and lives his life by them.

What he has written in them is intensely personal, because it is about how he wants to live and be, but he doesn’t hide them. In fact, when he was in negotiations to take over the reins at Transaction Capital in 2008, he told his soon-to-be partners to have a look at his business mission and if it fitted with the way they thought, they could continue – but if not, he would walk away.

Looking at his achievements, I can’t help but wonder about the role living by his missions played. “I believe in the power of mission,” says Lamberti, when we met in his home office in Sandhurst. “At times, the world comes at you so fast that it is easy to go off track. They make my life more efficient and help me be my true self. They help me say no and prevent me from drifting into areas I don’t want to go. It is usually when one hits those stormy seas that this focus is so helpful. I always tell those around me who know my mission: ‘If I screw up, tell me.’”

As he says: “People always write strategies for companies but not for their own lives, and it is only when you write something, you can debate and test it.”

Lamberti is held in high esteem because he is an exemplary leader and businessman running companies with clear strategy, governance and policies. But there is nothing average, conventional or staid about him. Lamberti is a fascinating man who lives his life according to his own rules.

If you consider his business reputation, it is hard to picture him with long hair, playing full time in a band – but Lamberti was a university dropout who spent four years as a rock musician. But, even then, his entrepreneurial tendencies were obvious. He would take the risk on there being a full house and pay the band accordingly. If they had a full house, he would make money, but if not, he wouldn’t.

Even as a teenager he dreamed big, and was always going to do at least an MBA. “I was 15 years old when my cousin got a gold medal MBA from UCT and I knew then that I, too, was going to do my MBA,” says Lamberti.

Today, he has a BCom, MBA and, every year, he makes a “pilgrimage” to Harvard University, where he does his annual week-long President’s Programme in Leadership. Lamberti is a member of the World Presidents’ Organisation, an international network for business leaders. But, instead of enjoying the social elements of it, he is only a member so he can participate in this course.

Lamberti lives in a mansion in Sandhurst, with a wife he dotes on. They have two grown-up children, Julia and David. He has a passion for cars, especially Porsches, and a more recent passion for flying. He owns and regularly flies a helicopter. And he has a career that still fascinates him.

I was a little apprehensive about meeting Lamberti, because he has a no-nonsense reputation for ensuring things are done his way. But I left his home office wishing I had a couple more hours to listen to his philosophies and wisdom. He is a deep thinker and a true introvert. “I work from the inside out,” he says. “The ideas start from within, I then get them out through writing and only then can I act on them.”

Lamberti – the oldest of five children – grew up in Hilton in the Natal Midlands. His mother was “a deeply spiritual and philosophical woman who would never answer a question with a one-liner” and his father was involved in business. “We lived close to Cedara, where the Catholics priests’ seminary was, and there were always doctors of philosophy or theology visiting us and getting involved in deep intellectual conversations,” he recalls. “I wrote a lot and still do. This is my way of thinking things through. I get clarity, which helps me make up for the lost time I spent pondering.”

On completing school in Pietermaritzburg, he went to study engineering because his father wanted him to. “I had a seminal moment one day when I was running in the wattle forests in Hilton, when I realised this was my life and I needed to do what I wanted to do.”

It was then that he dropped out and formed a band called Gate, playing keyboard and trombone. After four years, he met Annette at a club at which he was playing and fell in love. Three months later, they were married.

Then he joined his father and brother in a shop that sold hi-fis and TVs, but soon realised he needed the stimulation of a bigger business. So, in 1978, he got a job working as a branch manager at the furniture retailer Bradlows, earning R650 a month. In the same year, his daughter was born and he started his BCom. A year later, he wrote his management credo.

By 1985, he was responsible for everything at Bradlows, except the financial side. He sees himself as a retail kind of guy, and sees retail as both an art and science. This appeals to him because clearly he is both intuitive and logical.

His passion for knowledge and learning led him to studying on top of working full time for many years. After completing his BCom, Lamberti began his MBA at WBS part time, while being director of a public company. “This period was not easy, because the MBA is hugely demanding,” he says. “An MBA teaches you not to see business from a functional perspective only but as a totality.” At one point, Lamberti came close to failing and was given notification of how close he was. When the notice was handed to him (among others) in class, he wrote on the back of it: “It is not the way you start but how you finish.” And he did exceptionally well in his MBA. “When you finish your MBA, it is like you are a mechanic with a toolkit, looking for ways to use each tool, rather than diagnosing the problem first.”

Lamberti turned down an approach by Wooltru to run Truworths in 1987 – the year he completed his MBA. A year later, he accepted its offer to run Makro because he says: “I was offered a blank canvas to paint my African dream.” “Whenever I was offered choices in my career, I always took the path of more learning rather than the one that would provide more money or power.”

At the time, there were six Makro stores and they were struggling. Within a year, he had formulated the strategy he stuck to for 19 years.

Having done his MBA thesis on store location practices, Lamberti used this to reposition Makro and realised South Africa could not take more than 16 of these stores – so, to grow, he needed to acquire businesses. And so Massmart was born which bought Dion, Game, Builders Warehouse, Shield, Drop-Inn and others. By 2007 Lamberti had built Massmart into the third-largest and most profitable retailer on the African continent, with 238 stories in 14 countries. It also became the continental market leader in general merchandise, wholesale food and liquor. It listed on the stock exchange in 2000 at R12.50 a share. Six years later, the share price was R99.

Massmart became the most empowered retailer in the country after giving 18 000 full-time employees 7% of the company. This was based not on their seniority but on their tenure, so the shelf packer could potentially receive more shares than a more senior staff member. Financial Mail named Massmart South Africa’s top company in 2008. “This was all a function of deep strategic thinking,” Lamberti explains.

But, in 2003, Lamberti had decided that he didn’t want to retire at Massmart and wanted one more executive business venture. He identified his successor Grant Pattison who had joined the business as his Executive Assistant in 1998 and was appointed Chief Executive when Lamberti became Non-Executive Chairman in June 2007. While he had established a relationship with Walmart that led to them buying 51% of Massmart in 2011, he insists that credit for the transaction which valued the company at R31 billion was entirely due his successor Grant Pattison’s.

At this point, Lamberti took a sabbatical – or at least his idea of a sabbatical, which looks to me like a lot of stress – by being non-executive chair at Massmart; an independent non-executive director at Telkom and Altron; a director at Business Leadership South Africa; chairperson at Business Against Crime, and honorary professor and advisory board chair at WBS, to name a few.

In 2008, he was invited to invest in and become executive chair of Transaction Capital, a financial services group that deals with micro and small-business finance, payment and credit services. This business was a far cry from any he had worked with, but Lamberti loves a challenge. In this case, it was to transform a portfolio of disparate financial service businesses into a coherent group. “My colleagues had all the entrepreneurial and technical skills but needed some strategic, structural, leadership, governance and human capital development input. “It has been a busy four years, but I have loved the learning. We have sold or closed six companies, merged three, changed five CEOs and listed in June this year,” he explains. The market value of this company is now R4.5 billion. Lamberti’s objective is to make it a much larger respected public company, performing to the highest standards and in time to appoint the right successor.

“There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to watch people grow,” he says, and he has put a great deal of time and effort in enabling just that. He is known for the long and detailed letters he sends his executives to counsel them.

Lamberti is a very proud South African and has done a great deal in his field of influence to right the wrongs of the past, not least by ensuring Massmart became the most empowered company in the country. As well as being Business Against Crime’s chairperson, he is a director and member of exco of Business Leadership South Africa.

He is frustrated with the government, saying the leadership is “self-serving”.

“I find it sad that there are not more private–public partnerships. There is a whole lot of talent that has been offered but not utilised.”

On the day of the Marikana massacre, this man, unaccustomed to tweeting regularly, wrote on Twitter: “The infamy of Marikana is the worst ever reflection of absent business, labour & political leadership since 1994.”

Despite Lamberti’s disappointment and concern, he is wholly committed to South Africa and has a huge national flag outside his home and in his home office.

Part of his personal mission is to be the best father and husband he can be and to prioritise his time for the things most important to him. To do this, he made a point of spending real time with his family and not working weekends when his children were growing up. Today, he has more time for work and rises between 4am and 5am, for exercise and writing. He is at work by 9.30am and home again at 6.30pm to 7pm. “I am home every night to have supper with my wife, before mostly going back to work until 10pm or 11pm.” These days, he does work some weekends but enjoys flying his wife and Roxy, their Yorkie, around.

Lamberti is a man of conviction and a true leader, a true example of management excellence.
Useful resources:

Wits Business School Journal
As a leading Business Magazine in South Africa, the Wits Business School Journal's objective is to provide a tool that carries thought leadership to an audience hungry for knowledge. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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