Has Brian Joffe mellowed?

by Bruce Whitfield
To the casual observer it might appear so. However, any number of his colleagues will dispute that notion. Despite that, something certainly seems to have changed. Says one long-time friend: "I suspect the financial crisis has taught him that there are certain things beyond his control and he's enjoying life."

Maybe it's also because Joffe is seeing tentative signs of a turnaround in South Africa's economy. The Bidvest Group said at its recent investor day that conditions in its main markets appeared to be improving, with interest rates and inflation turning positive. Should those conditions continue to materialise, then Bidvest, dominant in services in SA and a growing food supplier in Europe and Australasia, could be well positioned to benefit from a recovery.

At 62, Joffe may be more accepting of the multitude of extraneous issues over which he has no control than he might have been 10 years ago - but that doesn't mean he's winding down. At heart he's a dealmaker and has grown Bidvest piece by piece over two decades into a multi-disciplinary services, logistics and trading operation.

Unbundling isn't on the agenda, but the nature of Bidvest's eight divisions means any one of them could be spun off without too much drama at any given time. But that's not currently under discussion.

For many, the terms "Bidvest" and "Brian Joffe" are interchangeable. Some critics argue it makes the company vulnerable and brings into question the depth of management. Joffe chooses to play down the significance of his own contribution and finds the mystique about his name increasingly wearisome.

"There was a time when the Joffe name might have commanded a premium - but that's gone now," he says, pointing to the fact that not all deals he's done have turned to gold - highlighting Tiger Wheels as one case where Bidvest lost money, and Nampak, where his advances last year were rebuffed.

But Joffe knows he can't run the business in perpetuity and is scouting for a successor. It's not a simple process. Bidvest is a vast conglomerate of businesses managed by eight CEOs, each of whom is given considerable leeway to run his own operation.

"I don't really know who will take over; it would be very difficult to find and employ an outsider. There are some people inside who could do it," says Joffe, who closely monitors the minutiae of divisional performance on a daily basis, looking for areas that need attention and constantly assessing who is best suited to inherit his legacy. He clearly has a couple of names he is watching closely and his successor is likely to be one of his current divisional heads.

Bidvest's roots lie in the acquisition of the food services business Chipkins when he utilised some of the R6m he'd earned from selling (the now infamous) W&A to Jeff Liebesmann in the early Eighties. It could all have been very different. When Joffe started as Bidcorp, the company had a cash value of 280c/share, which rocketed in days to 420c. Joffe briefly considered cashing in and making a tidy profit. Today, 100 000 employees are probably grateful he went for the long-term gain as opposed to profiteering quickly and over the short term.

"We want to earn a return on assets managed," says Joffe. The global crisis presents Joffe with multiple opportunities, but he's not committing himself to sectors or geographies.

One burning issue as Government continues to throw good money after bad into the national carrier is whether Bidvest is interested in owning SA Airways. "Somebody will buy it one day. There's an opportunity there," says Joffe, but declining to be drawn on the specifics of his thinking about SA's airline industry.

Bidvest already owns 25% of independent operator Comair. It also runs a large number of airport support services, from cleaning, passenger ground transport, baggage handling and other land functions for airlines. Taking a direct stake in SAA would raise some challenging questions about possible conflicts of interest but might fit quite neatly within the broad framework of the Bidvest business philosophy, which counts services, distribution and trading businesses as its core competencies.

Bidvest's next big deal is likely to be outside SA. The United States is one country Bidvest is yet to breach. However, it has solid, growing divisions in the Asia Pacific region and in Europe: both could be bolstered with less risk than a US venture, where markets are notorious for chewing up and spitting out South African entrants.

Joffe has very little direct operational influence over the businesses under his watch. In that lies its strength, as it enables management teams to work towards their own incentives and to manage the businesses most appropriately for the sectors in which they operate.

"They don't see me as the boss. But when I phone, they know the boss has phoned," he smiles wryly. He clearly hasn't softened completely.

Useful resources:
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