Where are they now?
- Business is an art
16 November 2009|
It is more than 20 years since the FM had a famous cover titled "The Man who Fell to Earth". It showed businessman Natie Kirsh as Icarus, falling out of the sky. At the time he had just lost control of one of the leading conglomerates in SA to Sanlam. It included most of its best-known stores, such as Checkers, Greatermans, Dion and Metro.
He did not enjoy being head of a listed company and having to stay in the public eye. "I owned 6% of the business but had 100% of the headaches."
Kirsh rarely gives interviews, but this year marks 50 years in business for him and he has reflected on this by commissioning a documentary to celebrate the occasion.
At 77 he does not have any concept of retirement. "Just as an artist paints, I believe that starting and running businesses is a creative process and I would never want to live without it." At last count, Kirsh had an interest in 150 businesses.
Kirsh left SA in 1986 and lived in the US for five years, but he has maintained his Southern African ties with homes in Sandton's Rivonia Road and in Swaziland. "I am usually here from November to April, when the weather is awful in the northern hemisphere," he says. He still has an office block, opposite the Hyde Park shopping centre - and next door to his old Sanlam friends - which is not just anonymous, but has a Soviet-era drabness. It is there his SA management team, under Myra Salkinder, sits.
Kirsh made his first fortune in Swaziland in the 1960s and he goes back to keep an eye on the Inhlanyelo Fund, which has been set up to provide finance to small entrepreneurs - often as simple as buying a sewing machine. The fund has financed 7 300 small businesses and 70% have succeeded.
When Kirsh sold his conglomerate (it became Tradegro) he kept the US operation, Jetro, which remains his largest business. It is run by Stanley Fleishman, the former head of Dion. "Through our Restaurant Depot chain we supply everything that restaurants need at key locations in the major cities. It is very difficult for anybody to compete with us. We have the best sites and a huge range. We take 3 000 full truckloads a day."
Kirsh has come into the public eye through some often audacious property investments. "I have never known a dumb guy to make money from running a business, but I have seen plenty of mediocre people make money from property simply by letting inflation do its work."
Kirsh is involved in two high-profile projects in Perth, Australia, one near the Waca cricket stadium and the other at Jandakot airport. He has control of an Australian listed property company, Abacus, and is involved in developments around the world. He also holds 29,9% of Minerva in the UK, which is developing major office projects in the City of London called Walbrook and St Botolph's.
"This was a share which fell from £4 to 5p and it was hard for anybody to make a bad investment in the sector at that stage."
"I paid 25p/share and I am now offering 50p to the shareholders as I am required to make an offer if I want to increase my stake."
Kirsh believes that the trouble with modern business is the lack of personal ownership. "It is all nominees and institutions. And a self-perpetuating hierarchy of managers who look after their own and award each other fat pay increases and bonuses."
Apart from corporate managers, Kirsh's other pet hate is the rating agencies.
"A whole lot of poor-quality investments were bundled together and labelled by the ratings agencies as AAA, on the spurious grounds that there was so much diversity that there was a low probability of a large proportion of them defaulting at the same time. What nonsense."