Whitey: The Rise and Rule of the Shoprite King

The exterior of a Shoprite supermarket in Cape Town. Picture: Nic Bothma EPA

The exterior of a Shoprite supermarket in Cape Town. Picture: Nic Bothma EPA

Published Jan 30, 2023


Niel Joubert, Tafelberg

Review: Barbara Spaanderman

What is immediately apparent in this biography about Whitey Basson is his devotion to family, and that without the support of his wife and a stable family life, Basson’s career might not have been so stellar.

He is a people’s person, and in building the Shoprite empire always had an open-door policy, remembered people’s names, birthdays and achievements, and, in forging relations with suppliers, longevity was key.

Niel Joubert tracks Basson’s life from a childhood in Porterville where the close-knit community provided support and enduring friendships.

A school report comments on his scholastic ability in standard 1 (Grade 3): “Wellwood is a hard-working boy... We expect a bright future for him.”

His dad upended his Afrikaans school career by sending him to the English- medium Rondebosch High School because he had to learn how “the English thought and operated, as they controlled South Africa’s business life”.

What influenced his thinking was the lack of logical and reasonable decision- making. Studying, or pretending to, was a constant irritation. He knew he could do better things with his time. Subsequently, in business he was decisive, quick and resolved issues on the spot.

While studying accountancy at Stellenbosch University, he met Christo Wiese and they became friends and subsequently business partners. The major difference between the two was that Basson avoided politics and Wiese was all in.

He lived the life as a student, enjoying the drinking holes and the beautiful girls. His mother was quite distressed. “Lately you have been living like someone who doesn’t care about anything ... we won’t always be there to protect you ... No, my child, you must choose your friends properly, and stop the never-ending chasing after girls,“ she said.

Later he met Annalise, who became his wife and he did as his mother wished.

Basson started work doing his articles for an accounting company, and from there moved to Pep, which was the turning point in Basson’s life.

Renier van Rooyen, founder of Pep, was “an impressive businessman and retailer”. Basson learnt the retail ropes here, and that knowing your market was paramount to becoming a successful retailer.

Before long, Basson was given power of attorney over the business as Van Rooyen needed a break.

It was a time of taking over other businesses, one of them being Papillon, a slightly more upmarket clothing store with a few problems, like an over-order of material from Japan that could not be stopped, and a truck of goods which overturned into a river.

Business relationships can be as fraught as personal relationships. In the Cape, the Rogut family had fallen out among themselves and wanted to sell their business, which was a group of eight shops with the name Shoprite.

“The blank canvas of Whitey’s masterpiece lay before him.”

It is tempting to say the rest is history, but years of hard work lay ahead, with numerous acquisitions, including OK and Checkers, among others.

What made Basson so successful? Knowing what people wanted, knowing how to market, knowing that the perception of value (being the cheapest grocery retailer) mattered, being a people’s person, a team player, being decisive, as well as working around the clock, being present in all his stores and not in head office.

Anyone reading this book will find it interesting, entertaining and valuable in terms of the lessons Basson provides.

Perhaps one of the more telling lessons was Wiese’s infatuation with Markus Jooste, of the Steinhoff debacle.

The question Basson kept asking about the apparent furniture mogul was, “What is the return on capital and what is the cost of capital?” Wiese steamed ahead until “the Steinhoff bomb exploded”.

Basson came close, but not quite, to losing a business built up over 40 years.

Basson handed over the reins of his business to Pieter Engelbrecht in 2017 and retired to his farm DasBosch in Stellenbosch, where he grows grapes and makes a limited wine range, mainly served in their restaurant on the farm Mont Marie.

He is now almost a full-time father, grandfather and husband.