The mysterious exit of Brian Joffe

A clipped 44-word stock exchange announcement hardly seems an appropriate way to bid adieu to one of the country’s great entrepreneurs. Yet this was the extent of the plaudits Bidvest heaped on Brian Joffe, the 70-year-old who founded its business 28 years ago, in an announcement two weeks ago simply titled: “resignation of nonexecutive director”.
It seemed so sterile it may as well have been written in Dettol on a cotton wool ball and turfed absent-mindedly in the disposables can.

It said Joffe quit “with immediate effect”, then added that icy cliché that might as well have been delivered by NetFlorist: “Bidvest expresses its appreciation to Mr Brian Joffe for his contribution over many years.”
The way it’s written, it sounds as if he’d been offhandedly drawing up the odd spreadsheet rather than being the man who, courtesy of 16-hour days, forged a R158bn empire from a measly R1m and a cash shell back in 1988. If Bidvest is what it is — a company that achieved 30% compound growth in sales over the past two decades — it’s entirely because of Joffe.

Contacted this week, he said he wouldn’t go into what was discussed at the board, but said there was “no fight, no argument over assets”.
Everything about Bidvest is still indelibly Brian Joffe, even if he’s putting all his energy into his new venture
He says he remains particularly proud of the “excellent” unbundling last year that split the company into two arms — Bidvest and Bidcorp.
Today, you can’t really head out the door without bumping into something that Joffe built.
You probably run into one of his products plenty of times a day: from mega-investments such as Comair, Rennies Travel, Bidvest McCarthy and BidAir Cargo to the small everyday services like supplying office stationery. And that’s before you even encounter the services company that delivers food to hotels and restaurants all over the world.

You’ll also have spotted the name Bidvest in almost every sporting code — which you’d expect, given that Joffe is a sports nut. It’s plastered all over Premier Soccer League champions Bidvest Wits and, until 2015, also over the less-successful English premiership team Sunderland. Bidvest is also the stadium sponsor of Wanderers.
It’s a reminder that everything about Bidvest is still indelibly Brian Joffe, even if he’s gone and is now putting all his energy into his new venture, Long4Life, which he listed only in April.
On his radio show this week, Bruce Whitfield asked Bidvest CEO Lindsay Ralphs if there had been any clash with Joffe, given his unceremonious departure. Would, he asked, there not be a potential for them to meet in the same waiting rooms, as they’re both now chasing deals for rival companies?
Ralphs replied: “You can never really tell … Long4Life, where Brian is now, [it’s] also on a shopping spree. I can’t really predict the future.”

What is clear is that Long4Life has already done a few savvy, unconventional deals that carry Joffe’s signature. For example, since April, it has snapped up beauty therapy chain Sorbet for R116m and bottling and canning company Inhle Beverages for R360m, and it’s trying to add Holdsport (which owns Sportsmans Warehouse) to its burgeoning portfolio.
It is an entirely predictable path for a man who told this magazine in April that while he planned to do nothing once he left Bidvest, “time erodes that kind of enthusiasm”. “I’m an entrepreneurial type and if opportunities arise that don’t fit exactly within that definition, maybe I’ll do that too,” he said.
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It’s been this way ever since, as a 30-year-old, he borrowed R49,000 from his parents in 1978 to buy half of a pet-food business. When he later sold that business for $1m, Joffe promptly retired to the US, at the age of 32, to play golf “every single day”.
But, to no-one’s surprise, he couldn’t stay away from the adrenaline. So he moved back to SA in 1982, and spent a spell with Manny Simchowitz as MD of industrial group Weil & Ascheim (he credits Simchowitz for an unerring focus on returns).

Then, in 1988, Joffe put together the R23m deal to buy catering business Chipkins, which formed the building block upon which the contemporary Bidvest was created. And, R158bn in value later, we all know how well that turned out.
Ralphs knows too. As he said on radio, Joffe “taught us everything we know”. So you can certainly see Joffe bumping heads with Bidvest at some stage. In which case, Ralphs better be on top form; there’s a long list of bruised executives who felt they could one-up Joffe on a deal and now know better.

By Rob Rose for Business Live

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