An elusive work: life balance built on an obsession with cars
THE YEAR WAS 1995 and 47-year-old Brand Pretorius was holidaying with his wife and sons in the family’s isolated beach cottage in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The morning had just broken. Pretorius – the only member of the family already awake – was sitting on the cottage stoep industriously working on a document entitled “A case for change”. The change referred to the makeover Pretorius intended to give his own life. The key priority was a better work:life balance.
In March of that year he’d accepted a job as CEO of McCarthy Motor Holdings, SA’s biggest motor retail group that made up the key part of a blue chip company called McCarthy Ltd. The move was a challenge. Pretorius was directly involved in retail for the first time in his 23-year career in the vehicle industry. But the real test would come four years later – squashing any hopes for a work:life balance – when McCarthy Ltd would be declared technically insolvent and Pretorius picked as the man to drag it out of the mire.
Pretorius is a man who’s not embarrassed to talk about his feelings in public. He hugs journalists at press conferences. He’s possibly the only CE in SA who takes calls on his landline without getting his secretary to screen them first. He’s regarded as a stalwart of the country’s automotive industry and a man who built an illustrious and successful career out of an obsession with cars.
He was born in the Free State and studied economics at the University of the Free State. He was employed by Toyota South Africa in 1973 and, six months in, was tasked with setting up the group’s market research department, which incredulously was non-existent until then. Pretorius was involved in various roles in the company until he was appointed MD of marketing at the group in 1988.
In just 10 years under his leadership Toyota SA grew from a small automotive player focused on light commercial vehicles with just 7% of the vehicle market to SA’s biggest. “I had no practical experience so we just took the best marketing strategies and applied them,” he says.
However, by the early Nineties, Pretorius was ready for a change. Toyota SA was a family business, and the group MD position wasn’t on the cards for the likes of him. “I had to reconcile myself to doing the same job for the rest of my career if I stayed at Toyota.”
Fate intervened in the form of the retirement of the head of McCarthy Motors. Pretorius had strong working links with McCarthy, whose dealerships accounted for a large proportion of Toyota SA’s sales. Accepting the position was a no-brainer. But the problem with McCarthy was management’s insistence on diversifying the group into non-motor retail, such as furniture and textiles.
“The strategy was a disaster,” says Pretorius. “By 1999 debts were out of control, the share price had disintegrated and the group was declared insolvent.” Pretorius resisted the urge to run and accepted the CEO position. “There were 15 000 jobs at stake and I honestly believed we could turn the group around.”
Not all 15000 jobs were saved – the most difficult part of the restructuring, says Pretorius. But the bottom line was that McCarthy returned to profit within 18 months. All non-core business units were sold and debt converted to equity, giving its four banks control of the company.
“One day I bumped into one of Bidvest’s executive directors at the airport and jokingly suggested Bidvest should buy us,” says Pretorius. “Literally within a week Brian Joffe had met me and he made us an offer less than a month later.”
McCarthy became a part of Bidvest in 2004 in a deal worth R1bn and remains one of the key focus areas of the diversified giant.
Pretorius will retire as CEO this year at the age of 63. He plans to devote his time to his charity of choice – the READ Educational Trust – and to his wife, Tillie.