Driv­ing force

An elu­sive work: life bal­ance built on an ob­ses­sion with cars

Finweek English Edition - - PEOPLE - SVET­LANA DONEVA svet­lanad@fin­week.co.za

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.

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