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Achiever Ray was spot-on about economy

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What do Jewish achievers expect for 2014 and beyond…

 

Raymond Levin, KIA Motors South Africa’s CEO, shared the Jewish Report’s 2013 Absa Unlisted Company Award with The Creative Counsel’s Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved

 

In a wide-ranging interview with Jewish Report last week, Levin – who was also recently awarded his third annual Zenneth Club accolade – KIA Motors’ distributor of distinction which is awarded to 20 out of 169 international distributors – shared his views on:

  • The motor industry’s 2013 results, and predictions for 2014 and beyond;
  • The impact of the Jewish market on the KIA brand;
  • His take on the crucial R:$ exchange rate
  • The impact the forthcoming elections will have on the economy;
  • The secret of his success: emulating Man-U;
  • Industry realignment in SA and vehicle price predictions;
  • Building the world’s first 100 per cent green dealership;
  • The future of the motor industry in SA and globally;
  • The SA economy going forward; and much more.

 

The state of the SA vehicle market

 

In 2013 South African local vehicle sales were up 3,5 per cent to 650 000 units, says Levin. For 2014, he predicts that the new vehicle market will remain static at the same figure.

However, he says, in 2014 he envisages a major realignment in the industry. “Used cars’ values and sales will increase while the new car market will be fairly stagnant. People who are buying new are buying down,” he told SAJR Online last week.

 

Levin’s success secrets

 

A fanatical Manchester United supporter, Levin is pining as his team is taking a pounding under a new management team.

However, when asked what he attributes his success in business to, Levin draws an analogy between former Man-United manager Alex Ferguson and himself: “Continuity, a corps of people who are loyal and a team of players who are able to execute a dream of building a brand.”

 
 Ray hit it spot on

SA economy and currency

Ray Levin was initially interviewed by the SAJR on January 13. As if he had a crystal ball, he

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made the following statement: “The serious decline of the rand/dollar exchange rate over the latter half of 2013 was a serious challenge to dealers – both manufacturers and importers – in terms of pricing. The rand is down by 30 per cent in 14 months.”

Referring to pricing, he said: “In everything in life there is elasticity – and in my view nothing is going to change until mid-2014.”

He believes the elasticity in pricing in the A, B, and C-segment (entry and mid-entry sized vehicles) has almost been reached.

“We’ll probably see R12/$ before we see R9/$,” he says. This has resulted in the prices of all makes having to excessively increase their new car prices this year, both in locally manufactured and imported vehicles, says Levin. This, in turn, will create even more challenges for manufacturers and importers in how they price their products this year.

That prediction was spot on.

About interest rates he commented on January 13: “Fortunately, however, low interest rates will help housing and car prices. These current low interest rates that we have are assisting to help stimulate retail sales in the housing and car industries. However, as with all good things, the low interest rates will also come to an end.”

Again, he proved to be spot-on with the Reserve Bank having hiked interest rates by 0,5 per cent just this week.

Labour costs and stability are also important issues in this, he points out.

Of course those involved in the vehicle export sector reap the benefits of the weaker rand.

“SA consumers are finding increasing cost pressure,” says Levin, who questions whether the stated cost of living increase of six per cent is a true reflection of the inflation rate.

“Consumer debt has increased significantly, to 75 – 76 per cent per household.” And, while he says this rate is comparable with other countries, “the middle class is under severe pressure to sustain our economy.”

The Absa Unlisted Company award

 

Asked if winning the award had been important to him, Levin answered: “To say it was important to win, no! But to say it was a huge honour and mitzvah to be recognised by the judges and the Jewish community, was a huge honour. It was a special time for me.” He felt “blessed” to be recognised by his own community.

“I was bowled over, I was stunned, I never expected (to win) the award. You don’t work to receive acclaims and awards.”

 

How it all happened for Levin

 

He feels he was at the right place with the right skills and at the right time. When the KIA brand became available in SA some 15 years ago, he snapped it up. At that stage he was importing the larger taxis that were at the heart of the government’s since-failed attempt to redesign the SA taxi industry.

Over the past 15 years, he says, KIA worldwide has taken off – so much so that they have been unable to produce as many new vehicles as the market wants. The parent company was taken over by Hyundai some years ago and has been building factories all over the world.

As the brand grew in SA (they now sell between 25 000 and 27 000 new KIAs a year), Levin sold out to the Imperial Group and stayed on as CEO. By 2013 KIA Motors SA had three per cent of the SA market and 72 dealerships – 40 per cent of which are owned and operated by KIA Motors SA and many of the remaining dealerships are also corporate-owned by major retail groups like McCarthy Motor Group and Combined Motor Holding (CMH).

While KIA Motors SA has no immediate plans to open new outlets, Levin is a forward-thinker: “We have acquired properties,” he says, which will be developed when the time is right.

 

Green dealership

Levin is especially proud of having opened the world’s first 100 per cent green KIA dealership in 2013. It is solar powered and collects its own water. It is not even attached to the water or electricity grids, says Levin with pride.

 

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100% green dealership in <<….>>

The worldwide growth in demand for the KIA brand has put the parent company in the enviable position that its worldwide manufacturing capacity has lagged behind demand for their products.

“We agree a quota a year in advance,” explains Levin and “as the ship docks, the stock is shipped out”. Although KIA has production plants all over the world, all vehicles imported into SA must, by law, meet the stringent EU standards which are followed by the SABS. As a result 99 per cent of KIA Motors SA’s imports originate in Korean and Slovakian plants.

The announcement of a new factory with a capacity of anywhere between 300 000 and 600 000 vehicles, will alleviate production concerns for the late twenty-teens.

Ray is tight-lipped about if or where the new plant will be built. “If it was me making the decision, I would look at Brazil, due to their high import taxation.” If the plant is planned to produce for the global market, says Levin, Indonesia or India would be good calls.

He does say, emphatically, that KIA will not be expanding its production capacity in Korea (where it turns out some 1,2 million vehicles annually from its plants) due to rising labour costs and increasing labour militancy.

 

Worldwide trends

 

Levin says all vehicle manufacturers globally are building smaller engines and building them better, making cars and engines lighter by making use of material advancement so that the weight of vehicles has come down while safety continues to improve. “The whole dynamic of the global market is turning,” he says.

KIA has four manufacturing plants in South Korea: Hwaseong; Sohari in Gwangmyeong; Gwangju; and Seosan.

Their international production facilities span the globe: Malaysia, Slovakia, China, Vietnam, Russia and the US.

 

SA Jewry’s strong support for KIA

Says Levin: “Largely through people like Clive Blechman (CEO of the huge Eastvaal Motor Group) and his organisation, the SA Jewish community are huge supporters of the KIA brand.

“King David School,” he adds, “has started looking like a KIA dealership when parents drop off and collect their kids!”

The release later this year of the new Sedona will once again give KIA a seven-seat variant which is always popular with larger Jewish families.

Levin is an eternal optimist. He says the forthcoming provincial and national elections could play a significant part in stimulating the economy, both in the pre-election and post-election phases.

 

The future of South Africa

 

What he finds “very encouraging in South Africa, is that we, as a nation, are maturing. We can discuss politics more openly and more maturely. We have seen the rise of new political parties.

“For me there is definitely no doubt that the future (of SA) is in good hands and that the legacy of Mandela will definitely play a part in the years to come.”

There will still be a rocky path that we will have to follow the next few years, he says, “but eventually we will resolve our differences and have a true democracy that upholds our Constitution – which is absolutely paramount to the success of the future of this country”.

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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Israel hatred sours drawn-out Clover strike

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Israel is being used as a political football by striking workers, unions, and the anti-Israel lobby in the protracted domestic labour dispute with Clover, which has entered its ninth week.

Clover was acquired in 2019 by a consortium called Milco SA, which is led by Central Bottling Company (CBC). CBC is an Israeli-based manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.

The merger was complicated from day one as anti-Israel lobbyists attempted to scupper the much-needed R4.8 billion deal.

Essentially, when the merger was unfolding, Clover made commitments to the South African competition authorities to create more jobs and protect existing jobs. However, the company has now embarked on a series of retrenchments arising from the restructuring of its operations.

Disgruntled workers have downed tools for nearly 10 weeks in protest over, among other things, restructuring, non-payment of bonuses, retrenchments, job losses arising from crippling factory closures, salary cuts, and working conditions that have allegedly worsened over the past two years.

It’s messy, and the relationship between workers, unions, and Clover may sour further with no end in sight. The anti-Israel lobby has jumped on board from the start, lending its voice to the strikes.

It should be noted that job losses were identified by Clover before Milco approached it with a merger proposal.

Trade unions representing Clover workers, including the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, said hundreds of workers had already been dismissed, while hundreds more had accepted voluntary severance packages. They said more jobs were under threat.

Clover has reportedly said it has “explored all possible avenues to minimise retrenchments”, but cannot avoid lay-offs.

In a statement, the company said retrenchments were “necessary to enhance Clover’s resilience for the benefit of its collective stakeholders”. The company, it said, “had been subject to a difficult trading cycle for several years, where economic growth has been poor, costs have generally been rising above inflation, and consumer spending has been subdued. COVID-19 has added to these pressures and the uncertainty faced.”

Striking Clover workers marched through the Johannesburg city centre on 18 January, stripping Clover products from shop shelves including places like Checkers, and leaving them in shopping trolleys.

Last week, there were similar scenes of chaos at shops such as Pick n Pay selling Clover products in Observatory, Cape Town.

Among many demands, the workers are insisting that the company stop plans for further retrenchments and reinstate all workers. They also want it to be independent of the Israeli CBC. Calls have also been made for nationalisation of the company.

Political economist Phumlani Majozi said that while workers had a constitutional right to mobilise and push for their demands, it was important to look at what motivated this particular strike.

“The matter has been politicised, which is a bad approach from our unions, but it’s not surprising. Any labour dispute shouldn’t be politicised because then the dispute gets tainted. Going into the issue of Israel and Palestine isn’t going to help their members secure jobs,” Majozi said.

“Going into shops and causing chaos will obviously have a negative impact on Clover, and this will definitely have an impact on jobs and there will be more job losses. It’s sad that this issue is being politicised, and it’s sad there are some politically motivated movements that have joined in the strike to push their agenda. It’s disappointing.”

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) this week said it was “disturbed” by the “trite attempt” by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to exploit a South African labour dispute to pursue its own nefarious, antisemitic agenda.

SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin told the SA Jewish Report, “The retrenchments and wage cuts which have brought about the strike are, for BDS, merely an afterthought in its fervent pursuit of demonising Israel in cases where the connection can only be described as diluted.”

Polovin said Clover was owned by a subsidiary of Israel’s CBC, and it was patent that at its core, this was a local labour dispute.

“Lacklustre attempts by BDS have been made in an attempt to shoehorn Israel into the fray of this matter by stating unfounded conspiracy theories. Chief among these bizarre allegations is that Israeli companies are attempting to flood the market with Israeli dairy products in order to destroy local industry, akin to cases that are already plaguing the global South,” he said.

“Furthermore, BDS has accused Israel’s CBC of breaking international law, this claim of course being made without justification. These allegations are entirely baseless, and one can quickly deduce the true intentions of the BDS when they are forwarded.”

Political analyst Daniel Silke said industrial action in South Africa including strikes and worker unrest applied across a variety of industries and companies, so it wasn’t necessarily peculiar to a company with Israeli ownership or shareholding.

“However, the fact that there’s an Israeli connection certainly makes Clover a little more susceptible to industrial action,” Silke said.

“Trade unions here are vehemently anti-Israel and take a pro-BDS standpoint. The Israeli connection adds a degree of militancy and mobilisation to any kind of industrial action. Companies with an Israeli connection will find that if there is industrial action, it could take on more sinister or difficult global overtones rather than just being a domestic industrial or labour issue.”

Labour expert Sara Gon from the Institute of Race Relations said that in terms of the Labour Relations Act, a company was entitled to restructure if it was inefficient, costly, or overstaffed. “This is contrary to what’s being said in public-sector strikes, where the impression has been given that restructuring and retrenching is unlawful.”

She said management was entitled to embark on these actions if it believed it would benefit the larger company.

However, a company has to consult with employees and/or their representative trade unions and justify its actions and consider the views of employee representatives.

“Clover management has said trading conditions are difficult with poor economic growth, rising costs, and subdued consumer spending. For these reasons, a review of all aspects of Clover’s business was undertaken, which led to the difficult decision to restructure,” Gon said.

“GIWUSA has objected to Milco’s involvement in Clover since 2019 ‘in solidarity with oppressed people of Palestine’. The demands probably come more from the unions than the employees, because of the intensely anti-Israel stance taken by the federation they belong to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.

“The DTIC [Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition] approved the takeover of Clover by Milco, and has no authority to interfere with the ownership or otherwise of the company.

“The anti-Israeli position is standard fare, but the two-month long strike is more puzzling in that not only will wages be lost over the period of the strike, it could aggravate trading conditions and result in more retrenchments.

“On the other hand, one can understand the desperate need to keep as many jobs in this punishing climate. The need to keep the company in existence is, however, paramount,” Gon said.

More rolling mass action is expected.

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‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions

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Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.

No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.

Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.

The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.

His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.

According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.

Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.

The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.

“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.

“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”

He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”

The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.

Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?

The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.

Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.

“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.

“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”

She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.

Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.

There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.

Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.

Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.

Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.

Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.

“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”

Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.

“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.

Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.

“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”

The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.

“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”

She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.

Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.

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