Farewell to an iconic insurance mogul
“The lessons he passed on to the family have been invaluable. We were blessed to have had him,” she says of her late father, a business and philanthropy titan, who passed away in Plettenberg Bay on 21 November.
While some have described him as both incredibly kind and tough, Appelbaum says, “He was never really tough on me – he might have said I was tough on him!
“He was very upstanding. He wasn’t even that strict. He was set in his ways, and there was only one way which was his way.
“He never really had to repeat himself – he made himself so clear that we all knew exactly where we stood. He was probably tough in business, but I also think he was fair and incredibly honest. To have reached almost 90 with an unblemished record, to leave a legacy like that is extraordinary.”
Appelbaum, together with husband Hylton, runs the Donald Gordon Foundation. Established in 1971, it is one of the oldest and largest private foundations in the country.
Its focus is education and healthcare, and it is a top donor to the Chevrah Kadisha. The foundation received the 2016 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising Gordon’s business and philanthropic contributions.
Unbeknown to most people, Gordon looked after all his teachers from King Edward VII School and when they passed away, he looked after their wives, says Appelbaum.
Philanthropy was inculcated in the family from a young age, she remembers, with the adage that “those who have much, have much responsibility”.
Dorianne Weil (the clinical and media psychologist known as “Dr D”) describes the Gordons as “very, very close” family friends, with whom she and her family spent many yomtavim together either in Plettenberg Bay or Johannesburg. The friendship goes back to her father and Gordon being “exceptionally good friends”.
Referring to Gordon, she says “he was more than the monument that people know about. There are a lot of institutions and organisations in Johannesburg that bear his name, but he was beyond that.
“He supported many families of people who used to work for him, and he carried on supporting their widows,” much like he did with his former teachers.
He had quite a soft spot for animal causes, and supported the SPCA (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), she says.
Referring to the conferral of a knighthood by the Queen in 2005 for services to the arts and business, Weil described Gordon as “an innovator, a trailblazer, and a maverick. When he started in the insurance industry, it looked very different to what it does today.
“He came with extremely way-out, new ideas and I remember hearing snippets of conversation and loud voices from behind the doors, ‘For goodness sake, that’s crazy, that’s never going to work!’ The people who backed him then, I can tell you, are very thankful, even today.
“The industry was being run by the establishment, and by conservative suits. He came along as a young man with way-out ideas that were not tried and tested. So he had to have quite a lot of courage and relate well. He had to be very convincing.”
Says businessman Arnold Basserabie, the chairperson of Afrika Tikkun and former chief executive of Fedsure Financial Services, “We were competitors and engaged on various industry committees where I had the opportunity and benefit of learning from him and identifying some of the pioneering and creative things he did during his tenure in the industry.
“He was extremely dedicated and hardworking, and had a clear understanding of both the big picture and relevant detail.
“A lot is said today about industries being disrupted. Well, he certainly disrupted the life insurance industry with some amazing innovations. He pioneered the introduction of linked (market-related) insurance and investment products, and South Africa’s unit trust and retirement annuity industry.”
Basserabie notes that Gordon was one of the first investors to envisage the potential of Sandton as an investment opportunity and, together with developers Rapp and Maister, built Sandton City. Liberty subsequently built up a very prominent and successful property portfolio, and introduced into South Africa the concept of property-linked investments for individual investors.
He expanded into the United Kingdom by acquiring a significant stake in Sun Life Assurance, and building up a substantial property portfolio there under the aegis of what became Liberty International.
Gordon has given much back to South Africa, two examples of which are the Gordon Institute of Business Science (affiliated to the University of Pretoria) and the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (of which Basserabie has been a director for the past 15 years).
“He was very competitive,” Basserabie says. “I recall that at one industry conference he was playing tennis [at which he was very proficient]. He ran to the net, cut the ball over the net, and then ran onto the other side of the net, and returned the ball to win the point!”
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies described Sir Donald as “a living legend” for his “phenomenal achievements in both the business and philanthropic fields. As a business leader who founded the global insurance giant Liberty International, he was far-sighted, bold, and innovative. As a philanthropist, his unstinting generosity led to the establishment of a range of outstanding institutions and foundations that have benefited countless people and numerous worthy causes the world over.
“Along with his innumerable services to the wider society, Gordon was a committed member of the Jewish community and contributed extensively over the decades to the welfare of its members.”