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Farewell to the humble grocer who became a giant



“Our father was multidimensional: a family man, a strong entrepreneur, and a statesman. They don’t make them like that anymore,” Suzanne Ackerman told the SA Jewish Report on the passing of her father, Raymond David Ackerman, who died at the age of 92 on 6 September 2023.

“We’re obviously heartbroken at losing dad, and overwhelmed at the affection in which he was held by so many,” she says, speaking on behalf of the Ackerman family. “We have received thousands of messages, and we’re very grateful for them all.”

Most well-known as the founder of retail giant Pick n Pay,  Suzanne says, “Our father was involved in Pick n Pay until the very last. He was interested, enthusiastic, and positive. The creation of Pick n Pay and the love of his family were his greatest achievements.”

Looking back, she says he was brought up in a retail family, “which obviously set him on his career path. But our grandfather, Gus, thought he was too soft for retail. As it turns out, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Doing good is how my father built Pick n Pay, and this philosophy sustains to this day.” At the last count, he employed about 90 000 staff.

Ackerman grew up in Cape Town, matriculated from the Bishops Diocesan College, and gained a commerce degree from the University of Cape Town. He started his career with Ackermans, the retail chain which was founded by his father. In 1946, the chain was sold to Greatermans, which started the supermarket group Checkers. Ackerman became chief executive of Checkers in 1959, but seven years later, was fired following clashes with the Greatermans board. In 1967, he bought four Cape Town stores named Pick n Pay with the help of investors.

Suzanne says “being fired and starting Pick n Pay was the greatest challenge he faced. When he was fired, he had to think quickly and carefully since he was married with three children, and had one on the way.

“Buying four small stores with savings and borrowed money was an enormous gamble,” she says. “Through sheer grit and determination, what he’d learnt about modern grocery retailing in the United States, and a strong philosophy and value system, he built Pick n Pay. The early days were incredibly challenging, and it’s credit to Raymond and [his wife], Wendy’s, character how well they succeeded. Raymond certainly couldn’t have done it without Wendy solidly supporting him.

“He had what so very few have: the common touch,” Suzanne says. “He treated everyone exactly the same, wherever they came from. He had a way with people, and would always listen carefully to what they said. He always made everyone feel comfortable.”

This is clear from the thousands of posts on social media from ordinary people, talking about the impact of Ackerman on their lives.

“He wasn’t just a successful entrepreneur, he was a passionate advocate for empowering youth and fostering entrepreneurship,” wrote Amos Smanga Magqazana.

“In 2014, The Ackerman Foundation’s Raymond Ackerman Academy partnered with the University of Johannesburg to implement a Youth Entrepreneurial Development programme. Through this programme, he extended a hand to young individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, offering them the tools, knowledge, and support they needed to realise their entrepreneurial dreams.”

Ryland Ficher wrote, “I have many memories of Raymond Ackerman, but one that stands out was one year when I was watching the New Year test at Newlands. Sitting in the railway stand, I turned around and saw him sitting behind me, wearing a bucket hat, with binoculars in hand.

“I asked him why he was sitting in the stand and not in his company’s suite, and he replied, ‘I’m here to watch cricket. The people who come to the suite aren’t interested in watching the game.’ I realised once again why I had so much respect for him.”

“During those big fires in the South Peninsula a few years ago, Raymond and Wendy made sandwiches and drove themselves in the middle of the night to provide sustenance to the firefighters,” wrote Chris Giffard. “It could have been easy to send employees, but they did it themselves.”

A range of organisations thanked him for his support, from the Reach for a Dream Foundation to Johannesburg Business School, to the Zip Zap Circus, which uses the circus arts as a powerful tool for social transformation. The organisation said, “He loved the circus and over the past three decades, we have built some beautiful memories together, including celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pick n Pay with a massive swing to flying trapeze over Raymond’s head!”

Fellow giants in the retail space deeply admired him, with Woolworths calling him a “fierce competitor”.

Suzanne says his Jewish identity was important to him. “The values inherent in Judaism were important in how he treated people,” she says. He supported a wide range of Jewish community organisations.

In a statement, the United Orthodox Synagogue’s Cape Council said Ackerman “changed the lives of so many people in our Cape Town Jewish community and South Africa at large. We thank him for his commitment and support of our communal structures and for pioneering and supporting kashrut and our kashrut infrastructure within the South African retail industry.”

Ackerman was a member of the Cape Town Progressive Hebrew Congregation [Temple Israel], and the shul paid tribute to him, saying, “Temple Israel mourns the passing of our beloved member and patron. His and Wendy’s mark is found all over South Africa in the staff trained, organisations started, charities supported, and businesses incubated. No less in the Jewish community, where their concerns have always been around education, inspiration, and inclusivity.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Temple’s Israel’s Rabbi Greg Alexander says, “The Talmud teaches that monuments don’t need to be erected for the righteous tzadikim. Their deeds are their memorials. As the messages have poured in, I watched as his family gasped in amazement. The fact that they underestimated how loved he was, the extent of the impact on every person in this country, is testimony to his own humility.

“And that was just how he was,” says Alexander. “No fanfare, no pretence, just a down-to-earth man with family, dogs, and a garden, peanut butter on his challah on Friday nights, and a twinkle in the eye. He was a giant, but he saw himself as a busy grocer. While others complained about this country, he built this country.”

Ackerman also inspired the next generation of entrepreneurs. “Few people fought for their customers and people the way he did,” wrote M&C Saatchi Abel founder Mike Abel. “He was led by his enduring and truly admirable values, which one scarcely sees in business.”

“His legacy of doing good lives on at Pick n Pay, and in the way his family approaches life,” says Suzanne. “We’re grateful for the messages of condolence, and the many stories people have recounted. These have all helped during our time of loss. Raymond would have loved his memorial to be everyone shopping at Pick n Pay.”

Ackerman is survived by his beloved wife, Wendy, his children, Gareth, Kathy, Suzanne, and Jonathan, 12 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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