Meyer Kahn: the “boytjie from Brits” who became a business legend
A week before business icon and the former chief executive and chairperson of SA Breweries (SAB), Meyer Kahn, passed away on 2 June, he imparted one of his classic, true-to-form one-liners, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. But wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad.”
It was typical Kahn, one of South Africa’s most successful multinational businessmen, who never missed an opportunity to simplify highly complex business and life issues with one or more of his clever sayings.
“Keep it simple,” he would say, often seemingly brash but always razor-sharp and insightful, said friends this week.
Kahn, a beloved family man and true patriot as well as an international business leader, passed away on Thursday after a short illness. He was 82.
Humble in life and in death, it was his wish to be buried near his parents resting place in the Pretoria Jewish Cemetery, surrounded by his closest family and friends, without fanfare or fuss. This is in spite of being offered a well-deserved spot in the section reserved for those who have displayed exceptional commitment to the community and humanity at Westpark Cemetery.
“He was a simple man who loved simple pleasures, an ordinary boy from Brits who went on to do extraordinary things,” said Rabbi David Masinter, who regarded him as a mentor and studied with him every Friday afternoon on Zoom.
“I’ve never met anyone who happily rubbed shoulders with everybody. He drank whiskey with presidents and kings, and beer from polystyrene cups with the person on the street. He had no airs and graces,” said Masinter this week.
Born on 29 June 1939, Jacob Meyer Kahn and his late brother, Raymond, grew up in Brits. He was arguably best known as the head of SABMiller (formerly SAB).
Kahn obtained a Bachelor of Law degree and MBA from the University of Pretoria, and an honorary doctorate in commerce from the University of the Witwatersrand. In 2000, he was presented with the South African Police Star for Outstanding Service.
He entered the business world as a junior manager with OK Bazaars, and steadily worked his way through the ranks becoming chief executive of OK Group.
He joined SAB in 1966, spending 46 years there, and was instrumental in the company’s global expansion. Together with an expert local team, he created the most successful industrial company ever to go beyond South Africa’s borders, said experts this week.
Kahn served on the boards of 16 listed companies and as trustee of numerous organisations.
At the pinnacle of his career and at the behest of the late President Nelson Mandela, he commenced a two-year sabbatical secondment to the South African Police Service as its chief executive in 1997. He reportedly donated his entire police salary to the police widows and orphan fund.
He was known as the “Boytjie from Brits” who never lost the common touch, and described as “gregarious”, “larger than life”, yet curiously reserved, private, and a little shy. He was a keen golfer, a passionate Springbok rugby supporter, a definite beer and whiskey lover, and enjoyed the odd cigar.
It was widely joked that if he saw anyone drinking a non-SAB brand of beer at the golf club or in business circles, he would deliberately drop his car keys into the glass of beer, apologetically, but happily ordering the drinker a replacement SAB beer, said close friend Michael “Motty” Sacks, the chairperson of Capital Appreciation Limited.
Kahn received numerous prestigious business awards throughout his career, including the Jewish Achievers Lifetime Achievement Award.
He served on the board of Netcare for 17 years. Fellow Netcare board member and friend, advocate Kgomotso Moroka said, “I got to know Meyer as a university student through my parents who were anti-apartheid activists. He was committed to fighting apartheid in the most practical way possible through upliftment and training. More than anything, he was forthright and spoke his mind, and was impassioned about what he believed in,” Moroka said.
Dr Richard Friedland, group chief executive of Netcare and a close friend of Kahn said, “He was my mentor, and a rock to me.
“I recall turning to Meyer when I was dealing with a business problem, needing his wisdom and advice. After listening to me he asked, ‘Richard are you standing in your office?’ To which I replied I was. He then asked if I could do him a favour and look out the window, look at the sky, and see if the sun was shining, to which I replied it was. He then said “goodbye”, and that was that.
“From this, I learned the meaning of perspective from him, and that the crisis wasn’t the end of the world, the sun would still shine, I just needed to get on with the problem and fix it. He trusted management to do that.
“Meyer could see the big picture. He had no fear or favour, and told the truth, whether it was offensive or not. You could bring a problem to him, and within a millisecond he could hone into what the solution was,” said Friedland.
Sacks, who was also the co-founder and executive chairperson of the Netcare Hospital Group, said, “I first met Meyer during our December summer holiday in 1985 at the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay. This was a regular holiday destination for both our families.”
Together, Sacks and Kahn acquired a cash shell on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), and initiated the acquisition of Medscheme, which today is the largest medical administrator in South Africa.
“In 2015, as the first JSE-listed special purpose acquisition company, Meyer was the automatic choice for non-executive director for Capital Appreciation Limited. His contribution to the company, through his strategic thinking, marketing skills, sound direction, guidance, and advice, was typically Meyer, always superior and creatively instructive,” Sacks said.
Masinter approached Kahn in 1988 when Chabad was going through financial turbulence. “Chabad was fighting for its survival, and Kahn immediately rose to the challenge,” Masinter said.
So began the Chabad Miracle Drive with Kahn as its chairperson, a charity that continues to help the Jewish community and communities at large.
“Pirkei Avot is that part of Jewish law that teaches you how to be a mensch,” Masinter said. “Meyer Kahn was the embodiment of the principles of Pirkei Avot and in my view, because of his wisdom, empathy, and humility, he could have written many of them.”
Kahn is survived by his wife Lynette, daughters Deanne and Hayley, their husbands, his grandchildren, and extended family.