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A liberal man leading the dance of the elephants

A liberal man leading the dance of the elephants

I was sad to hear of the death of Graham MacKay just before Christmas. As the CEO of South African Breweries he had masterminded the development of the organisation from a regional conglomerate, hemmed in by apartheid era sanctions and foreign-exchange controls, to what is now SABMiller; the second biggest brewer in the world. He also had a track record of bold acquisitions over which investors had sniffed, “too risky, too expensive” only to be shown time and again that these deals added profit and value; leading to a 6-7 times increase in share price. These acquisitions were at first in the uncertain and fractured markets of Africa and post-communism central Europe and then focused on capturing high profile brands such as Pilsner Urquell, Miller, Peroni, Grolsch, and latterly Fosters; leading what has been called the “dance of the elephants” as the global beer market consolidates into a few key players.

It was this reputation for boldness that led to me meeting him a few years ago. I was writing a book, “The Road to Audacity” about what it takes for leaders and organisations to be courageous and innovative and the then European HR Director had organised a half hour interview. Graham was almost diffident in his answers, considering carefully his responses to my questions. One of my immediate impressions was of a man who brought full attention to the subject in hand instead of rattling off some quick and pre-crafted response.

He was intrigued by the notion of audacity - he wasn’t sure that SABMiller was really like that. Interestingly a fairly typical response I have found from leaders of really successful bold initiatives. A touch of the independent thinking was ever present.  At the time ‘Internet strategies’ was the hot topic amongst analysts and commentators.

“I keep getting asked what our internet strategy is” he complained; “We are a brewer, we don’t have aninternet strategy any more than we have a janitorial strategy”!

The 30 minute interview turned into a couple of hours. He was easily one of the most visionary, thoughtful and compelling leaders I have ever met. One thing in particular stayed with me. I asked him why he had chosen to headquarter SABMiller in the UK? Amongst several more obvious reasons, one important to him was one which on the surface seemed more idiosyncratic: to gain employees and support from those who have had the advantage of an English liberal education. I have often thought about what he meant by that remark. I am pretty sure that he was not referring to the outputs of run down inner city schools but something wider, perhaps more elusive.

Reflecting on this: What is a classical English liberal education? Something broad-based; rigorous focused on both the sciences and humanities: About deeper, wider knowledge and reasoning and problem solving skills.

Something that seeks to foster a particular mindset more than prepare the skills and abilities for a particular career or job like a well-fashioned piece into the jigsaw of work. At best it produces someone who can confidently enter into big conversations around multi-faceted and difficult issues demonstrating both insight and independence of thought. Someone who naturally connects and sees linkages amid the noise and complexity allowing the radical to emerge. Is it fanciful to imagine that leaders who have devloped this mindset are more likely to be successfuly bold?  I suspect so.


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