Mail & Guardian

Tycoon built empire from humble beginnings

19 Jan 2006 08:14 | Staff Reporter

South African business tycoon Anton Edward Rupert (89), who died in his sleep at his home in Stellenbosch on Wednesday night, was a pioneering billionaire, entrepreneur and conservationist.

Rupert died at about 11pm on Wednesday night, family spokesperson Hans Knoetze said.

"His daughter Hanneli was with him when he passed away," Knoetze said on Thursday. Rupert's son Johann was abroad at the time of Rupert's death, and was on his way home.

Knoetze said Rupert's health had gradually been deteriorating in the past three years. "We are not aware of any particular illness that could have caused his death."

Rupert's wife and life-long soulmate Huberte died at the age of 86 on October 28 last year.

"There is reason to believe that her death was a setback for his health. It was probably the last straw," Knoetze said.

In a tribute, Knoetze said: "The imprints of Anton Rupert's legacy are scattered all over Southern Africa, further afield and across international boundaries. They cover the business world, cultural life and the natural environment.

"They are embedded deep in the hearts of all those who have crossed his path and have been enriched by the experience."

Rupert was respected, well-loved and considered a marketing genius.

"Rupert's marketing genius was widely recognised and he received many awards for his achievements. He had a unique sense of knowing what the consumer needed and that product quality was a non-negotiable," said Knoetze. "He firmly believed that not even the best advertising could sell an inferior product.

As a builder of trademarks and a creator of ideas, Rupert knew the value of internationally renowned trademarks long before concepts such as "intellectual property" and "intangible assets" became fashionable.

"Before his first cigarettes appeared on the South African market in 1948, his trademarks had already been registered in 70 countries to protect them against competitors. In the 1950s, he spread the wings of Rembrandt abroad, because he realised that the world was shrinking rapidly due to improved air transport, television and the media."

Rupert was also considered a philanthropist and was known for his humility, said Knoetze.

"The Karoo, to which he returned time and time again with utter delight, teaches you humility, he often said. If you look at the stars in the heaven there, you realise how small man is."

He wanted to be remembered as a man of worth rather than simply as a successful man.

"Besides his creative versatility, Anton Rupert will be remembered as a visionary, a creator of ideas, a product innovator, a philanthropist as well as a leader by the example he set," said Knoetze.

Life of a tycoon

Rupert was born on October 4 1916 and raised in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape.

He studied in Pretoria and ultimately moved to Stellenbosch, where the Rembrandt Group was formed and still has its headquarters.

After dropping out of medical school due to a lack of funds, Rupert earned a chemistry degree at the University of Pretoria, where he also lectured for a short while.

From humble beginnings as a chemistry lecturer, manufacturing cigarettes in his garage, Rupert built the tobacco and industrial conglomerate Rembrandt and oversaw its transition to the industrial and luxury branded-goods sectors, with Rembrandt splitting into Remgro (an investment company with financial, mining and industrial interests) and Richemont (a Swiss-based luxury-goods group).

Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia says the Rupert business empire encompasses hundreds of companies located in 35 countries on six continents, with combined yearly net sales in the region of $10-billion.

Rupert has also been deeply involved in environmental conservation and his companies have been prominent in funding the fine arts; since 1964, foundations established by Rembrandt have used a part of the group's profits for the promotion of education, art, music and the preservation of historical buildings.

He played an important role in the South African Small Business Development Corporation, a non-profit company whose loans to small and medium-sized businesses have created nearly half-a-million jobs since 1981.

Although he was openly critical of the apartheid system during that era, both at home and abroad, he avoided confrontations that may have threatened his business interests.

In 2004, he was voted 28th in a list of top 100 great South Africans.

Rupert established the tobacco company Voorbrand in the 1940s. He soon renamed it Rembrandt, whose overseas tobacco interests were consolidated into Rothmans in 1972.

In 1988, the Rembrandt group founded the Swiss luxury-goods company Richemont, which in turn acquired Rembrandt's shares in Rothmans. Richemont also owns such luxury brands as Cartier (jewellery); Alfred Dunhill and Sulka (designer clothing); Seeger (leather bags); Piaget, Baume & Mercier and Vacheron Constantin (Swiss watches); and Montblanc (pens).

In 1995, Rembrandt and Richemont consolidated their respective tobacco interests into Rothmans International, which was at the time the world's fourth-largest cigarette manufacturer.

In 1999, Rothmans International merged with British American Tobacco (BAT), the world's second-largest cigarette producer. Remgro now holds a 10% and Richemont an 18,6% share in BAT.

Rupert's eldest son, Johann Rupert, is now the CEO of Richemont and chairperson of Remgro.

The Rupert family is also deeply involved in the South African wine and liquor industry, owning the L'Ormarins and La Motte wine estates and having a stake in Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons (the wine-making partnership between the Rupert and Rothschild families).

At the time of his death due to a car crash in 2001, Rupert's youngest son, Anthonij, was head of Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons.

The Ruperts also partially control of two of South Africa's largest wine-merchant houses, Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery and Distillers Corporation, which together produce one of every six bottles of wine in South Africa and nearly 80% of the country's brandy. These two companies have merged to form Distell.

Among other interests, the Rupert Group also owns South Africa's second-largest chain of private hospitals, the Medi-Clinic Corporation, with 3 900 beds.

Rupert was a founding member of the WWF and it was in his role as the president of the organisation's South African branch that he took a lead in the creation of transfrontier parks (also known as transfrontier conservation areas or "peace parks"), such as the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area.

With an initial grant of R1,2-million from the Rupert Nature Foundation, the Peace Parks Foundation was established on February 1 1997 in order to facilitate the establishment of transfrontier parks in Southern Africa. Nelson Mandela, Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and Rupert were the founding patrons of the Peace Parks Foundation. (Prince Bernhard was another founding member of the WWF and a close personal friend of Rupert.) -- Sapa

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