The man who built Africa’s biggest retailer

Whitey Basson

James Wellwood “Whitey” Basson turned Shoprite from a small, eight-store grocer into the largest private employer in Africa with over 3,500 stores. 

Born on the family farm Dasbosch in the Porterville district in January 1946 to parents Jack and Maude Basson, Whitey earned his nickname from his bright white hair.

He attended school in Porterville and completed his secondary education at Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, where he matriculated in 1963.

As with many success stories, it was not clear that Basson would go on to become a retail giant, considering a career in medicine before turning to business. 

In 1970, he qualified as a chartered accountant after doing his articles at Ernst & Young and completing a BCom at Stellenbosch University. 

Basson practised as an accountant for less than a year before joining a fledging clothing retailer called Pep Stores as the financial manager. He joined the board in 1974 and remained a member until 2004. 

In 1974, he switched from financial director to head of operations, an office he held until late 1978. In this position, he was responsible for all operations and was involved in building the Pep brand. 

In 1979, Basson reached an agreement with Pep to identify acquisition opportunities or start a new venture in the food retailing business. 

In November, he acquired a small eight-store Western Cape grocer named Shoprite from the Rogut family. This was the start of the development of a dominant supermarket group in Africa.

Building Shoprite

Basson immediately began restructuring the business and remoulded it in the model of some of the largest European grocery chains at the time, such as Aldi. 

During that period, he realized that the company’s corporate identity had to change and that to grow quickly, the focus had to be on the middle—to lower-income market.

A key part of the growth strategy was the acquisition and turnaround of struggling companies, as Shoprite was not considered by the majority of property developers to be an anchor tenant owing to its size and limited advertising spending.

Basson’s first acquisition was six old Ackerman’s food stores in 1984, which were controlled by the Edgars Group. 

During the 1980s, the company tested the waters in rural markets and started slowly closing in on cities, growing under the radar of competitors such as Pick n Pay, OK Bazaars and Checkers.  

The Shoprite Group was listed on the JSE in 1986. Apart from a few thousand shares issued in a private placement, its capital base still consisted of the R1 million originally paid for the eight initial stores plus the accumulated profits.

In 1990, Shoprite bought Grand Bazaars to dominate the grocery market in the Western Cape and began making inquiries about purchasing Checkers. 

Basson’s personal relationship with the then chairman of Sanlam resulted in a deal that saw Shoprite reversed into the holding company of the Checkers Group, and majority control was obtained.

Turning around the loss-making Checkers group was a mammoth task. At that stage, Checkers comprised 169 stores, and its losses equalled Shoprite’s turnover. 

Within nine months, the Checkers chain was turned around, and Shoprite Checkers became a profitable company trading across all income segments with 241 stores. 

For the first time, Shoprite was offered the opportunity to compete in shopping centres that were being developed.

The real break for Shoprite came at the end of 1997 when OK Bazaars ran into major financial difficulties, and a R1 deal was struck with South African Breweries, the sole shareholder of the OK Bazaars chain. 

In 2001 the decision was finally taken to market the companies separately under the Shoprite and Checkers brands and strategic plans were adopted to reposition the Checkers brand as close as possible to its major rival Pick n Pay.

Simultaneously, Shoprite launched its Usave chain, which traded in even lower-income segments than the Shoprite brand, to expand into the township market.

Whitey Basson and Nelson Mandela

One of Basson’s most ambitious dreams was to extend Shoprite’s operation to countries on the continent beyond South Africa’s borders. 

Shoprite opened up new stores in Africa, the first one in Lusaka, Zambia and later expanded into Nigeria and Ghana.  

This did not come without failures, with Shoprite closing down its supermarket businesses in Egypt as a result of restrictive legislation and later in India and Tanzania to pursue business interests elsewhere on the continent.

On 31 October 2016, Basson, then aged 70, announced that he would be retiring as CEO at the end of that year. Basson remained available to management for nine months and served as non-executive vice-chairman on the Shoprite board during this time.

This brought to an end a career of nearly 45 years. He grew the business from a small eight-store chain to a retailer with a market capitalisation of R150 billion and over 140,000 employees. 

Shoprite’s share price under Basson

Revenue growth

Shoprite gaining market share