Anton Rupert: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

Anton Rupert, who died last week, was an entrepreneur in the true sense of the word. He was born during the latter part of the heyday of economic theorising over entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial profit (1890-1920). As a student, Dr Rupert may have come across some of these theories but he set about building his own extremely successful entrepreneurial philosophy.

It was because he possessed the rare and much misunderstood entrepreneurial spirit that the young Rupert started manufacturing cigarettes in his garage and peddling them to consumers. He saw and grasped an opportunity that others had not recognised, which is the true essence of entrepreneurship, risking the little he had to pursue his objective. Most importantly, throughout his life Anton Rupert remained supremely conscious that success depended on satisfying the wants of consumers. It was this insight that made the Rembrandt Group outstanding marketers and gave it an edge over competitors.

Another characteristic that set him apart from other businessmen was his belief in partnership and co-operation rather than potentially destructive rivalry. This allowed his group to acquire interests in companies that would otherwise not have been possible. Instead of attempting to purchase a dominant 51% of a company, Rembrandt would offer to buy exactly 50%. His explanation was that this would encourage both parties to act in the interests of the company. The obvious question was: ‘What if there is something that one of us wants to do that the other does not?’ His answer was clear and direct: ‘Then it does not happen. However, neither of us will be so foolish as to obstruct what is clearly in our mutual interest.’ His was a simple, honest and successful approach to co-operation for mutual benefit.

The Free Market Foundation (FMF), from its inception, had close ties with Dr Rupert and the Rembrandt Group. Dr Rupert’s friend and partner, Dirk Hertzog, then Deputy Chair of Rembrandt, was directly responsible for restructuring the fledgling Foundation into an influential national body. Dirk Hertzog became President of the Foundation, a position he held until his death in 1991.

Anton Rupert flourished as an entrepreneur despite having to contend with the intervensionism of apartheid, which undermined the spirit of enterprise. It was apartheid’s negative consequences for the economy that motivated Anton Rupert and Harry Oppenheimer to create the FMF’s Board of Patrons, a group of eminent South Africans who supported a market economy as an alternative to national socialism. They lent their names to our organisation with the injunction to promote economic freedom for all South Africans, a function that other national bodies could not perform.

Rupert’s contributions to nature conservation, promotion of the arts and culture, support for education and small business, and involvement in the preservation of historical buildings, are all symptomatic of the caring nature and fundamental decency of this giant of a man. However, his greatest achievement and contribution to society was being a successful entrepreneur, which provided him with the resources with which to make these other contributions. Starting from small beginnings, recognising and utilising opportunities, and working tirelessly to build a global organisation, he demonstrated what a single individual can achieve through entrepreneurship, vision and values. His generosity of spirit was characterised by the fact that he attributed to almost everyone the virtues of honesty, perseverance and doing business with integrity.

He rejected the trappings that are generally associated with great wealth and continued to work from modest offices and live in the family home in Stellenbosch that he occupied for many years. In this he shared a trait that is characteristic of many great entrepreneurs: they prefer a relatively simple life. Their consuming passion is the discovery and utilisation of opportunities for wealth creation, not the lifestyle that most people associate with the possession of great wealth.

All decent South Africans are proud to claim Anton Rupert as one of their own, a statement that can be made about very few people. Our sympathies go to his family. We grieve with them his passing while we salute his huge contribution to the economy and life of this country. Rest in peace, Anton Rupert, entrepreneur extraordinaire.

Authors: Temba Nolutshungu, Leon Louw and Eustace Davie are directors of the Free Market Foundation. This tribute may be republished without prior consent but with reference to its source.

FMF Feature Article/ 24 January 2006

Help FMF promote the rule of law, personal liberty, and economic freedom become an individual member / donor HERE ... become a corporate member / donor HERE