Tribute to Thys Visser: Laurie Dippenaar - chairman, FirstRand
ALEC HOGG: Last week one of South Africa’s top business leaders, the 58-year-old Remgro chief executive Thys Visser passed away after a road accident. He’ll be buried in Stellenbosch on Wednesday with the company’s business elite expected to make the trip to the Winelands to pay their respects.
We tracked FirstRand chairman Laurie Dippenaar to his farm in the Karoo, and asked him to tell us a little more about his departed friend and fellow board member Thys Visser.
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: He was very, very jovial. First on the personal side loved a cigarette and a good glass of red wine, an entertaining storyteller over dinner. On a personal side, modest, a very humble man. Then, as I said, on the business side I’ve covered this very incisive mind of his. He was just nice to be around. I can’t pay him a greater compliment than that.
ALEC HOGG: He was also on a number of boards in South Africa, you’ve seen in the past where people have departed the scene unexpectedly. For instance what would happen at the next FirstRand board meeting?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: Well, obviously we’ll need to replace him. In our case the nod of who will be his successor would come from Remgro. They’d indicate who they’d want to replace Thys with. But he’s a very difficult man to replace. He’s one of those few people you can say is almost irreplaceable.
ALEC HOGG: And on a national scale, clearly his impact was significant. Internationally did he play much of a role?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: I wouldn’t be as close to that. Obviously he was on the board of British American Tobacco. I don’t think he’s any longer on that board, and he was on that board for umpteen years and I think that is our largest share on the JSE by market capitalisation. I think his roles were very much restricted, as I understood it, with the Remgro companies – simply because the reach is so great. He didn’t have time for more.
ALEC HOGG: What made him such a good businessman?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: I think he had genuine business acumen and insight, and I think he could simplify matters, cut through the clutter immediately. And he had a feel for business and what works and what doesn’t work. You could see it at the board meeting – when he spoke everybody would listen attentively and they’d acknowledge this man knows what he’s doing when he opens his mouth.
ALEC HOGG: It’s quite interesting that he also had a fair degree of patience, if you consider the deal that he did with you that came after a lot of negotiations. Rainbow Chicken I suppose is probably the most obvious example of that?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: Yes, look, you can’t have finer partners than Remgro and it’s really a culture that was established by, I think, Dr Anton Rupert and perpetuated by Johann and his team. They’re very patient and understanding shareholders. Not weak shareholders – anything but. But they’re not here-today-gone-tomorrow type of shareholders. They’re there for the long term, which obviously makes them a very good shareholder and a very valuable, supportive shareholder.
ALEC HOGG: From a broader perspective, what were Thys’ views on what’s happened in our country? Was he a very loyal or patriotic South African? Was he concerned about where we were going?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: Firstly he was a very loyal South African. Loved the country, didn’t want to live anywhere else but here. But obviously the things that concerned all of us, poor governance, poor delivery, all those issues concerned him to. And he was an impatient man in that regard…around the table.
ALEC HOGG: So he had a good perspective, in other words?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: Very much so, very much so, very level headed.
ALEC HOGG: What are you going to miss most about him?
LAURIE DIPPENAAR: Just his presence, presence around the boardroom table or the presence around a dinner table – just everything about him. He wasn’t a single-faceted type of person, he was multi-faceted. So we will miss all those facets. It’s been very difficult to come to terms with this, to sit and ponder and think there is no more Thys. I think all of us have found it extremely, extremely difficult.
ALEC HOGG: Rest in peace, Thys Visser.
An interesting point that Laurie Dippenaar makes there – that Thys was quite focused on the whole idea of proper governance, that people should not abuse companies’ assets, that in fact you look after those assets as a custodian for the people who have invested in the company. And similarly you could make the same point for government assets, for state assets – that we are there looking after them as custodians of the taxpayer.
A wonderful tribute from Laurie Dippenaar.
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And the term ‘golden years’ banned.