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Billionaire Graham Beck will rule, benevolently, from grave

Alec Hogg reckons SA lost one of its best when GB died on Tuesday.

MOOI RIVER – One of the last of South Africa’s rough and tough mining entrepreneurs, self-made billionaire Graham Beck, passed away at a clinic in London this morning. Beck, who would have been 81 in December, was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer two months ago.

A Capetonian by birth and education (B Comm at UCT), Beck is best known internationally for the high quality wines which carry his name. Produced at Robertson and Franschoek in the Western Cape, the wines are consumed in fine company everywhere in the world. Particularly the flagship Graham Beck Brut NV which was used as the celebratory tipple for former President Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration and by US President Barack Obama for his private celebration when he became the US’s 44th President on 4 November 2008.

But Beck’s wine interests and his huge investments in the other passion of a long life, thoroughbred horses, only came after the private billionaire had established his fortune. That came from his coal mining operation, the Kangra Group, born from a pioneering spirit which saw him acquire mines in KZN and initiate the export of their product through Richard’s Bay.

Beck’s billionaire status was publicly confirmed in December 2006 when he banked R1.08bn through the sale of his 60% in the coal operation to Spain’s number three power group, Fenosa. He remained a close friend of fellow golf nut and former political heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa whose Shanduka was introduced as Kangra’s Empowerment partner in 2002.

Apart from his wine farms, Beck also owned South Africa’s leading thoroughbred breeding farm Highlands and a property development company in Israel. He is survived by his wife of 50 years,. Rhona, and son Antony Beck, who owns and runs the famous Gainesway Stud Farm in America’s thoroughbred capital, Kentucky.

Beck, a Jew, is to be buried in Jerusalem to honour his grandfather who hailed from the Holy City.

Although a gruff demeanour gained him the reputation of being an unpolished diamond, Beck was adored by those who were close to him. Lynette Barnard, Beck’s personal assistant since 1987, describes him as “anything but a typical boss, generous to fault, he could be naughty as Hell. Full of life and a man who lived life to the full”.

Barnard, who broke down when asked how she would remember Beck, says she has no doubt he is now “in the good place – nobody who has done as much good and spread his wealth around so much can go to the other place”.

She says Beck’s loyalty and generosity was appreciated and reciprocated by those close to him: “There’s hardly any staff members here with less than ten years’ service – many have been with the family businesses for 30, some 40 even 50 years. Graham was always approachable, never ‘the chairman’; he was always there to help, not just financially but also with any personal problems.”

Alistair Rogans, financial director of the Beck Group, said his boss was a meticulous planner and has ensured through trusts that the family’s wine and thoroughbred businesses will continue as going concerns: “He wanted to be sure that everyone who worked for him would always have a job after he’d gone.” This was typical of Beck, who he says was an “unbelievably generous man – he has left a lot of his money to philanthropy – the Graham Beck Foundation, the Development Trust in Robertson and many education initiatives”.

Mike Sharkey, manager of Beck’s stud farm says: “Highlands will carry on as before. In fact perhaps even better than before. In the past few years Mr Beck imported a lot of very well bred mares to replenish the stock even though he knew he was not likely to see their offspring. The rest of us will be long gone and Highlands will still be breeding horses – Mr Beck has seen to that.”

Barnard says that after selling the coal interests Beck concentrated on his hobbies – the wine cellars and his horses. Although the wine industry will miss his influence, for South African horseracing the death of Graham Beck is devastating. One of the country’s “Big Five” owners (along with Bridget Oppenheimer; her daughter Mary Slack; and industrialists Markus Jooste and Chris van Niekerk) he was a cornerstone buyer at many a yearling sale. Appropriately, he owned, the three-year-old filly by Highlands stallion Spectrum called Prismatic Fire, which hacked home in the third race at the Vaal today, winning by almost five lengths.

Beck’s passion for thoroughbreds intensified as he grew older. Barnard says when in South Africa he rarely missed watching the races of the dozens of horses he had in training. And when abroad, she says, “He’d often phone here and get one of the staff to put the telephone next to the television set so he could hear the commentary.”

Although there is no runner bearing the brown and cream silks this year, a Beck-bred colt, Russian Sage (20/1), will compete in Saturday’s Vodacom July Handicap, the country’s biggest horse race. The family’s other interest is through Highlands’ sensational stallion Dynasty who has the incredible achievement of two July runners from his first crop: ruling favourite Irish Flame (5/1) and his stablemate Ancestral Fore (16/1). Even those with a passing interest in horseracing might well spread their once-a-year bet between these three. If only to celebrate the life of a South African maverick who will be sadly missed.

Write to Alec Hogg: alec@moneyweb.co.za or follow him on www.twitter.com/al echoggAlec Hogg is Moneyweb’s founder and editor in chief. You can hear him weeknights on SAfm’s Market Update with Moneyweb just after 6pm.

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