Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|March 11, 2021|7 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Peter Matlare Through pain in the eye of the Tiger storm to success

This month many in business across Africa will mourn the passing of Peter Matlare, an accomplished executive and charismatic leader, who will be remembered long for an ambitious transaction with Africa’s richest billionaire Aliko Dangote that lost millions and cost him his job.

Matlare died of COVID-19, on March 7, one of more than 50,000 South African to have perished in this cruel pandemic. He was 60 and the deputy group executive of ABSA bank in South Africa where he had overseen a massive growth in the business. He was my boss at the South African Broadcasting Corporation where he tried to usher in reform and profitability in the loss-making public broadcaster. An uphill battle, if ever there was one.  

The last time I saw him, at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, a couple of years ago, I greeted him as Mr Matlare – even though he is only a few years older than myself – with a handshake that was still allowed in those far off pre-COVID days.

“Mr Matlare is my father! You make me feel old. Peter, please!” he replied with a smile. That was Matlare, not quite avuncular, a bit more like your older brother.

Matlare studied in the United Kingdom and lived for a while in Plymouth– like me – and also like me he came away with that very jocular overuse of the word “mate”

“Need a cup of coffee, mate!” he used to say to me down the phone when times were tough at the SABC. The public broadcaster – the biggest in Africa – did both of us as much harm as good.  

His career took him to plenty of senior positions including telecommunications giant Vodacom among others. Yet many will remember Matlare for his calamitous business deal with the king of African business Dangote.   

It was a deal born of good intentions. Matlare, then head of Tiger Brands one of the biggest food manufacturers in South Africa, wanted desperately to expand into Africa. For too long, many in business and politics felt South Africa had treated the rest of the continent as blighted land not fit to do business in. 

Tiger Brands looked to Lagos and Dangote; amid growing excitement in the boardroom over a deal that was to make world headlines. The company took just over 63% of Dangote Flour Mills, in 2012, with the billionaire himself retaining a minority stake. The idea was to earn 30% of Tiger Brands revenue outside South Africa within five years.

The mission was to rebrand some of the business and set up a baking business with an integrated supply chain. Tiger Brands wanted to manufacture and sell its successful brands to Nigerians. It wanted millions of Nigerians to breakfast on Jungle Oats and Morvite and then eat Tiger Brands-made biscuits over morning coffee. 

It didn’t work. Nigerians weren’t interested and Tiger Brands appeared to misunderstand the market. Worse still, a board room insider told me, the company sent an old school “double-cuff” bunch of highly seasoned South African managers, who watched rugby at weekends and kept themselves to themselves. Apparently, they struggled to “get” the Nigerian market.

“We went there naïve with no social networks, with no business networks with the belief that because we were in bed with Aliko Dangote that it was going to help us. We never asked for help that he didn’t give, OK, but it wasn’t number one on his list to think about. He was concentrating on his refinery and rolling out the cement business across the continent.”

 Then, there were breakdowns in the mills. Dangote knew every moving part; the new owners didn’t. It took time to fix and created bottlenecks. For every day a 40,000-tonne ship was held up at the docks by a breakdown it would cost Tiger Brands $18,000.

To cut a long story short – the losses piled up for Tiger Brands and it had to sell back its $150 million stake back to Dangote, in 2015, for just one dollar. Dangote turned it back into profit in six months. 

“So the chap who has made all the money out of this is definitely Aliko, but the one thing he was absolutely right about is that you got to have patient capital, when you deal in all of the markets across the continent including South Africa but certainly across the continent, if you look at a Unilever, if you look at a Proctor & Gamble, look at a Nestle in Nigeria, they’ve been there for decades, they’ve had the wherewithal to be patient, the one thing we as South African businesses need to have embedded in our DNA is that patience,” recalled Matlare years later.

Matlare fell on his sword. It must have been a hammer blow for him leaving a job with his Africa dreams in tatters.  A failed experiment that left many other ambitious South African corporates gun shy of adventures on the continent.

Yet, Matlare picked himself up and threw himself into the job at Absa making it a major and expanding banking influencer across the continent. His African dream may have been a long time coming, but I am sure that is how millions of African will remember a life well lived.