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A tale of brilliance and frailty

A tale of brilliance and frailty

With the summer days long and relaxing, I thought it more convivial to relate another human story, preferably one you have not already heard repeatedly and this time intertwined with business.

A prosperous New Year to you, dear reader! My wish is that 2014 will bring you happiness and good health. And now I am going to tell you another story about Nelson Mandela ... Come back! Come back! On the contrary.

With the summer days long and relaxing, I thought it more convivial to relate another human story, preferably one you have not already heard repeatedly and this time intertwined with business. We’re not all Mandela, but we all have a story. This one has everything – humble beginnings, fabulous successes, sex, intrigue and catastrophic falls from the highest rafters of South African business and social life.
It is the true story of Bob Aldworth, banker, visionary, leader, lover, loser, winner.

Towards the later years of his life, he wrote the accusatory book The Infernal Tower, with Jeremy Gordin and Benjamin Trisk (1996. Johannesburg: Contra Press.) We are indebted to the authors for their record, but it also needs to be said that their book displayed a clear anti-Afrikaner bias and often slipped beyond the facts into the realm of emotion and conjecture, sometimes to the point of desperation. Given the circumstances, it could hardly be other than desperate or heart-rending, as we shall see.

Briefly, and from Aldworth’s own account, this is what happened:

The young Bob Aldworth’s entry into banking came at the age of 22, when he was accepted in 1953 as trainee by Barclays Bank (later to become First National Bank.) Up to then, his life had been unremarkable. He had not received tertiary education and had worked in the post office on the East Rand after leaving school. But he was keen to learn about banking and at a sporty two metres tall, the handsome young Bob had a presence.

He worked hard at the bank and his devotion was noted, but after seven years and at the age of 29 he was still a teller. Then, in 1960, he was included in a team that would plan, manage and implement the decimalisation of the bank. When that had been achieved in early 1961, he was transferred to a team appointed to review the procedures and systems of the bank, where he soon became convinced that computerisation was the future of banking. Reading everything he could find on the subject, he set out his ideas in writing. Top management was interested and he was asked to do a presentation. This was his big opportunity and he turned it into his big break. Having convinced management, he was sent off to America to attend the 1961 American Bankers Conference on Automation. Then he spent nine months in London to study early computerisation at Barclays UK. On his return to South Africa, he addressed the board on automation and was given the go-ahead to buy the bank’s first computer. Computerisation was introduced towards the end of 1963 and progressed steadily, branch by branch.

By 1967 he was appointed assistant to his general manager. Two years later he was transferred to Barclays Bank International in New York, where he soon became chief executive of the newly established Barclays Bank of New York. From teller at 29 to international banker at 38.

On his return to South Africa in 1973, he was made regional general manager in Johannesburg, managing 80% of the bank’s profits and reporting directly to the managing director. In 1976 he succeeded the managing director. He was 44 and the youngest chief executive of a major bank in the land. After that slow start, he had gone from teller to CEO in 15 years. By 1982 he was Marketing Man of the Year and the Sunday Times Business Times Businessman of the Year. The Sunday Times reported that in the six years of his tenure Bob Aldworth had increased total assets by 260%, net income and earnings per share by 280%, dividends by 332% and return on shareholders’ funds from 14.4% to almost 20%. In 1982 alone, profits had grown by 80%.

He was also having an affair with Sandra van der Merwe, a glamorous and pushy marketing consultant and academic at the Wits Business School. And married, as was Aldworth. She was 37, very attractive and very bright. Bob was 51, very handsome and very powerful. This would change his career and his life. Judging by the fond memories expressed in The Infernal Tower, he remains convinced that she was a brilliant marketer. One of the secrets of her success, not so obvious to Bob, was her mastery of the old truism “flattery will get you everywhere.” Proof of that still dots the South African landscape as the thousands of Barclays automated teller machines, now First National Bank ATMs, remain, to this day, “BOB machines” to many people who use them.

Having been Businessman of the Year in 1982, the first week of 1983 saw him leaving the bank he headed – in disgrace, as the affair with Van der Merwe was getting saturation coverage on the gossip pages of the South African press.
Out of a job, he was also soon out his marriage and out of the affair. He settled in Jeffreys Bay on the Eastern Cape coast and married his second wife, Marie, two years later. After eight years he returned to banking full-time in April 1991 when Piet Badenhorst appointed him to a senior executive position at United Bank in Johannesburg, only days after the formation of Absa. In June he was appointed managing director of Allied Bank and from February 1992 he was executive director of Absa corporate banking.

Bob Aldworth was back. But this time it was tragically short-lived. His second fall from grace came almost exactly ten years after the first – on 2 February 1993 he resigned his Absa directorships pending criminal charges against him. He evidently believed that he had been treated unfairly by Absa and argued his conspiracy theories at length in The Infernal Tower. The details of the charges are lengthy and complicated but it needs to be said, in fairness, that he did not appropriate any money for himself. His lapse of judgment, others may call it a lapse of memory, concerned a bank loan to a business in which he had an interest but no active role.

The last event recorded in the book is dated January 24, 1996. But the bottom line to the story of Bob Aldworth came a few months later, as recorded by a March 1996 report in the Sunday Times by Marcia Klein. It stated that Aldworth had been fined R100,000 or two years in prison, plus a suspended sentence of five years. He had entered a guilty plea to one charge of defrauding Absa of just over R414,000 while he was head of Allied Bank, in the Absa group.

The report speculated that Aldworth would want to return to Spain, where he had spent much of his time between the issuing of a warrant for his arrest in 1993 and his voluntarily return to South Africa in 1995. During the court case, the state withdrew eight charges in November 1995 and one more in February 1996. These withdrawals brought the amount involved in the case down from the original charges of R8m to the single incident involving R414,000 and related to his handling of the loan by Allied Bank to a close corporation of which he was a member.

Despite his ill health, Bob Aldworth lived another thirteen years and died in May 2009. Personally, I hope those were the happiest years of his life.


 By Pieter Schoombee

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