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From the “On the Contrary” column – A tale of brilliance and human frailty

A Prosperous New Year to you, dear reader! My wish is that 2023 will bring you happiness and good health. 

We could look at the year ahead and the ANC’s BBBEE and cadre deployment disaster, but instead of ruining the season of goodwill, I’d rather revisit one of the most fascinating business stories I know – the true story of Bob Aldworth, banker, visionary, leader, lover, loser, winner.

Late in life he wrote The Infernal Tower, with Jeremy Gordin and Benjamin Trisk (1996 Johannesburg: Contra Press), and I am indebted to the authors for their record. This is what happened:

Bob Aldworth entered banking at 22, as trainee with Barclays (now FNB). In 1960 he was included in a team that would plan and implement decimalisation. That done, he joined a team reviewing the bank’s systems, where he realised computerisation was the future. He set out his ideas in writing and was asked to do a presentation. 

Having convinced management, he attended the 1961 American Bankers Conference on Automation. Then information gathering at Barclays UK. Back home, he started implementing.

After a stint in New York, 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 him. At 44 Bob Aldworth was the youngest chief executive of a major bank in the land. 

By 1982 he was Marketing Man of the Year and Business Times Businessman of the Year. The Sunday Times reported that in those six years Bob Aldworth had increased total assets by 260%, net income and earnings per share by 280%, dividends by 332% and return on shareholders’ funds to almost 20%. In 1982 alone, profits had grown by 80%.

He was also having an affair with Sandra van der Merwe, a glamorous marketing consultant and academic at Wits Business School. And married, as was Aldworth. This would change his career and his life: The first week of 1983 saw him leaving the bank he headed – the affair was all over the gossip pages.

He settled in Jeffreys Bay on the Eastern Cape coast and two years later married his second wife, Marie. When Absa was formed in 1991, he returned as senior executive at United Bank, then managing director of Allied Bank and soon executive director of Absa corporate banking.

Bob Aldworth was back. But in 1993 he resigned.

Absa came at him with a vengeance. Details of the criminal charges were complicated as no self-enrichment happened. Then the state withdrew nine charges involving some R8 million.  Only one remained, a R414 000 Allied loan to a close corporation of which Aldworth was a member. He was fined R100 000 or two years in prison, plus a suspended sentence of five years. 

Bob and Marie returned to Spain, where they had spent much of their time before the trial. Despite ill health, Bob Aldworth lived another thirteen years and died in May 2009. 

Personally, I hope those were the happiest years of his life.

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