New Imperial CEO Mark Lamberti, 63, again breaks the mould – no stop-gap appointment

We journalists all have favourite stories about the CEOs we engage with. My Mark Lamberti tale happened a few years ago when we spent a long weekend in Mozambique as part of a Mentors/Mentees initiative. One of Lamberti’s passions is flying, a luxury his entrepreneurial success has afforded him. So he flew himself and his mentee to the resort, leaving well ahead of our delayed chartered flight. When we arrived at Vilanculos to clear customs and refuel, I was surprised to see Lamberti there. When we left, he was still at the small Chinese-built airport. When he finally arrived at the resort some time later, Lamberti explained that customs officials demanded a bribe to grease the process. He refused to pay. So they kept him waiting for three hours before finally realising he wasn’t going to budge. Those with lesser standards would have handed over the fifty dollars. For Lamberti, it’s the principle. A little inconvenience, he said, is nothing compared with the damage wrought by aiding corruption. This attitude together with a positive mindset and a health-conscious regime keeps Lamberti in great shape. So, at 63, he regards this week’s appointment as CEO of R33bn Imperial Holdings as a long-term commitment. A third swing at the big time for the man who built Massmart and Transaction Capital. And who won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Competition way back in 2001. Lamberti’s appointment was a surprise. But one that the man who built Imperial, the late Bill Lynch, would surely have approved.  – AH 

mark-lambertiALEC HOGG:  One of South Africa’s great entrepreneurs, Mark Lamberti, has been appointed as Imperial Holdings’ new Chief Executive.  He takes over on the 1st of March.  He’s on the phone and joins us now for some more.  Mark, 63 (his age) that’s the time when most people are going off, looking after grandkids – and you’re picking up a brand-new challenge.  What brought you to get into the company that Bill Lynch built?

MARK LAMBERTI:  I think Alec; the most important issue in my life is that if we have any kind of capability, we’re obliged to use it.  I was excited about following in the heritage of Bill and certainly Hubert (Brody), who has done an outstanding job over the last few years.  Imperial is an exciting group, and I’m really looking forward to being able to add some value there over the next few years.

ALEC HOGG:  I guess it would be very easy to conclude that at your age, this is a temporary appointment, and that you’ll only be there for a couple of years.  I did however, speak to your predecessor Hubert Brody, and he said ‘no, Mark is going to be there for some years.  He has lots of energy and he certainly isn’t looking at this as a short-term appointment’.  What’s your response?

MARK LAMBERTI:  I think it would be irresponsible for anybody to go into a leadership position of that stature or size with a short-term outlook.  I therefore see myself, as many other people do in our country, working for as long as they’re active, energetic, and adding value.  I don’t have any kind of timeline on that.

ALEC HOGG:  Why are you jumping in so quickly, Mark?

MARK LAMBERTI:  It’s not that quickly.  Hubert announced that he was moving on sometime late last year.  Imperial has been in the process for some time, so from the organisation’s point of view, their decisions have been considered.  From my own point of view, I announced that I would be standing down as the CEO of Transaction Capital on the 15th of January.  From the time that it was announced in November until the 15th of January was almost holiday time for most South Africans, so it has been a period of almost three months of consideration on my part and much longer on the part of the company.

ALEC HOGG:  Geographic expansion is I guess, the next step for Imperial.  They have the footprint in many parts of the world.  Is that going to be your priority, to expand globally?

MARK LAMBERTI:  I think the strategy is stated as such.  One of the positive features about all of the discussions, is that I’m broadly in line with all of the strategies the board has put into place, so yes.

ALEC HOGG:  So you’re going to be travelling a lot and leaving Annette at home.

MARK LAMBERTI:  She may be travelling with me some of the time, but in a few days’ time we’ll have been married 35 years and that’s never going to be put in jeopardy by a job.

ALEC HOGG:  Mark, it’s very interesting to see, though, that you’re picking up the cudgels at your age.  How do you keep fit…how do you keep as strong as you are at 63?

MARK LAMBERTI:  Alec, I don’t particularly want to talk about me.  I think different people have different metabolisms, different energy levels, and different ways of staying engaged with life intellectually, physically, and emotionally and I think ‘to each his own’.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI:  Mark, before you go, I understand that you will be relinquishing some of your positions on the boards of other JSE-listed companies.  Is this true, and why?

MARK LAMBERTI:  Yes, it’s true insofar as my focus on Imperial has to be total, but also both of the other public companies that I’m involved with have established succession plans in place for a Chairman and all of their senior directors.  I think those things will come into play in time, and there will be orderly transitions in those businesses.

ALEC HOGG:  So a new Chairman coming for Massmart…  What about Business against Crime, are you still going to remain involved there?

MARK LAMBERTI:  I haven’t been involved with Business against Crime for almost three years, Alec.

ALEC HOGG:  Okay, then your CV that I have, needs to be updated.  That was Mark Lambert the newly appointed Chief Executive of Imperial Holdings.