LONDON — My abiding memory of Imperial CEO Mark Lamberti happened some years back en route to an otherwise forgettable shindig in Mozambique. Lamberti, founder of the massive Massmart Group, is a successful entrepreneur whose major indulgence is his love of flying. He had set off earlier than our group and had landed his helicopter at the small Vilankulo airport for refuelling well ahead of our charter flight. It seemed to take an age, but we eventually got back into the air for the final hop. Lamberti, however, only joined the rest of us on Bazaruto island some hours later. His delay, he later told me, was because he refused to pay a bribe that was demanded by the fuel jockey. He refused to endorse that kind of behaviour, so waited out the crooked official until he eventually realised this was one nut he wouldn’t crack. That’s the Lamberti I know. Forthright, honest and authentic. So the hysteria which erupted over his supposed racist actions towards a relatively junior Imperial employee was so out of character it begged further investigation. So I got my hands on the lengthy court judgement and am working through it, thus far without discovering anything remotely justifying accusations levelled at one of the driving forces of Business Against Crime. My intention was to prepare and then request an on-the-record interview, but Lamberti has beaten me to it, breaking his silence with a letter distributed to Imperial staff today. Here’s the copy that was leaked to me. It provides a far more rational summary of events than the version propagated by the Twitter lynch mob. And one that’s a lot more plausible (The full court judgement is pasted below the letter.). – Alec Hogg
Dear Imperial Colleagues,
Most of you will have seen the current reporting and discussion on the High Court ruling involving AMH, Imperial, myself, and an ex-employee Ms Adila Chowan.
It is unfortunate that the matter, which happened during my first full year as CEO, has had an adverse impact on the Imperial brand and by association on you as members of our valued Imperial community.
Contrary to the nature and tone of the current reporting, the High Court judgment found no findings of race or gender discrimination against AMH, Imperial or myself.
It did however find in Ms Chowan’s favour on two counts:
Firstly the court found that despite a nation-wide independent recruitment and selection process,
Ms Chowan had grounds to believe that she was being discriminated against when Mr Ockert Janse van Rensburg was appointed CFO of AMH in January 2015. She therefore was within her rights to lodge a grievance to the then Chairman of Imperial, and she has a claim against AMH for the economic loss that resulted from her subsequent suspension and dismissal by AMH.
The second count is that she also has a claim against Imperial and me.
Her claims relate to a statement I made in a meeting with Messrs Arbee, de Canha, Janse van Rensburg and
Ms Chowan. My statement was that I would like nothing more than for a female employment equity candidate to be appointed as a CFO of one of our companies. In relation to this statement the judge made two findings. The first was “I am unable to find that the ordinary meaning given to Mr Lamberti’s words in its context by a reasonable person, is one that is defamatory of or concerning Ms Chowan”. The second was that it was understandable for Ms Chowan to find in the statement an “inference of racial and gender discrimination against her”.
My statement, intended to indicate attentiveness to the Employment Equity Act and society’s expectations of business, was not malicious or meant to hurt or demean her in any way and I regret and apologise for any hardship that it caused.
Ms Chowan is still required to prove precisely what amount of money she is actually entitled to in respect of her claims in the next stage of the case.
During the course of my 50 month tenure as CEO, our strategy has been to create a more diverse, inclusive, people centric focused business. The changes to the racial and gender profile of our management and shareholding are having a positive impact on the relevance and performance of our group and our contribution to inclusive growth in South Africa. Because of your efforts, Imperial today is a very different group to the one which Ms Chowan experienced in the two years prior to my appointment and the one year thereafter. With your continued support these positive changes will accelerate.
I will keep you abreast of matters as the legal process unfolds and would like to extend my appreciation to the many staff and colleagues who have sent messages of encouragement and support to me and their respective managers during this difficult time.
Mark J Lamberti, Group Chief Executive Officer, Imperial.