John Hulett: Tongaat’s deception of my family began decades ago

For just over a century, JL Hulett and Sons, thrived, growing and processing sugar cane on the rolling coastal hills of KwaZulu-Natal. That is until what the media dubbed “The Sugar Wars,” in 1962 resulted in a hostile take-over by a Tongaat consortium. The new company was quick to issue public assurances that there would be ‘as little interference as possible’ with management, a statement belied by the almost immediate firing of its chairman, Guy Hulett and his entire board. One could say that was the beginning of an inexorable 54-year slide towards a cliff that has seen the company share price drop 95% in the last three years and prompt comparisons with the Steinhoff debacle because of alleged gross and continued misrepresentation of profits. In this emotional and powerful piece he provided Biznews, John Hulett, nephew of Guy Hulett and great-grandson of the company’s founder Sir Liege Hulett, gives us a unique glimpse into the history that led to the current state of affairs. John has long eschewed any Tongaat-Hulett product that still inflicts painful reputational harm on the once proud family corporation. He says Guy Hulett instilled in him company values that held the cane-growing farmers, shareholders and workers to be the very lifeblood antithesis of the values the company now appears to display. – Chris Bateman

By John A. Hulett* 

An English proverb printed on the back of a mini sachet of Hulett’s Sugar “You reap what you sow”.

On Thursday, November 8th 1962 headlines of the Natal Mercury read – “SUGAR WAR ENDS IN WIN FOR THE SEVEN. No Comment from Hulett After R19 m. Take-over Success”.

Six large photographs of the leaders of the Consortium, headed up the front page after acquiring more than 50% of the shares in Sir J L Hulett & Sons Ltd.

They were – Mr A Williams, Executive Director of Union Acceptances, Ltd, Mr M G Mackeurtan, a director of Philip Hill, Higginson and Co.(Africa) Ltd.; Mr C J Saunders, Vice Chairman of The Tongaat Sugar Co.; Ltd.; Mr H Brunskill, Chairman of C G Smith & Co,;Ltd.; Mr G Vernon Crookes, chairman of Reynolds Brothers Ltd,; and Mr F S V Gillatt chairman of Gledhow – Chaka’s Kraal Sugar Co, Ltd.

Oh, how jubilant they were when the latest act in the drama took place at 2.35 pm. A  delegation, formed of senior consortium members called on Mr Guy Hulett, Chairman of Hulett’s, at the company’s head office in Durban. They  handed Mr Hulett a letter giving the result of the contest.

At a press conference Mr Mackeurtan, speaking on behalf of the Consortium said: “there would be as little interference as possible with the Management of Huletts”.

How discerning of them? What did he mean by a “little” when the first thing they did was to inform Guy Hulett that he should pack up and leave his office together with members of his board? (the management).

What a big mistake they made by disposing of the management with the most success and experience within the South African Sugar Industry and replacing it with a board of much lesser understanding of large company complexities in world sugar matters?

Guy Hulett

By way of introduction: Guy Hulett was the younger brother of my father Rutherford Saxe Liege Hulett and the grandson of Sir James Liege Hulett, the founder of Sir J L Hulett & Sons.

Prior to these events, in 1960, I was a young man and had the privilege of residing with my Uncle Guy and Aunt Eileen for a few months. During my stay I got to know them very well.

Guy was a totally committed businessman and used to instil in me his codes of conduct in the management of the great company to which he was appointed as Chairman.

His words of wisdom were very simple and have remained with me for my entire life.

I remember him saying “The people that work for you are the backbone of the company, listen to them and be guided by their needs”.

Proof of this are the good wishes sent to him from North Africa during World War 1.

Members of management of Huletts took the trouble to sketch a scene from the North African Desert addressed to SIR J L HULETT & SONS Ltd from “A6” 1st NMR portraying seven Hulett staff members proposing a toast to Huletts with a bottle of Castle Lager beer, by Lt H B Theunissen saying  “SQUAREST FIRM IN SOUTH AFRICA!” O.C. Platoon and the retorts from the others in reply:-‘YOUR’E TELLING ME”, “MY OATH”,”LONG MAY THEY LIVE” G C Jacobs, “HEAR! HEAR!” G R Pieterse ‘Bren Gunner’, “AND HOW!” D M Walsh, ‘Bren Gunner’, HULETT’S FOREVER!, H Millican ‘Bren Gunner’. (what an accolade!)

Read also: Whistleblower Woollam unpacks Tongaat’s sugar coated tale of woe

On the 10th December 1952 a letter was sent to Mr & Mrs Guy Hulett on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary from the staff of Huletts Head Office and I quote:-

We, the members of the Company’s Head Office Staff, wish to express the great regard and esteem we feel for you, not only as Chairman of the Company that we are proud to serve but also as one who has endeared himself to us all by many acts of kindness and by the sympathetic interest and generous consideration he has always manifested in matters concerning the welfare of the staff”. (This was signed by 20 staff members of his head office).

He said: Your shareholders are just as important, every action you take must be in their interest. The company’s assets are their assets, it is their money you are dealing with. Never forget it.

He regarded his independent farmers, the cane suppliers (growers) of his sugar mills as key to the prosperity of the sugar milling business stating: “for without them you would surely fail”.

In 2009, in contrast to Guy Hulett’s simple philosophy, and notwithstanding the fact that the grower’s cane supply contract had expired, a group of disgruntled Tongaat growers, went looking for more friendly and cost-effective destinations.

They were summarily named by Tongaat as the “The Migrant Growers”. With no attempt to persuade them otherwise, and in order to force them to continue with cane supply on unfavourable terms, the farmers were sued by Tongaat. The saga ending with all the “migrant” growers migrating to pastures new.

The image shows legal papers served personally on the author by Tongaat.

His overall policy for Huletts was very simple and I can’t recall how many times I heard him say this: “Huletts BUYS land they don’t SELL it. This is the strength of our company”.

At the time of the consortium’s take-over, Sir J L Hulett & Sons was the largest landowner of any company in South Africa.

This was Guy’s legacy. Now, in order to disguise the poor performance of Tongaat, the remnants of the consortium chose to plunder the “plums” of these assets in order to appease their shareholders.

It would be interesting indeed to identify the area of Hulett’s land, including that of Natal Estates, which , at the time, had already been acquired, has been disposed of since the date of the takeover.

Fast forward 57 years and this once proud company is featured in the media as “the beleaguered” Tongaat Hulett group.

In conclusion…

You may ask, what went wrong? The answer is nothing just went wrong. The company has been totally mismanaged which coupled with reported malpractices, is a road to disaster.

It is clear that every one of Guy Hulett’s simple rules of good governance were disregarded. Surely as “white ants will eventually bring the structure down, so will poor governance and malpractices destroy a business”

In conclusion of this account of historic interest I wish to state that, if it was not the case of involvement of our family name, I would not be bothering to write this account of a beleaguered company by the name of Tongaat.

If Guy Hulett was here he would most certainly be deeply distressed!!

I wish to make it clear that “Hulett” is there by name only and no Hulett, since the time of the Consortium takeover, has been involved in any way in the decision-making of the now “beleaguered” company.

I am sure that these sentiments will be shared by all descendants of Sir James Liege Hulett.

Read also: Aspen & Tongaat… Is it cold bath time? – Ted Black

Further to this, and I speak only for our immediate family, that since the date of the takeover, November 8th 1962, our family disposed of our entire shareholding in Huletts. This was done in support of Guy Hulett.

This decision was compounded by the anticipated inability of those who followed to preserve the integrity of shareholder’s assets. With the help of hindsight, this now seems to have been the correct assessment.

I distance myself and the name of Hulett from Tongaat and state that we have no connection with Tongaat in any manner or means other than the “beleaguered” company has the use of our name as their primary brand. What a pity!

  • John Hulett is the great-grandson of the founder of Sir JL Hulett & Sons (acquired in a hostile takeover to create Tongaat-Hulett).