Dan Nicholl talks Business Unknown with Richard Rushton

Draw up a list of jobs you wouldn’t have wanted when the pandemic reared its malevolent head and sent the world spiralling into lockdown, and several examples spring forward. Airline boss. Restaurant owner. Event manager. Travel agent. And the industry that’s probably been hardest hit of all in South Africa: liquor. Which would suggest that the CEO of one of the country’s largest alcohol businesses would cut a grim, morose figure.

Instead, Richard Rushton has a quiet smile, and an acceptance that fate has dealt a hand no business leader could have prepared for – but one that will be managed as carefully (with the emphasis on care) as possible. And so while the brands in his Distell portfolio sat idle for months in South Africa, and the industry he works in bore the brunt of regulations that weren’t always set out with clarity or reason, Rushton is phlegmatic about the unusual times that he and his company find themselves in.

“Keeping a positive frame of mind is critically important, although even I’ve wondered occasionally how we might make it through the day,” he concedes. “But I’m pretty proud. South Africans get a lot of things wrong, and we could be more disciplined, but heck, we’ve got a resilience and a can-do attitude, we knuckle down when the chips are down, and I’ve seen that in so many inspiring ways. And I think that’s us as South Africans – it’s who we are.”

It’s an attitude that’s appreciated all the more for Rushton’s global perspective, after a career that’s taken in some exotic locations: five years setting up a beer business for SAB in India, followed by a rollercoaster ride through South America that introduced him to Ecuador, Panama and Colombia. It was a journey that offered business and life experience in equal measure – and the chance to appreciate the variety of Indian cuisine.

“Indian food in South Africa is a little spicier,” suggests Rushton, setting off on a fond reminiscence of his culinary adventures. “Biryani in central India is the best. If you want a fish curry, you won’t get anywhere better than Chennai. The food in the north is richer, probably because of the colder climate, and closer to South African food. Discovering that rich array of flavours…”

The discussion of food in such sumptuous detail has us both ravenous, which makes the presence of a virtually shared meal a relief. And it’s a meal that kicks off with flair: a small garlic milk loaf, with a candle made of butter that drips down into the bread as it melts. Not the spice of an Indian dish, perhaps, but a rich warmth that’s exceptional comfort food (and the mark of a chef having a little fun). Thick maize chips follow swiftly, cut with the heft and chunk of a prop forward’s fingers, but soft and fabulous, particularly when paired with generously cut slabs of dried sausage.

The meal prompts a mutual celebration of South African food, and a rallying cry from Rushton to do what we can to support our own industry, before we return to reflection on his travels, and the seven years spent in South America, starting with Ecuador.

“Ecuador is an amazing country,” is Rushton’s simple summary. “Small, 10-12 million people, covered by the Andes, and then a beautiful coastline, which in the north is not dissimilar to KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The people are friendly and outgoing, but it’s a poor country, facing many of the challenges that we face on the African continent.

“I was part of the team that went into a new business that changed the very fabric of SAB. We opened up a whole new continent, created a lot of value. It was a great business decision, and culturally a good fit. So a good lesson in business, and in life. Having that cultural fit, a feeling of affinity, of fitting in, especially in tough times – that’s when the comfort of cultural fit is so important.”

An important lesson reaffirmed in both Panama and in Colombia, another country he likens to South Africa. “60 million people, dealing with loads of societal challenges, a massive historical conflict – but I don’t think the conflict should cloud the beauty of the country and the people.” An eerily accurate parallel with South Africa, then; also another chance to soak up a culture so different to his own. But for all the allure of exotic travel, he was away from home for so long; what did he miss the most? “South Africans,” is the immediate answer. “With all our differences, the anguish of some of the past we’ve had to deal with, there’s still a sense of humour, a fervent sense of optimism, a smile, an affinity for sport. Friends and family are all attached to that, and that’s what you miss on your travels.”

Travel ended with a return to South Africa, fuelled in no small part by family – “there was a strong calling for our children to be South African again” – and the role he now finds himself in, guiding Distell through unexpected turbulence. So what has the approach been to the pandemic scenario?

“The first thing was to stay true to who we were, and to look after our people, customers and suppliers, particularly our smaller ones. We realised a lot of people faced greater challenges than we did, and needed to see us as a stable friend, who’s going to work with them through a difficult time. We also had to make some tough decisions, and accelerate the process of selling parts of the business and focus on the core of what we do.”

There’s also been reflection on the industry he represents. “We do have an issue with binge drinking, and to exposing underage drinkers. And drink driving is a massive problem – we need to be so much more vigilant, and ensure real consequences for drink driving. As an industry, our programs need to be upscaled, and I assure you, those areas are being addressed by the industry.”

Rushton speaks with genuine concern here, and the intent is evident; there is much work to be done in addressing so broad a social issue, but the global lockdown has proved a time of asking difficult and uncomfortable questions, and the alcohol trade has been much debated. But the challenge of influencing important change is one that Rushton seems up to, to add to the list of important contributions he’s made in the industry over the last two decades. But of all of those, which has been the greatest success?

“Still to come!” is the immediate answer, although with a little persuasion, he concedes that the success of the business in Ecuador ranks highly. But he then adds a more immediate moment that isn’t expected. “This one right now. We have the chance to make a difference. I’m proud of what we’re doing, and we will emerge stronger as a country, as a company, and as people.” And as warm, sweet apple pie and cool vanilla mascarpone wrap up lunch with Richard Rushton, there’s another South African business leader to add to the list of those who firmly believe in South Africa’s future.

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