Activist Shareholders: Hear Them, Don't Necessarily Heed Them

January 1987 and South Africa was burning. The eyes of the free world transfixed on a country in turmoil -- declared state of emergency, mounting Anti-apartheid protests and a contentious national election come May. Three months earlier the United States Congress placed economic sanctions on the country and US businesses were exiting in droves under activist pressure.

The company I worked for, The Ogilvy Group was feeling that activist pressure. Ogilvy had a minority interest in the finest advertising agency in South Africa (Ogilvy & Mather, Rightford, Searle-Tripp, Makin -- "O&M, SA"). We were on notice that this link in our global service network would be at issue in our April Annual Shareholders Meeting.

The situation made a high-stakes chore for me. Twenty-nine years old, sitting in Ogilvy's global headquarters, in New York City, my role as Vice President/Director Financial Analysis put me in occasional contact with our shareholders, as well as the Wall Street analysts covering our stock. Plus I had responsibility for compiling and filing the annual report ensuring Ogilvy's adherence to the Sullivan Principles -- an anti-apartheid code of conduct for US businesses operating in South Africa.

In the week following another necklace killing (gasoline-soaked tire placed around a person's neck, then set ablaze) in Soweto, our CEO, Bill Phillips, called me to his office. Bill informed that he'd be going to South Africa in March and that I'd better apply for a visa because I was too.

Bill explained that he had great respect and admiration for our South African CEO, Bob Rightford, and the entire O&M, SA team but the divestiture heat was high. Not just from shareholders but also from some of our own people; in particular a pair of accomplished and highly respected Ogilvy New York executives -- General Counsel, Elaine Reiss and Director of Human Resources, Fran Devereux. As a result, Bill wanted to assess the situation on the ground before the Annual Shareholders Meeting.

Regarding my mission he said:

While I'm there everyone is going to want a piece of, clients, staff...I'll be tightly scheduled all over the country. I want you to travel about the Johannesburg and Cape Town to the staff, gauge the feel...get out into the country...observe...speak to people...then put it in a report. See what you may be asked to speak up at the Shareholders Meeting as someone, besides me, who took a recent look around. You've got the experience and moxie to handle it and we certainly both know you're a man of your own opinions.

I wasn't sure if I'd just been complimented or insulted but I couldn't argue. Long ago I'd learned personal agendas and blind followers reside in all emotional causes. Always best to ignore the mouthpieces. Then calmly and pragmatically dissect the situation to one's own conclusions.

The South African Consulate approved my visa on February 12th. Bill and I flew out of JFK, on Sunday evening March 15th, to Brazil, then on to Johannesburg. Arriving in South Africa sometime in the wee hours of Tuesday March 17th. Halfway round the globe the hard way, as the US sanctions wouldn't allow direct flights to South Africa. After five chock full days, the return route would be via London.

Upon hotel arrival I was warned not to venture in certain directions after dark. As a white businessman I'd be a prime target for gang muggers. Ominous but I would have offered the same advise about some New York neighborhoods.

After a brief sleep it was off to O&M, SA's Johannesburg office. Bill was right; everyone wanted a piece of him. During our stay in South Africa we were only in the same place, at the same time, once, for maybe an hour.

As was the plan, I was on my own agenda but that didn't mean people were ignoring me. They were full of ideas on what I should explore, happy to entertain me and freely shared their thoughts and experiences.

I spent day one roaming the office, chatting with a variety of the staff -- rank, age, race, gender and job function -- to take in whatever they wanted to share about their country and our operation there. A highlight was an early dinner with a group of them. There was clear camaraderie. They shared a big laugh over my near collapse accompanying office head, John Little, on his ritualistic midday run. Jet lag, ego and the 5,750-foot elevation got the better of me as I attempted to keep-up with John, a very fit runner.

Back at the hotel, before turning in, I thought I'd pop into the bar for a beer, unwind and interact with the travelling business crowd. I asked the bellman to point me to the bar. He asked, "pub or ladies' bar?" Puzzled, I asked the difference. He explained the "pub" was where men went to throw them back and the "ladies bar" was a more genteel environment for men and women to socialize. I had a beer in each to take in the scenes. As advertised, thinking, "What would Gloria Steinem say?"

The next day I asked to be driven to Soweto. My request surprised, but I insisted. The task fell to Harry Opheim and Peter Vundla. Harry was a sage, old, white businessman and Peter a very-well-thought-of, black, senior account handler. Shamefully, it occurred to me we had plenty of the former, few of the latter, in Ogilvy's New York office.

It was drizzling as we pulled up outside Soweto. I exited the car and looking downhill I could see people standing in line. Peter explained that it was pensioners waiting for their pay. I grabbed my camera and headed on down the hill. My guides suggested I not do that, neither of them following me.

About fifty yards in I started to take photos. Out of nowhere a large Afrikaans soldier, toting an assault rifle, was heading my way. He barked about the camera. I advised I was an American ad executive and neither of us wanted a global headline. Then I ignored him, took a few more photos and headed back up to my colleagues, much to everyone's relief.

We also got down to Pretoria, about thirty-five miles from Johannesburg and the executive capital of the country. There I witnessed a lively political rally in Church Square.

Observations? Three things I already knew -- force is a soldier's first instinct, oppression is a government skill and segregation is always wrong. And one I didn't -- Soweto was no heaven on earth but I'd seen as bad or worse living conditions in other third world countries. The favelas of Brazil came to mind.

The next day I went on to Cape Town for similar observation and fact-finding -- Impressions:

· The airport had soldiers posted throughout, assault weapons in hand. Eye-opening then. Today a global reality.

· A day roaming this O&M, SA office, chatting with a variety of that staff, followed by dinner with a group of them. Remarkable consistency to my Johannesburg experience.

· A long, fascinating talk with O&M, SA's CFO, Preston Robertson. In younger days Preston was a member of the Rhodesian National Rugby Team. It was interesting to hear him recount the transition from Rhodesia to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

· I toured Stellenbosch University and the famous vineyards nearby. The moment someone learned I was an American I got an earful -- mostly lecture style -- covering the full spectrum, progressive to bigoted.

· On the last day the office running team took me for a jog around the Cape. All having heard of my Johannesburg mishap. Now adapted, I put them away, to some shock and smiles.

The funniest and in some ways most enlightening moment of the trip was one I shared with Bill, the one time our paths crossed. The evening before I flew to Cape Town, Bill was back in the Johannesburg office. In our honor, an all staff cocktail party was held in the office bar -- quite a nice one. In the midst of the event Bill waved me over to a table where he was seated and said, "Well?"

I told him my walkabout had days to go. He'd have to wait for my report. But I did recount some of my experiences. Just about the time I was hitting the "ladies bar" tale Bill emptied his glass. Women office staff, only women, swooped in from all directions to see about a refill, asking if I'd like another, as well. Both of us relished the female attentiveness. I mentioned that I had experienced this enjoyable phenomenon all trip, so far. Bill smiled broadly and said, "I know. Isn't it great? It's what it's like over here." I chuckled and added, "If Elaine and Fran knew about this cultural aspect I bet you'd hear it. " Laughs...

Back in New York, over several days, I reviewed notes, pulled thoughts together and filed my report. Conclusion: Collectively O&M, SA was a progressive change agent in a land that needed them. Divestiture would be folly.

Bill was pleased with the report but I don't think it mattered. He already knew what I learned. Without waiver, he'd long decided Ogilvy was maintaining its commitment to South Africa. Something Bill made exceedingly clear at the Annual Shareholders Meeting. Time shows he was resoundingly correct.

Today O&M, SA is a wholly owned part of the Ogilvy global network, helmed by a black Chairwoman, with a black man as CEO. My ride to Soweto, Peter Vundla, became one of South Africa's preeminent businessmen. Peter recently published a memoir, Doing Time -- a title inspired by a 1989 stroll he had with the great David Ogilvy.