At 95 years of age, Namibia’s retail entrepreneur, Harold Pupkewitz, is not planning a retirement party. Rather, he is laying the foundation for the business to run smoothly when he finally “fades away”, as he puts it.
Pupkewitz acknowledges that over the past years people did enquire about his retirement date.
“I have always told them I am not planning to retire, like old soldiers I will fade away,” he says in an interview. He is gradually changing his style of management “making sure there are executives of the right calibre to do things as I used to do it or even better”.
Even though he is still very active in the business’ management, his way of life and of management have changed tremendously and would continue to change.
For instance, this year, for the first time in nearly a century, Pupkewitz stopped going to work on Saturdays unless it is necessary, or as he puts it, about once a month. A few years ago he stopped taking work home – “and my wife [Evelyn Etta] appreciates it”.
As a befitting commemoration of his life, the Polytechnic of Namibia would today unveil a plaque bearing the inscription: ‘Harold Pupkewitz Graduate School of Business’ on the School of Business and Management floor at its main campus in Windhoek.
It is recognition for the dedication and support, which in monetary terms amounts to about N$10 million, that Pupkewitz has given to the business school.
“My message is a simple one that [it is] the dexterity of the human hand and the ingenuity of the human mind, which turns [things] into productive assets,” says Pupkewitz.
Educating, as well as creating talented and dedicated people who are able to serve and improve the management of local companies and resources, is a faster way to increase economic growth through job creation, and in turn enabling more people to pay tax.
Pupkewitz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania (old Poland), on July 14, 1915. Together with his mother and two brothers, Morris and Julius, they migrated to Namibia in 1925.
“I have been in this country for 85 years since 1925. I have come to love this country,” he says of Namibia, “because it was the first country where I enjoyed freedom. Where I was born I [experienced] anti-Semitic discrimination.”
Pupkewitz possesses the physical and mental strength of a young man even though he is celebrating 95 years. The Pupkewitz Group of Companies head office at Ausspannplatz in Windhoek has no elevator to the top floor where Pupkewitz’s office sits.
He is occasionally spotted behind the steering wheel of his metallic-green Lexus sedan, without the driver, bracing traffic during rush hours.
“HaShem [Hebrew for God] has been kind to me,” he says, but adds that the good health has much to do with a combination of good eating habits and regular exercise.
“I attribute it to the healthy genes I inherited, but that is only half the story.
“The other half is healthy living, the kind of habits like maintaining physical and intellectual powers in their full capacity for as long a time as possible. Even in cold weather I still go for walks and do daily body exercises,” he says with a chuckle.
Pupkewitz is credi-ted for building the family business from a single trading company in the 1920s to a diverse retail giant with over 1 000 employees.
The Pupkewitz Group of Companies now includes Mega-Build and Builder’s Warehouse, Pupkewitz Catering Services, Pupkewitz Properties, MegaCell, MegaTech, GreenTech, the Pupkewitz Foundation, and Pupkewitz Motor Division.
The motor division consists of Pupkewitz Toyota, Pupkewitz Nissan, Pupkewitz Honda, Pupkewitz Great Wall Motors, Pupkewitz Truck Centre, Pupkewitz Truck Bodies and Trailers, Pupkewitz International Trucks, and Pupkewitz Volvo Construction Equipment.
Successful entrepreneurs are known to drive hard bargains in negotiations. The same goes for one of Namibia’s oldest entrepreneurs, Harold Pupkewitz, the executive chairman of the Pupkewitz Group of Companies.
At the age of 95 years, he has just clinched another big international deal in which the Pupkewitz Group sold the retail chain Pupkewitz Megabuild to South Africa’s retail giant, Massmart. The transaction value – believed to be in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars – was never made public, but no doubt, Pupkewitz did walk away from the deal a happy man. Those close to Pupkewitz say he is fond of uttering, “When Harold Pupkewitz negotiates a deal he always walks out happy.”
His main concerns during negotiations with Massmart, he says in an interview, were that the new owners continue to look after the employees and customers.
“It was only after I had satisfied myself that I went ahead with negotiations. I am glad to say I look forward to the new owners offering the public an even bigger variety of services,” he says.
Pupkewitz does not want to be remembered by the wealth or the legacy he leaves behind in the Pupkewitz Group of Companies. When he does finally fade away, the public should rather remember him for the values by which he stood – honesty, loyalty, inte-grity, truthfulness, fidelity and professionalism.
“It is those values by which I would like to be remembered, not the business side that I have been able to establish, grow and expand to what we are now,” he pleads.
Physical things, he suggests, disappear with the course of time no matter how strong they are. “Look at the ruins of the Roman empire,” he says, adding: “But spiritual values, ethical values are the things that persist because they are the important things in our lives so that one can lead a good life being a good example to others.”
It is a phrase well said by an wise old man, who, in his youth, was an avid athlete, although he insists that he is “a very plain man with very few demands in life, as far as pleasure is concerned”.
He does take plea-sure in watching athletic meetings and comments on the record-breaking time of today’s athletes, short-distance and long- distance runners. This is while recalling the youthful yester-years when he ran 100 yards and quarter-mile distance in which he had the personal best time.
“My greatest joy is watching athletic meetings, witnessing the prowess of modern athletes,” he volunteers in an almost faint, yet firm voice. So, too, did he enjoy the last football event in South Africa – “some matches” he says – as well as rugby.
At Windhoek High School, the young Pupkewitz excelled in a number of sport disciplines, including swimming, before matriculating in 1932.
It was only during his three-year stay at the University of Cape Town that he did not have time to engage in competitive sporting activities, because his lectures were in the afternoon. However, he did obtain his Bachelor of Commerce in 1935 with distinction, so perhaps he was just in another competitive game. He was also a very successful horseman, who trained and rode winning racehorses.
He was to carry his competitive spirit throughout his working career, holding three jobs in the private sector before joining the family business. And he does say the third job was very gratifying.
“I think my employers were very sad to see me leaving. Since joining the family business in 1937, I moved from success to success,” is how he sums up his life journey.
The Pupkewitz Group has grown from a company from the old wagon era, with a dozen employees, to a diversified company with dozens of subsidiaries and over 1 000 employees.
“Yes, I am very happy that my life has been crowned with success in, actually one can say, all instances,” he says.
Pupkewitz came to Namibia as a 10-year-old together with his mother and two brothers, Morris and Julius, in March 1925, to be with his father, who had settled here earlier in 1902.
“I enjoyed the freedom, the beauty of the country with wonderful opportunities for outdoor life. I regard Namibia as my beloved home, and this is where I want to end my life,” he says.
Pupkewitz has watched the world transform and evolve as the century turned from ox-wagons to vehicles and the commercial airplanes of the 1930s.
He recalls the days – around 1995 – when the State-owned Telecom Namibia introduced the cellular phone network in Namibia through Mobile Telecommunication Company (MTC). Pupkewitz was a director at Telecom then and went on to sit on the board of MTC as well.
“Little did I realise at the time, I must confess, that [cellphones] would be so popular and enhance one’s daily productivity and efficiency to such a great extent,” he says now.
He then retraces the past, with a subtle voice, as though thinking deeply, of the speed of the first automobiles, the excitement that came with commercial aeroplanes, and the telephone – his reference to the latter is accompanied by a cracked giggle, of perhaps how something seen as an advanced technology is today taken for granted.
“Today what have you not got?” he wonders aloud.
His wish is to see mankind harness solar energy so that people stop depending on fossil fuels.
“There would be a breakthrough, I am sure, in the next 10 years,” he says convincingly.
Yet, today’s Namibia should concern itself with how to accommodate more people into the economy. There are too many people consuming with very few people contributing to the economy productively.
To correct this disparity, the country has to address the shortage of skills, among others. He made the same recommendations to the Turnhalle Conference in 1978, when it became clear that the South African government was moving towards granting independence to Namibia.
“We have too few people really contributing to the economy and if we want to succeed in achieving 2030 [goals], we have to get more people into the economy to correct the proportion of consumers to producers,” he advises. When he finally vacates the driving seat at Pupkewitz Group he wishes to have the strength of visiting the office and have a cup of coffee with managers. He also says his door would remain open for those who want advice. Other than that, the Pupkewitz Foundation would continue to support institutions by way of benevolence to orphans, schools, universities and old-age homes. Four years ago the foundation made a contribution to Khorixas School with a pass rate of 2 percent, which has improved to national average. Now the foundation is training school principals to become managers of schools, for them to apply business sense besides being teachers.
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