The late Alistair Stewart.
Date: 05 November 2018 By: Anton van Zyl
Alistair Stewart, during his time one of the world’s top business executives, died on 6 September at the age of 80 in Scotland. He was born and grew up in the Soutpansberg and for the last 18 years he ploughed effort and resources back into the local communities, setting up and helping to run farming initiatives.
In the international business arena, Alistair Stewart needs little introduction. He formed part of the executive team of General Electric Corp when it was the largest company in the world. He headed up GE International.
He was born on 6 October 1937 at the Swiss missionary hospital at Elim and grew up on the farm, Geluk, on the Witvlag road, not far from Louis Trichardt. As a farm boy he learned to speak Tshivenda fluently, which he used at every opportunity. This was put to good use when he met Cyril Ramaphosa in New York in the 1980s and addressed him in his home language. The two men became lifelong friends.
Alistair was sent to Johannesburg at a young age to study at the King Edward VII school (KES), one of the top public schools in the country. Here he finished matric and was also a prefect. One of his proudest achievements was when he won the one-mile race.
After finishing school, he enrolled at Wits University for a degree in accounting. He had to take up a job as an article clerk to pay for his studies. In 1960, at the age of 23, he completed his studies and became a chartered accountant.
While studying at Wits, he also started dating his future wife, Helen Cluver. Her father, Eustace Cluver, was the dean of the medical school at Wits university. Apart from being an academic, Eustace Cluver was also a keen timber grower, and the family owned a plantation in the Soutpansberg.
Alistair’s son Murray, who now manages the macadamia part of the Molozi Trust, tells the story of how the courtship started during school holidays. His mother, Helen, had three sisters and the family visited the Soutpansberg during the holiday periods. Alistair had two brothers and a sister. The three brothers would hear that the Cluver girls were in the neighbourhood and would then ride on horseback for about 20 kilometres to pay them a visit.
Alistair and Helen were married in 1962. Their first years of married life were spent in Scotland, where Alistair studied at the Edinburgh University. He completed his specialist business management diploma in 1965 with honours. He then studied at the London School of Economics, focusing on productivity, a subject that would become his passion in years to come.
He worked for a year at Unilever in England before returning to South Africa. His career at the General Electric Corp (GE) started in Benoni. It did not take long for him to be noticed and in 1975 he was transferred to the GE headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. He stayed in the US for a couple of years and was transferred to Miami, Florida, where he joined the Latin American division of GE.
His first real taste of international conflict came in 1981 when he was stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Falklands war between the UK and Argentina then broke out and the family were briefly war refugees in Uruguay.
He returned to the US in 1983, where he headed up the GE International Trade Corp in New York.
In 1986, he took up the position as vice-president for GE in the Middle East, Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. This was also the same time that GE pulled out of South Africa in opposition to the discriminatory politics.
Alistair was still stationed in Saudi Arabia when the Gulf War broke out. He kept the reins tight and, after this period, he was appointed as GE president of an area that included the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Russia and India.
Alistair Stewart’s contribution to GE shows in the growth of the company. When he started at GE, the company was valued at $12bn. When he retired in 2001, GE’s market value was $410bn.
Alistair and his wife relocated partly to the Soutpansberg after his retirement. He took up residence at the Molozi Forestry House, situated in the region of the Luondo Mountain, the fourth-highest mountain in the Soutpansberg range. The couple spent the summer months at Loch Lomond Castle in Scotland, while returning to Johannesburg and the Soutpansberg for the rest of the year.
For the next 17 years he spent part of his time mentoring young CEOs from around the world, in partnership with Jack Welsh.
At Molozi he started farming with, among others, macadamia trees. He believed in learning from others and he travelled extensively to all nut-producing countries to establish best practices. He implemented these techniques on the farm while also experimenting with new ideas.
Alistair realised that producing nuts was only part of the process and that the global macadamia market had to be expanded. He worked towards global marketing collaboration, with the focus on the health qualities of macadamia nuts.
At the local farm he followed a unique farming method by sub-contracting all the work. This empowered dozens of small contractors from the neighbouring areas and helped them to gain experience and earn an income.
He leaves behind his wife, Helen, two children (Murray and Catherine) and two grandchildren (Alexander and Claire). A memorial service was held on 28 October at the Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park.
Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated at the the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.