Obituary: Graham Mackay, brewery executive and businessman

South African brewery entrepreneur who cast his glass beyond the apartheid state. Picture: AP
South African brewery entrepreneur who cast his glass beyond the apartheid state. Picture: AP
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Born: 26 July, 1949, in Johannesburg. Died: 18 December, 2013, in South Africa, aged 64

Graham Mackay transformed South African Breweries (SAB) from a local business into an international and hugely profitable £50 billion brewing giant. He began his business career at SAB in 1978 during the strict apartheid regime. It was a time when business in South Africa was hampered by the complex sanctions laws and foreign- exchange controls that prevented foreign investment.

The release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990 and the easing of the sanctions improved the commercial atmosphere and gave Mackay the opportunity to expand SAB globally. He had far-sighted and visionary ideas as to how he could fashion the company into an international enterprise, including investing in companies from the former Soviet Union and in questionably stable countries in Africa. It was a bold and adventurous policy and it paid off handsomely – capped in 2002 when Mackay paid $5.6bn for the US-based Miller Brewing.

Mackay was a much respected figure in international commerce and renowned as a shrewd businessman. His genial and approachable personality typified the new South Africa.

“Graham was one of the most inspirational and successful leaders in international business by any measure,” John Manser, who was appointed chairman earlier this week to succeed Mackay, said.

“Everyone in the SABMiller family has been blessed by his vision, his loyalty, and his friendship during his 35 years with the group.”

Ernest Arthur Graham Mackay was the son a former Second World War pilot and business executive. His father had been a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III in Poland and was one of those involved in the huts from which the Great Escape was planned.

Graham Mackay was brought up in South Africa and Swaziland – he attended St Andrew’s College in the Eastern Cape then read engineering at Witwatersrand University. Mackay showed distinct academic ability, especially in mathematics and physics, and joined SAB in 1978.

SAB had become a diverse conglomerate with interests, apart from brewing, in hotels, casinos and property. It was a period of refocusing the assets and rapid growth, and Mackay was in the forefront of the expansion. The end of apartheid and the decline in the influence of the Soviet Union presented the company with the opportunity to expand dramatically and become an international operation.

The brewers and spirits companies of the era were mostly European – Distillers Co Ltd, Guinness, Bass, Scottish & Newcastle, Carlsberg and Heineken.

Mackay (who became SAB’s chief executive in 1999) outmanoeuvred his competitors with a bid of $6.5bn, in 2002, for the US brewery giant Miller Brewing Company. It was a bold and skilful deal and Mackay masterminded it with a rare cunning.

He changed SAB’s name to SABMiller thus fostering good relations in the all-important US market.

Three years later, Mackay launched an equally successful bid worth $7.8bn for the Colombian brewing giant Bavaria. Other bids included the acquisition of the famous Fosters label in Australia.

In 1999, Mackay moved the company’s headquarters to London and purchased the Czech brewer Plzensky Prazdroj, maker of Pilsner.

He oversaw a quotation for SABMiller’s shares on the London Stock Exchange, where it was valued at £3.45bn. The company is now worth £50bn, reflecting Mackay’s acumen and commercial astuteness. It is one of the largest companies with its origins in South Africa, the second-largest brewer in the world and owns more than 200 brands.

After a brain tumour operation nine months ago, Mackay decided to relinquish the chief executive’s role and he retired last month.

Mackay sat on the boards of several international companies (including Standard Bank of South Africa and Philip Morris) but offered succinct advice when asked by teenagers how to get on in business. “Be prepared to work very hard; try things out and adjust as you go; your customers have to trust you, so give them reasons to do so.”

Mackay was an instigator who was keen to bring fresh thinking to SABMiller’s affairs. Last year he was paid, as a result of options cash bonuses and salary, £13.9m. He was also the centre of some controversy in 2012 when he combined the post of chief executive with executive chairman of SABMiller.

City authorities now prefer the two posts to be held by different people.

Mackay greatly enjoyed opera – especially Puccini and Verdi. He was a keen sportsman who skied, played squash and tennis with a dedicated commitment and was an avid bridge player.

He much enjoyed watching cricket and during the South African tour of England in 2012 was heard to comment with a broad smile to friends: “Our South Africans are better than your South Africans.”

He is survived by his second wife, Beverly, and three sons from each marriage.