The man who built a global empire out of glass
Ronnie Lubner was the visionary, strategist and dealmaker behind the PG Group, but he also had a famously huge heart
Former Sunday Times Businessman of the Year Ronnie Lubner, who died in Plettenburg Bay on December 27 2018 at the age of 84, turned a small family business into the largest timber and glass conglomerate in Southern Africa. He then grew the PG Group into the world’s leading vehicle glass repair and replacement business.
Belron, which he started in the early 1970s as the international arm of the group, employs 30,000 people in 28 countries and generates sales of R64bn a year.
His brother and lifelong business partner, Bertie, died in 2016 at the age of 85. They were a formidable team both in business and philanthropy. Bertie, who headed the timber side of the business in SA, was the more high-profile of the two. He was the networker, the stakeholder relations man, better at interfacing with staff and more involved in the sociopolitical environment.
Ronnie was the visionary, strategist and dealmaker. He could see where things were going in the long term and get into markets before anyone else. He took the company global, starting with Australia in 1971 and followed by the UK, Europe and the US, as a way of hedging the SA business against apartheid-era sanctions.
He had nerves of steel, frequently backing his own hunches to do deals which others advised strongly against. “I don’t know much about the business but I like the guy, so let’s back him,” he’d say.
Unlike Bertie, who got a good matric and a BCom at the University of the Witwatersrand, Ronnie, born in Johannesburg on January 17 1934, never toed the line.
He boasted that he was kicked out of some of the best schools in Johannesburg. In fact, five schools asked him to leave for various misdemeanours, including smoking, bunking and a cavalier attitude to studying. After matriculating – there is some confusion as to which school he finished up at – he joined the family business as a clerk in 1952. Ten years later, his entrepreneurial instincts surfaced when he persuaded his more conservative, risk-averse father Morrie to take over a rival company, the much larger Express Glass, which he told his father would be an increasing threat to their operation. Morrie Lubner had started the Johannesburg branch of Plate Glass in 1922. When it became bigger than the rest of the group, which was founded by the Brodie family in Cape Town in 1897, he took equity control. Prompted by Ronnie, Plate Glass took swift advantage of a management dispute at Express Glass to step in with a buyout offer in 1962. This was considered an extremely cheeky, not to say risky move. As would often be the case with Ronnie, it turned out to be an inspired one. In the mid-1980s, he paid £1m for a loss-making vehicle windshield business in the UK, after being strongly advised he’d be throwing the money away. He liked the MD, he said. This became Autoglass, a huge business in the UK and the foundation of Belron’s success.
In 1992, also against strong advice, he bought out Pilkington, at the time the world’s biggest glass maker, with which PG Group had merged in 1983 to create Glass SA. For a relatively small SA retail business with little manufacturing background to take on the biggest glass manufacturing company in the world was considered a spectacularly high-risk and ballsy thing to do. But with this move, PG became the glass industry of Southern Africa. At about the same time, Ronnie was selling control of the company to SA Breweries. He recalled later that he had “the devil’s own job to talk down the price to Pilkington and talk up the price to SAB all at the same time”.
Ronnie’s dealmaking appetite was well known. He and PG Group – of which he remained chairman until his death – attracted a steady stream of suitors and supplicants. He’d hear them out and if his answer was no, as it usually was, he let them down gently.
“If the phone doesn’t ring you’ll know it’s me,” was his favourite line as he showed them out the door.
Although Bertie was more involved on the philanthropic side, Ronnie supported his brother’s many projects to the hilt. He remained a generous funder of Afrika Tikkun, founded by Bertie in 1995 to provide education, health and social services to Aids orphans.
Closest to his heart as someone who loved music was the Field Band Foundation, which he and Bertie started with a R6m donation in 1997. It runs 48 college-style bands in townships across the country, providing musical training, life skills and a sense of purpose, pride and hope to 80,000 young people. The Ronnie and Rhona Lubner Trust remains a generous funder of the foundation.
The trust also established the Make An Immediate Difference Foundation which has given financial contributions to hundreds of needy individuals and NGOs with minimal interrogation as to their motives or administration and no reporting requirements. Ronnie argued that it was ridiculous to expect impoverished individuals or organisations to use their limited energy and resources to jump through hoops to satisfy the suspicions of prospective donors.
“It’s not likely to go to waste is it?” he said. Ronnie, who’d been physically frail for some time but as mentally sharp as ever, died in hospital after falling at the family holiday home in Plett after Christmas. He is survived by three children. Rhona, his wife of 60 years, died in September 2018.