I Have Made My Mark, Boasts Pupkewitz


Harold Pupkewitz turned 93 on July 14 and he is still going strong. New Era spoke to him about his life and work. By Catherine Sasman WINDHOEK Harold Pupkewitz still climbs up 40 steps in the morning to get to his office overlooking Ausspannplatz in the centre of Windhoek. In the evening – or whenever his working day ends these days – he walks down a flight of 30 stairs, briskly, belying his ripe old age. He keeps fit by going on his daily walks with his wife, Ethel, swimming – which he has reduced from 90 lengths or 1ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 200 metres daily to 16 lengths or 20 metres daily – and maintaining a simple, healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and ‘a big glass of water before every meal’. “As one grows older, one needs more exercise and less food,” he quipped. His working hours are now more reduced and flexible from the earlier 14-hour-or-more workday, but he can still go up to 10 hours a day. “I am my own boss; I make my own timetable. But I have no distinct plans to retire. It will come in the same way as the nature of my work has changed over the last three years. But I will not do things, which I cannot do properly. To excel in what is good and great has been my big guidance in life.” He no longer participates in running any of the businesses in the Pupkewitz Group stable, handing over the reins to “highly talented executives”. Today, he sees his role as the strategist of the business, giving advice and reviewing the business. But he still takes full control of all capital expenditure – from N$600 for an office printer to large-scale machinery – and controls all investments of the company. “Soldiers never die; they just fade away,” he comments. But before the old soldier fades away, Pupkewitz still wants to see his business empire grow. This year alone, the Pupkewitz Group created three more companies – International Trucks, vehicle imports directly from China, and a body and trailer business. Before the end of the year, another company envisaged to employ about 90 people over a period of two to three months, is another likely expansion of the large business interests of the Pupkewitz Group. As with many other large family companies, the Pupkewitz empire had humble and often tumultuous beginnings. His father, Max Pupkewitz, first came to this country in 1902 from Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, fleeing as a young, dynamic 20-year-old from the Russian tsar who was mobilising troops to set off from the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the far east of Asia, to attack Japan. His father crossed the border from Germany to Holland and from there to England where he got on a ship to Cape Town. Arriving in Cape Town after the Anglo-Boer war, Max first worked as a locksmith, and later found a job in King Williams Town in the bandwagon building business. When Max heard that the German government in the then German South West Africa paid better wages, he trekked here. As the German-Herero wars broke out in 1904, Max established his own wagon building works in Okahandja until 1912. During this time, Max left his business and money in this country and returned to Lithuania for a visit to his parents after a 10-year absence, where he stayed long enough to get married. The First World War broke out in 1914, and Max found himself stranded in Europe, unable to return to South West Africa. His wife, coming from a very religious family, was also in no hurry to leave, because at that time there was no synagogue and no organised Jewish community here. But Max returned in 1920, and found that the money he left behind had become worthless, and the wagon building business obsolete, replaced by motorcars. He then worked for his uncle for some years, saved up enough money, and later started his own business, a small general dealer on the corner of the former Tal Street in Windhoek. Max’s wife joined him here with their three young sons – Maurice, Harold and Julius – in 1925. The boys – speaking Jadish, Hebrew, Russian and Polish – had to start school afresh, where they became efficient in English, Afrikaans and later German. At high school, he had two main interests: sport and working with his mother in their shop. From the very beginning he was a keen sportsman. He played rugby, swam, took part in athletics, and horse riding. “Our principal sowed in my mind an old Latin saying, which means a healthy mind is in a healthy body. So from the age of 15 I lived a very disciplined life. Keeping fit was a very strong element in my life.” In the afternoons, he worked in the family shop along with his mother because his father was advised by doctors to live in Swakop-mund where he started another business after developing a carbuncle on his chest. By then, the M Pupkewitz General Store had already expanded and moved to bigger premises. But it was not always smooth sailing for the business. When Harold was 14, the Great Depression descended. This meant that farmers, who formed a huge part of the shop’s clientele, could not pay their debts. “It was a hard time for Namibia,” said Pupkewitz. “Most businesses found that they had to close, or if they were lucky, their creditors nursed them.” The Pupkewitz business was hard hit, and his father had to sell his business in Swakopmund to generate funds to keep the business in Windhoek afloat. In 1932, Harold went to the University of Cape Town after receiving bursaries “because my father couldn’t afford it”. “All I needed from my father was one pound per month for pocket money. A tikkie a day could buy a tremendous amount of fruit per day. Then I still had two shillings for bioscope, ice cream at a cafÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚© in St Georges and one shilling for a haircut, bus money to visit relatives in Sea Point. After three years, he completed his degree in commerce with a cum laude, and worked in Cape Town for some time, but returned to the family business in 1937. By that time the Great Depression had receded since 1933, and the family business expanded into karakul pelts and wool, which had become marketable commodities. In 1950, Harold set off for Port Elizabeth with 40 bales of karakul wool to sell at an auction. There, he met his wife through a relative. The couple married in December 1952 at the Oxford Street Synagogue in Johannesburg. The Pupkewitz couple has two children – Tony, a renowned photographer, and Meryl, an artist. The Pupkewitz business expanded steadily during those years, and in 1946 the three brothers became equal shareholders in M Pupkewitz & Sons (Pty) Ltd. They established the first wholesaler, supplying a wide range of tools and equipment to farmers. “We supplied farmers with just about everything – household requirements, tools, fencing – a big item at that time because most farms were still unfenced – engines, pumps, windmills,” said Pupkewitz. Also in 1946, Pupkewitz established a specialist building material department, which later led to the importation of shiploads of timber from Canada, America, Sweden or Finland. In 1952, the family was in a position to establish branches in Otjiwarongo, Grootfontein, Keetmanshoop and Aranos. Julius Pupkewitz, the youngest brother, had also established a business in Kalkrand, with satellite branches in surrounding smaller towns like Kub and Schlip where he had a business in hide and skin, and buying karakul pelts. But difficult years again hit. In 1959 Namibia was hit by a severe drought; in 1962 farmers nearly crumbled under a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The Pupkewitz business ran into financial trouble. Shippers from London wanted their money owed by the company, and the brothers had to undertake to repay almost one million pounds – then an exorbitant amount of money. “So we had to show big profits and to do that, we had to have a bigger business,” said Pupkewitz. And so the business grew. Today, there are 21 companies under the Pupkewitz Group. Key products of the group are all products required in the building industry; the motor industry with vehicles catering for all segments of the market; power, civil engineering and water supplies to municipalities, parastatals and contractors; selling mobile phones; and catering supplies. It also has a foundation with a yearly budget of N$1 million to promote the interests of the poor. The group has been – and still is – supporting a large number of small and medium enterprises. “My sporting days are over, but in business I have made my mark as a patriot in this country, who has a deep interest to see this country grow and develop,” said Pupkewitz.