By the time he retired from Lonhro Sugar Corporation in 1994, René Leclézio had achieved what mere mortals only dream about. From humble beginnings as laboratory chemist for Beau- Séjour and Beau-Vallon sugar factories, René went on to become Chairman of Lonrho, an international force in the sugar world. Along the way, he inspired all those who worked with him and accomplished the Herculean task of turning all Lonrho ventures in Africa, a continent renowned for its political, economic and meteorological volatility, into profitable, well-run entities.
Gallic Thunderbolt is one of the rare birds of the book world. It is unostentatious and unassuming, yet it provides for great reading from cover to cover. Through the contributions of René’s collaborators and friends, it effortlessly retraces the steps of a man renowned for the energy and stubbornness with which he attacked life. Gosnell explains how Leclézio obtained his poetic nickname, “He was soon to become known as the Gallic Thunderbolt for his impossible working and travelling habits. However inconvenient or simply exhausting working to René’s pattern might become, hardly anyone ever let him down, mainly because of the example he set, his inspiring leadership and the Gallic charm he used to such great effect when spirits were flagging.”
Gallic Thunderbolt is written in a self-effaced and limpid manner privileging substance over stylistic flourish. The subject matter and the almost maniacal attention to detail enable the reader to relive René’s travails across the vast African continent all the way to Lonhro’s London headquarters. The early years in Hippo Valley in Zimbabwe and the SUCOMA estate in Malawi provide a plethora of earthy, and often humorous, anecdotes of the living conditions encountered by the Mauritian clique. Guy de Rosnay’s reminiscence of the SUCOMA era is a good example: “It was thrilling because there was everything to do. We were on virgin land, there were no means of communication and living at Chikwawa, 50 kilometres from the estate, the reigning mosquitoes wrapped us in one massive and aggressive cloud!”
The glorious pastof Lonrho
This is not simply the chronicle of a success story. Instead, it is a fascinating foray into the world of yesteryear when business was a mountain that only true pioneers could conquer. The reader will also note that most of René’s relationships were forged for life and the respect he inspired amongst his staff ensured that they would always strive to get him what he wanted even when that implied making considerable sacrifices. René had many of the characteristics inherent to leaders and those who worked with or for him instinctively knew that nothing short of excellence would be acceptable.
A key facet of René’s rapid ascendancy was his symbiotic relationship with the mercurially brilliant Tiny Rowland, CEO of Lonrho. The latter’s connections with African leaders coupled with the dynamism of his Gallic Thunderbolt, gifted the duo with a Midas touch that they used profusely. Chris Saunders, an early collaborator describes the chemistry that united Tiny and René: “He was recruited by Tiny Rowland of Lonrho who recognized this man as a kindred soul – someone who was prepared to take risks, fight for a principle, be happy to go to the ends of the earth if he saw an advantage for his employer, and most important of all, recognize loyalty as the supreme gift that a man can offer his superior.”
By the time René reached the pinnacle of his career, being named Chairman of Lonrho in 1991, the company was stuck in the financial doldrums with profits falling from £273 million in 1990 to £80 million in 1992. The purchase of a large minority in the share capital by German entrepreneur Dieter Bock heralded the dawn of a new era where investment brokers decided on policy and the African estates, on which the Lonrho Sugar empire had been built, were all but forgotten. Bock, who had acquired the office of Joint Chief Executive and Managing Director along with the share capital, was to sound the death knell by selling Lonhro in 1997. Thankfully, René had resigned in 1994 so he didn’t have to witness the end first-hand.
René Leclezio’s story is the story of sugar in Africa – politically, economically and, most importantly, socially. His life shows us that no obstacle is insurmountable, no problem without a solution. This is the spirit we must rekindle if we are to have even a glimmer of hope.
Gallic Thunderbolt is on sale in bookshops at Rs 480.