Entrepreneur, business-man, educational visionary, creator of employment opportunities for tens of thousands around the word, mentor, friend and family-man passed away on 7 January 2017.
Born on 10 April 1937, he was part of the generation called the Silent Generation – hard working, family-oriented and minding their own business. After completing his matric, Brian started his career as a pack-house manager on a citrus farm in Weenen in 1954, but shortly thereafter, joined the late Mr Bill Wall on Oakleigh Farm, near Greytown.
Throughout his life, he often spoke of the need to feed billions of people and, realising the need to develop quality maize seed, bought the majority shares in this fledgling operation, at the pricey sum of £300, with money he borrowed from his father. The company, originally known as Pioneer Seed Company, was officially registered on 27 May 1958.
Little did the twenty-year-old Brian Corbishley know that this company would one day become the biggest seed group in Africa; and a respected role player – not only in the South African Agriculture industry, but also in the international seed market. The company grew steadily over the next 20 years, continually expanding and adding to its processing, research, production and marketing facilities across the grain-producing regions of the country. During the 1980s, the Pioneer Seed company stepped up its activities in other southern African countries and expanded its footprint across many borders.
Over the years, Brian continued to expand the company further, acquiring a number of subsidiary companies: Starke Ayres – currently the biggest privately owned vegetable seed company in Africa; Pidelta – a farming subsidiary comprising approximately 8000 hectares of farmland; Kombat – manufacturer of agricultural chemicals; Mascor – the largest supplier of agricultural equipment in KZN and one of the biggest John Deere dealers in Africa; Jupidex – one of the market leaders in the agricultural equipment market in South Africa; Triton Express – an international logistics company; EGT – a timber plant; as well as an in-house printing company and an aviation department. Along the way, the company changed its name to Pannar and then, in 2013, was sold to Du Pont; and Pannar (Pty) Ltd changed its name to Plennegy (Pty) Ltd.
In spite of all this success, Brian remained humble, incredibly discreet and hated having a fuss made over him. When the aviation department unveiled the new Falcon registration: ZS-BDC (his initials) in his honour, he was most embarrassed – he didn’t enjoy the limelight much and a personalised aeroplane registration was far too much for him. During his entire recent illness, even when he was in the ICU, he did not want to disturb anyone or put anyone out. This was the nature of the man.
He was so many things to so many people and so many relied on his vision and business acumen – yet he was a man of simple needs and pleasures: he loved his birding, the Kruger Park, his crossword puzzle, Soduku and, of course, the weather report. He could deal with complex and complicated business deals and see things way before anyone else could see them coming.
His attention to detail was magnificent and his memory was outstanding. He didn’t travel much in his later years but had an incredible insight into international politics and economic manoeuvering.
He has been described as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – this was Churchill describing Russia two years after Brian was born and it accurately sums him up – although he would feel insulted that he was being compared to a communist country, he would be happy that it was a succinct, befitting Churchill quote. He was always the last man standing, firm, strong and assertive – just like any Russian leader; but he was also always content in what he was doing – an example for all to follow.
Friends and colleagues often asked to what his success was attributed. The answer: he was organised, focused, had a memory for detail and was relentless in his pursuit of a goal. These attributes did not let up, even in his final days. Even minor issues got his attention – he ensured that they were sorted and not allowed to fall by the wayside.
He hated his high school days with a passion and particularly despised boarding school – continually refuting that he had ever received an education, yet he was one of the most intelligent and inspirational men known to many. In order to ensure great education, and in order to keep families together as long as possible, as it is intended, he and his wife, Dorothy, known better to many as Dot, created Wembley College in Greytown. He was passionate about this school and it has been his baby for the last 20 years.
Brian always knew that we do not take to our grave any material wealth. Time is our most precious treasure because it is limited. He certainly knew that one can produce more wealth, but one cannot produce more time. Brian believed that the best present you can give to your loved ones is your time – and all who knew him could always count on him giving them his time. He was extremely conservative in some of his views on an array of subjects, yet he could be revolutionary with his thoughts and processes and his procedures – he was certainly an enigma. He transcended many generations and even had some qualities of the most recent generational types – the Millenials.
The companies he founded and the legacies he left behind will go from strength to strength – there may be challenges and changes along the way, but Brian was not one for standing still and staying static. He will be remembered for what he did and what he created, but he will always remain unique – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
Who else starts a maize seed company at 20 years of age and, through hard work, determination and vision, sees it become the biggest seed company in Africa and is responsible for feeding millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa for almost 60 years? Who, during the course of their lives hates most vegetables and denies that vitamins exist, yet drives the growth of the biggest privately-owned vegetable seed company in Africa which is responsible for nourishing and feeding millions of people throughout Africa? Who, at 60 years of age, when most people are thinking about retiring, starts a school which has kept families together, providing quality education for generations to come?
Brian has certainly left behind a great legacy. Tens of thousands of people owe their jobs and family security to the companies he created; and Greytown is certainly blessed to have had him make it the centre of his business empire.