Pam Golding: 'I have never felt that I wasn't one of the boys'

Peter Bills
Wednesday 09 December 2009 13:03 GMT

She glides serenely into the room, with the grace and elegance of a swan. But like the swan, you do not see the non-stop motion of the legs, propelling Pam Golding here, there, everywhere...

The last few days she was up country, somewhere near the confluence of the Oliphants and Blyde Rivers, sitting in an open jeep, prior to attending the launch of a new franchise specializing in marketing wildlife estates. Late nights, early mornings followed by a long delay on her flight home, through Johannesburg. Such a schedule would test the youngest and fittest yet this eminent South African lady, calm, measured and stylish, simply radiates energy, charm and charisma.

She sits and talks against a background that is quintessentially English. Monterey, Pam Golding Properties Head Quarters in Bishopscourt, Cape Town, has an elegant garden that appears to have been transplanted out of the Hampshire countryside, lifted in like one of those artificial cricket pitches. Shrubs abound, climbers scale the walls; a few peacocks strut arrogantly around, like owners of these picturesque grounds.

Yet the actual owner is as far from arrogant as Hampshire from Cape Town. And why not? Pam Golding never even wanted her name on the company's business headings. "I said, No, no, no" she says, waving her arms in protest, even 32 years later. "But they said I must do, it would work."

Well, it has, sort of...

Pam Golding Properties, started in 1976, is today a multi million Rand business with a total of 300 branches, 186 franchises and a staff of around 3000. It has offices in African countries like Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with Tanzania and Uganda soon to join the list. Then there are the overseas links: with associate offices in the UK and Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Not to mention being the exclusive associate of Savills in Africa.

Pam Golding Properties was the first South African real estate business to achieve sales turnover figures for a single year of around Rand 18 billion. People all over South Africa have bought their homes from a Pam Golding representative.

From small acorns grow giant, majestic oaks. But why the Real Estate business? "I just got this idea one day. We (her husband Cecil) and I were a typical, young married couple with two small children. We had just bought our first house but had nothing much else: no furniture. People told me I was mad to start a business in the market as it was then. But I thought to myself, if I can survive in this market, business will fly when things improve."

The biggest initial hurdle was raising capital, as there was no way in those days she could go to a bank and borrow. In more recent times, of course, before the recession, banks would go down on bended knees for the privilege of loaning the company funds.

Initially, she had met someone who told her she must have lots of friends she could introduce to him, if they wanted to buy or sell a house. Well, she did, but she ended up looking after their needs and requirements herself. Clever lady.

Manifestly, she quickly grasped that others would be needed to grow the business and she employed men and women of fine minds and strong intellect. And she concedes it has been a marvellous support having her two sons on board.

Yet underpinning the whole operation was Pam Golding's desire always to enjoy what she did, to have, as she puts it, some fun. "I have never felt that I wasn't one of the boys" she says, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "We were known for being professional, while having fun, hosting great parties and conference and living up to our trademark - "The Joy of Living".

She denies it was tough being a women operating in a hitherto male dominated world. It is not being swollen headed to say, she insists, that she always felt welcome, always sensed doors were open. But didn't she have to be pushy? After all, aren't most real estate agents naturally that way inclined ? She looks horrified at the idea. "I don't think I am pushy at all, it's something I can't stand. And I feel confident our people are not like that. Pushy may be the reputation that estate agents have got but I hate that image."

She also quickly understood that dealing with the top end of the market would produce the greatest company growth. She has based her business on a remarkable ability to find exclusive properties for people who sometimes didn't even know what they wanted themselves. Like a certain Mr. Mandela and his wife Graca Machel, for whom she personally found a perfect home. Whilst having a cup of tea on the terrace, admiring the view, he told her he would like to write his memoirs from there.

"I was in bed at home early one morning when the telephone rang. It was around 0630 and this voice said, ‘I am putting you through to the President of South Africa'. Of course, I thought it was a hoax" she squeals with delight, her face wreathed in smiles.

"Then I heard this famous voice. Well, I got out of bed in no time. And I had to put on a dressing gown. I couldn't talk to the President of South Africa wearing only a nightie."

Naturally, she introduced Madiba to the home he never actually thought he'd buy. But he did. Another victim of the Pam Golding magic?

What constitutes the ideal home in her mind ? It is the atmosphere and ambience, she thinks. "When you walk in, you either feel it or you don't. I like character in a house and you always find in a home, the character of the owners. For me, that is what sells a house, that atmosphere, not how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has. I think you know in a minute whether it is the right house for you."

But a successful business requires sacrifices from its chief protagonists and even in her advanced years, Golding is no exception. For example, she laments the fact that one recent business trip meant she could not attend her 9 year-old Goddaughter Clementine's ballet concert.

Yet the business acumen that constituted the foundations of this highly successful South African-based company remains as vibrant within her mind now as when she started the business back in the 1970s. "I just think that there is something in you that makes you want to assist people and give them the best possible advice. It is a sense of responsibility."

But also one of joy, an emotion she still experiences when people tell her she sold them their first home. Her razor sharp visual memory bank allows her even now to see most of those properties, perhaps even the gardens that adorned them. It's fair to say that this unique care and attention to individual clients' needs has been at the heart of what Pam Golding International has achieved.

And it has certainly achieved a whole lot. It has propelled her to all corners of the globe, into places like America where she was nominated for a position in the John F. Kennedy School of Women's Leadership Board, to Monaco where she met the late Prince Rainier and his then young daughter Sophie; to the offices of the World Association of Women Entrepreneurs and the International Women's Forum.

In her spare time, should she ever discover any, she is a Trustee of the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust and the World Wildlife Fund, Patron of the Heart of Healing and member of the Board of ‘Business against Crime' in the Western Cape. And she was also appointed Life President of Pam Golding International. The first Mrs President?

But before the business really mushroomed through the late 1980s and especially the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, South Africa knew tough times. It was the pariah state of the world, subject to sanctions and doing business was as difficult as trying to predict a pattern in energy cuts.

Did she ever doubt that she could stay and succeed in the country ?

"No, because it is my nature to be positive, I always see the bright side of things. We have been rewarded by our hard work and effort over the years. We have adapted to the ups and downs in the market and all the things in the country. And I still feel positive for we are only just becoming a real part of the world. I have always been very proud to say I am South African and we have walked tall all our lives. I am sure the present difficulties will come right. And we must get out that message if we want foreign investment which is critical to the future of this country.

"There is only one big problem in my view and that is the crime. We will deal with the other things but we have to solve the problem of crime. I can't bear it when I hear our people saying they've had enough, they're leaving. We must create a sense of comfort for all people, young and old.

"It is going to take time to do this but we have to pull together. But it is terribly worrying when so many people are coming into the country who don't have jobs."

The contrast of the country is exemplified by the reality of plots of land at exclusive locations like Clifton and Constantia, in the exclusive Cape, selling for upwards of R20 million. No house for that money, mind you, just the land.

Yet before visitors to Cape Town reach such elegant pastures, they are assailed by the reality of grinding poverty on the doorstep of Cape Town International Airport. How does Pam Golding explain such an imbalance, one that perhaps even threatens the entire social infrastructure of the country ?

"I feel we have a lot of work to do" she says, the spark and omnipresent sense of humour momentarily missing from her voice. "But we are trying. We ourselves are involved in a development in Khayelitsha, a big project building town houses for those people who live and work nearby. There will be 650 houses and we are proud of that. But of course, so much more needs to be done.

"As for prices, it is like a dripping tap. You get used to it. The first time I had a lovely house in Clifton to sell, the people wanted R8 million. Today, they would get R40 million. And there are houses in the Johannesburg area selling for R50-60 million. A lot of that has happened in the last three to four years."

Yet the danger surely is that a vacuum is being created here; perhaps chasm is the better word. Might not the passing of the nation's father Mandela, whenever it happens, precipitate a crisis ? Golding thinks not.

"I am not concerned about a vacuum when he goes. He has been an icon, a marvellous, worldwide inspiration and I love him dearly. But he is not really a political figure now. And besides, we have to move on, we cannot run to Daddy all the time. This is our country, our future and our children. We will always respect Madiba and it will be a very sad day when he goes. But he would want us to move on and we have to, however painfully."

Where would Pam Golding buy a home if it wasn't in South Africa ? Cap Ferrat, in the south of France, she thinks, because she loves the sea, the bathing and the ambience of that part of the world. There are, she rightly suggests, so many beautiful places tucked away on the Mediterranean coastline.

And where best to holiday ? Paris, London, France, Italy. But nearer home, the Wild Coast intrigues and enchants her.

Her life and times have been a rich tapestry of endeavour and achievement, the whole containing, rather like a very naughty cream cake, a luscious filling of pure, unadulterated fun. And I discover why with my final question. What would she have done had she not gone into the real estate business ?

No hesitation, no glance of uncertainty here. "A cabaret dancer" she says, as I shake myself, as if I heard incorrectly. She smiles at my momentary sense of dislocation. "Why not ? I love dancing, music and singing. At heart, I like to be a bit of a showgirl because whenever we have a chance to let our hair down, I train the ladies to do a chorus girl line. Fishnet stockings, high heeled shoes and a dance routine….

"What fun."

The phrase could be her epitaph.

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