End of an era at De Beers
Johannesburg - For over 80 years, South Africa's Oppenheimer
family held sway over the global diamond trade, an era which came to an end on
Friday with Anglo American's buyout offer for De Beers.
The $5.1bn the family will get for its 40% stake in the
diamond giant could see a large chunk ploughed back into Africa for private
equity investment or philantropic work.
The Oppenheimers have been involved at De Beers since 1927
when Ernst Oppenheimer, who founded Anglo American [JSE:AGL] a decade earlier,
took control of the group.
The family's fortune has been intertwined with South
Africa's history and economy ever since.
"At the end of the day this has been a very momentous
decision for the family. We didn't approach Anglo, Anglo approached us,"
said James Teeger, managing director of family holding company E Oppenheimer
The world's largest diamond miner De Beers was established
in 1888 in South Africa. Its corporate slogan A diamond is forever was created
in 1947, and named the greatest advertising line of 20th century by Advertising
De Beers chairperson Nicky Oppenheimer, educated at Harrow
and Oxford, is a passionate cricketer who has his own cricket ground outside
Johannesburg. He has been at the helm since 1998 and his father Harry was
chairperson of De Beers for 27 years until 1984.
Anglo American has been trying to buy the family's stake for
years but the Oppenheimers declined to sell - even when the 2008 global
financial crisis forced shareholders to pump cash into De Beers when diamond
sales and demand for luxury goods plunged.
Since then, analysts said the Oppenheimers sought to step up
the pace of diversifying their investments.
The deal happened very fast, Teeger said, adding that
diversification was one of the factors which convinced the family to sell.
"This thing happened extremely quickly - (Anglo
chairperson) John Parker approached Nicky Oppenheimer a few weeks ago,
literally three of four weeks ago."
The speed of the transaction meant the family had no specific
plans on how the capital will be deployed.
"The one thing for sure is that we are going to deploy
a substantial amount of the capital in Africa," Teeger said.
The Oppenheimer family holding company already has a private
equity arm operating in South Africa, investing in mid-sized firms.
In August it set up a $300m private equity fund with
Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings to invest primarily in consumer goods
and agricultural sectors across Africa.
The transaction brings to an end the era when the global
diamond trade was driven by relationships between a small group of people, said
Martin Rapaport, chairperson of the Rapaport Group and a well-known commentator
on diamond industry developments.
"This is the final vestige of a time when a community
of people working together directed the industry," he said.
De Beers tightly controlled the diamond market for decades
before changing its strategy in 2000, buying up and stockpiling diamonds to
control gem prices.
For the Oppenheimers, worth around $7bn according to Forbes
magazine which put them in 136th place of the world's billionares, not much
will probably change after the De Beers sale.
They are passionate conservationists and own the Tswalu
Kalahari Reserve, the largest private game reserve in South Africa.
Their Brenthurst mansion in Johannesburg is famed for its
gardens, which have been opened to the public, and the family is involved in
numerous charity and upliftment projects in South Africa.
Nicky Oppenheimer told Mining Weekly trade publication last
month that relaxing is his hobby.
And when asked what his personal best achievement was, he
replied: "Choosing my parents very well."