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Ernest Zeh

Profiling Ernest Zeh

Celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2007, the Columbit group is probably the oldest and best-known packaging and processing supplier to South Africa’s wine, food and beverage industries. This article profile its extraordinary founder, Ernest Zeh, who two years before his passing in June 2009, was still at the helm as chairman at the age of 96. Brenda Neall interviewed ‘the old man’ at his office in Maitland, Cape Town, in mid 2007.

ERNEST ZEH IS is one of those pioneering and indomitable European Jewish immigrants of the early-to-mid 1900s, who fled the terrors of Russian pogrom and Nazi persecution, and who have so greatly, way beyond their numbers, helped shape our economy, our arts, the liberal mindset and our society. Their contribution to South Africa has been exceptional and we are all the richer for it; and certainly, many in the South African wine, meat and packaging sectors today would be surprised to realise the role in advancing their industries that has been played by Ernest Zeh.

Wine flows in Ernest’s veins. The son of successful sparkling wine producers from the scenic Rhine town of Mainz, he has been imbued in the industry since birth and it was always going to be his career. As a young man, he underwent winemaking apprenticeship and training at Germany’s leading Geizenheim wine institute, as well as in Bordeaux with Mähler-Besse and Epernay. But, with foresight of what was to come, he left his home nation for Cape Town in 1935 at the age of 24.

Within ten days of his arrival, his background ensured he was quickly employed at Sedgewicks and later at the Lion Wine & Spirit Company. And goodness knows, a rather primitive wine industry was ready to soak up any expertise it could. Witzenberg white wine, says Ernest, was about as good as it got and the open cement tank was the crude fermentation technology of the day.

Recognising the opportunities open to a young man of intent and intelligence, Ernest plunged all his capital –£100 in starting a sideline business of his own, as an agent for Columbit filtration material in Germany. And thus the Columbit name and business was born.

Soon his fledgling enterprise demanded his full-time attention and he gave up his job to devote himself to growing his company that he set up in Shortmarket Street in the city, and soon added several new product lines to his catalogue. Later Columbit moved to Salt River and then to its current sprawling campus in Maitland.

Even during the difficult war years Ernest managed to sway the necessary red tape to allow the import of winemaking equipment, obdurately persuading obdurate officials that the wine industry was definitely not a luxury as it may appear, but a vital economic cog in the Western Cape that could not be left to flounder and fail even if the country was at war.

After 1945 and peace in Europe, Ernest wasted no time in re-establishing all his contacts and networks on the Continent, and Columbit evolved into a major supplier of wine, distillery and packaging equipment and technology.

Columbit’s role today as a major player in the meat industry was initiated in the late 1940s, spurred, says Ernest, by calls from the many refugee German butchers who couldn’t find decent quality spices and sausage casings. Eventually, a manufacturing arm was started, and Colpak, now a major specialist supplier of packaging for the food and beverage industries, came into being. In fact, a very large proportion of the country’s processed meat is made and sliced by Columbit-supplied machines, packaged in Colpak roll stock film and sealed by Poly-Clip TSA, the group’s oldest agency in Germany.

Columbit has always been a company of diversity with a broad offering of products – many would see this as a weakness, but for Ernest it has been a deliberate strategy: ‘Diversity in a market as small as South Africa’s has always been a means to survival, to hedge one’s risks. It has been our strength, and this was even more important in the sanction years,’ he comments.

And while it may have a wide shop front, Ernest has always been discerning in what Columbit will choose to put in it. ‘I believe in the best. People appreciate that we offer only quality products, the top one or two in the field,– this has been a guiding principle and still is.’ 

Ernest does not subscribe to the school of the lucky break or easy success; everything he’s achieved is the result of dogged hard work and entrepreneurial endeavour. Ask him when he’s going to retire and he quips: ‘I’m too old for such things; retirement has never entered my head.’ Then ask why he still works when he could enjoy the fruits of his labours, and the response is: ‘What would I do otherwise? I’d just get in trouble with my wife!’ But he has made some concession to her frail health and is at the office only from 8.30am to 4.00pm now, instead of the regular 13-hour day he put in all his working life. 

And that essentially, he adds, is what he’s most enjoyed out of his long career: ‘Work, and working to help others, to help the industry . . . this is what I do.’ And what does he believe is behind his long and healthy life? ‘No coffee and a glass of wine with every meal . . . and hard work, of course.’ 

Does he have any regrets? ‘Hmmm,’ he ponders. ‘I was once offered and turned down the opportunity many years ago to buy a large farm which over the years developed into one of the leading wineries.’

With courage, foresight, unbelievable dedication and perseverance, and yes, damned hard work, he’s given employment to thousands of people, fostered careers and spurred several new entrepreneurs to start up their own businesses -– Columbit is something of a ‘university’ in the industry – and made a major difference in advancing technology to several of South Africa’s most important commercial sectors. Oh, and built a renowned brand and company that has an annual turnover of over R200-million.

Ernest Zeh has lived a headstrong, independent, determined and very successful, very long life, but he has never sought out the limelight, preferring to keep a low profile both in business and socially. In all, not bad for a refugee with £100 in his pocket.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, October 2007

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