The ability to respond quickly to what’s happening around you, to deal with people and situations with decisiveness, empathy and integrity – in other words, to show sound leadership - can mean the difference between success and failure – or the ability to survive in wartime.
Bert Cook worked for Standard Bank for 45 years. He put these qualities to good use throughout his long career at the bank, but they came in most useful during the years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Africa, Italy, Germany and Poland during the Second World.
Bert joined Standard Bank in 1938 at the tender age of 17. After just 18 months at the bank, war broke out and Bert volunteered to fight. As he puts it, at the time, “We had to get the bank’s permission to volunteer, but it was very seldom – if ever – withheld. Standard Bank was on the right side of history. It was terrible, individual families were split over South Africa’s involvement in the war.”
Throughout his war years, Standard Bank continued to make up the difference between his army pay – which was virtually nil - and his salary, something he is still deeply grateful for.
After fighting in North Africa, Bert was captured at Tobruk and taken to Benghazi and placed under the control of the Italians. He was put on a boat across the Mediterranean to Italy and ended up at a camp in Lucca. The conditions were awful. “The camp had been constructed over a swamp and it had been condemned by the International Red Cross. I had a hole in my leg, from an infected insect bite, and there were no medical facilities. I was 21,” he recalls.
He does have some good memories. One of them was on his 21st birthday. He was sitting on the shores of the Western Desert waiting for his next move, when a parcel arrived. It was from his aunt – who had raised him from a young boy after the tragic death of his parents from TB. As Bert recalls it, his aunt “was a very straight-laced lady and a fantastic cook. My cake was huge. She had hollowed it out and put a half jack of brandy inside and closed the cake. Nobody had seen brandy in the Western Desert. We appreciated it very much – but not for long”.
Bert says his positive attitude, sense of humour, and love of sport got him through the tough times. He never missed an opportunity to set up an impromptu soccer, cricket or tennis match, at one point carving out a life-sized tennis court between army barracks and getting the necessary equipment donated from the Red Cross.
Other qualities also stood him in good stead. These included determination, people skills and problem solving abilities. From Italy, the prisoners were eventually sent to Germany and then on to Poland. “When we first went to the forced labour camp, we had a regimental sergeant major in charge of us who couldn’t speak any German or make himself understood to the Germans. They sent him back to the stalag, and I got talking to one of the senior “unter” officers. I tried out a few German words on him, and he must have spoken to the bloke in charge of our camp and told him that I could make myself understood.”
These communication skills proved useful later on when, as retribution for the South African Airforce raid on Warsaw, the Germans put the South African prisoners of war down the coal mines, sparing just two of them, Bert because of his ability to communicate, and a doctor, who was a non-combatant.
Food was scarce and was mostly potatoes. Coveted Red Cross parcels arrived spasmodically, and they were often stolen as a result of the black markets which existed at the camps. Bert advised his friends that they should get themselves out on a work party to get more food. “I told about 20 people that we must get out on a working party. We weren’t going to kill ourselves working, that’s for sure - but we might get more food.” To help bring this about, he promoted himself from the rank of lance corporal to corporal by adding a stripe on his shirt made up from “odds and ends” at the camp.
They landed up at a village about half a kilometer from the notorious death camp of Auschwitz in Poland. It was there that he encountered Jewish prisoners, who they called “stripeys”, named for the thin cotton pajamas they wore, even in the most freezing Polish winter. Bert recalls that they were given a big tin container of “soup” at lunchtime, but it looked more like boiled water with bits of grass floating in it. “Our blokes used to take it to them. They needed it more than we did - and at least it was hot,” he says.
Bert’s people skills came in useful again towards the end of the war. As he remembers it, “We must have had about 600 people on the last working party we were on during the war. I made it my business to know each person’s POW number in case of accident. I can tell you today what my POW and army numbers were.”
Following a carpet bombing of the camp by the allies, in which more than 30 men were killed, Bert and the other survivors had to summon the strength and resources to bury the victims. His almost total recall helped him to identify the deceased without delay. He then compiled a detailed list of the deceased which was subsequently handed to the military authorities in England at the end of the war.
His ability to network and interest in people stayed with him throughout his career. He put it to good use by transferring from branch accounting to the staff department of the bank in Johannesburg in 1962, a move which he describes as a highlight of his career. He stayed there for the last 20 years of his career, thriving in an environment that suited his skills set. Standard Bank, a mostly South African bank at the time, had about 20 000 employees.
“I like people. I thought it would be interesting to get involved in appointments, guiding people who had performed well, seeing them get promoted. It interested me. I could have told you at any given moment the name of the manager at any branch in the bank at that time,” Bert says. He was so thoroughly networked, that even senior executives like Conrad Strauss occasionally contacted him to find out who the manager was in charge of a particular branch of the bank.
Natural leaders and “people” people are still valued. Computer programmes like Office 365 are designed to make it easier to network throughout the organization, and Standard Bank currently has a project in place to identify influential individuals throughout the bank.
Some of the things Bert learned during his tenure were to never underestimate a person’s ability to grow and develop if they are given the opportunity and a work environment with proper support and guidance.
He also learnt the importance of education and continued learning. “Management strongly encouraged staff to complete the Bankers Institute exams if they wanted to progress in the bank, and I duly completed all of these,” he says. On joining the bank in 1938 – an achievement in itself during the Great Depression - he had to write three entrance exams, English, arithmetic and general knowledge, even though he had just completed matric. “One of the general knowledge questions was: What is the White House? I said: Buckingham Palace! It didn’t make much difference to my appointment, but they must have had a **bleep** good laugh.”
Looking back, he highlights some significant changes in culture over the years. When he applied to join the bank, after meeting the manager of the branch in Cradock, the manager mentioned in a covering letter to Head Office that “the applicant writes left handed”. Back came a query from head office in Cape Town: “Does he look awkward when he writes? Because the bank’s books are made for right-handed people! Fortunately it was confirmed that my writing style was similar to that of a normal right-handed person and I was duly offered employment by the bank.”
He experienced the development of banking systems from completely manual processes to a combination of manual and mechanization, to a combination of mechanization and the early days of computerization.
One of his early memories is balancing large, heavy ledgers, which were entered manually and shortcast at the end of each day. At the end of one balancing procedure at the end of a financial year, shortly after joining, they were a penny out. “They nearly went bananas,” Bert recalls. “We had to find the penny as it couldn’t be rounded off. Eventually I found the penny in one of the shortcasts. This was around 10 or 11 o clock at night and I was a hero with the rest of the staff as we were finally allowed to go home.” It speaks to the rigour that Standard Bank still prides itself in today.
Another element of change, which is still taking place, was the decentralization of the bank from an organization in which all decisions were made at head office, to a decentralized model, with most of the responsibilities being devolved to regional structures. Bert points out that the longer we have a business presence in Africa, the less reliant we are on redeploying South African staff to those businesses, and the more reliant we are on local talent and decision making.
Bert retired in 1982 as Head of Personnel Operations. He had a sterling pedigree, having served for 45 years in numerous branches throughout South Africa and in London. On retirement, his knowledge of the bank was prodigious, but it is his love of people that stands out. He describes Standard Bank as a wonderful employer during his working life and an organization that has provided very well for him in retirement.
Standard Bank was established on 15 October 1862. This story is published in commemoration of our 155th birthday.