Leo Borman passed away last week in East London at the age of 99. He grew up in the dusty streets of Grahamstown, South Africa, born first of seven siblings, to a humble Jewish family headed by a fishmonger father.
Early on, Borman developed communication skills that would last a lifetime. Speaking Xhosa and English throughout his life, he always took time to stop and chat with people and learn about them.
The tumultuous 1920s and 1930s did not prevent Borman from gaining a chemical engineering degree from Rhodes University, making him the first person to go to college in his family.
Becoming a boxing champ during his student days must have honed the reflex and timing skills which stood him in good stead for the full life that was to follow.
After various positions in the chemical industry and in management consulting, Borman was appointed to head up the Car Distributors Assembly (CDA) plant in East London in 1963.
The factory produced many well-known makes and models of cars until finally Borman took the plant into an exclusive deal to produce the prestigious Mercedes-Benz.
His appointment as CEO of this German-owned company was made all the more extraordinary considering the history of Nazism and the Holocaust during World War II.
Borman was not only the leader of Mercedes, and business associations in the Border region, but he also stepped into national leadership roles as president of the SA Federated Chamber of Industries and of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.
Borman’s responsibilities took him all over the world, where he gained the respect and friendship of people in the highest echelons of industry, with whom he felt as comfortable as with the lowliest worker on the factory floor.
As a sign of the respect and success he gained at Mercedes Benz SA, he was invited to all major functions and milestones at the company, even during his many years of retirement.
He played an important role in beginning to use business to support racial integration in the workplace, and the development of disadvantaged South Africans by launching Mercedes’ first technical training academy in South Africa.
He was also proud of the nurturing role he played in the lives of young German engineers. This included Jurgen Schrempp who went on to become the global CEO of Daimler-Benz.
His passion for education and skills development also led him to sit on and in most cases chair the boards of Rhodes University, The University of Fort Hare, Clarendon Girls High, Border Technikon, East London Technical College and many other educational institutions.
His forthright directness added inestimable value to any board of which he was a director.
His sense of civic responsibility prompted him to membership of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the East London Rotary Club, the Community Chest (which he founded in 1985), the Eastern Cape Gambling Board, and many others, including a stint as a budding politician.
He took this responsibility to a personal level as well, mentoring countless people and helping them find new jobs.
He not only took a keen interest in the lives and achievements of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but placed his siblings and their extended families under his wing to provide support where needed and ensure their continued well-being.
His nephew Geoff Meyer said “he was the doyen of the Borman family and his care for each and every one of us was amazing.”
Borman was a keen follower of all forms of sport which he enjoyed watching on his large-screen TV whilst discussing local and world affairs with a friend. His knowledge of and insight into international economics, politics and philosophy remained intact until the end.
The legacy he has left in industry, education, skills development, international linkages and philanthropy is immeasurable.
His loyalty to his friends and family, allied to his boundless energy and willingness to share his wisdom and advice will be sorely missed.
As a former colleague from the Gambling Board, Keith Harvey, said Borman “took me under his wing and became my friend, my mentor, my sounding board and my guru.
“I have never known anyone so elderly who was so sharp, and we could discuss international economics with ease. I have never known a more ethical person and I knew that he would give good guidance with any ethical issue.”
He leaves his wife Peggy, a son Allan in the USA and a daughter Andrea in Switzerland, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His granddaughter Hannah Winter said: “I hope to continue his legacy of being able to provide for those he loves and being a solid member of any community he was a part of.”