The African roots of Forbes magazine - CNBC Africa

The African roots of Forbes magazine


by Chris Bishop 0

Forbes Africa will launch yet another billionaire in the continent to celebrate the completion of our third year of publication.

I can say he is from Nigeria, but I can’t say who it is yet. I can say though the man in question is worth 1.2 billion US dollars after a lifetime of amassing capital as an entrepreneur.

People often ask me what it is that makes a successful billionaire. I usually answer with the advice that you should see the wood for the trees or opportunity where others merely see struggle.

These words could easily have come from founder of Forbes himself, the Scottish journalist BC Forbes who cut in teeth here in Africa. As part of the third anniversary of Forbes Africa I was leafing through the book The fall of the House of Forbes by Steve Pinkerton. It details the rise of Forbes from the job of a junior reporter on the Dundee Courier, in Scotland, to becoming the king of business reporting with a seat at the top table in New York’s finest restaurants.

According to the book, Forbes was spurned by a Scottish lass and decided to get as far away from Scotland as he could and arrived in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century.  He struggled with 20 fruitless applications for jobs before securing a post on the Natal Mercury in Durban; then, legendary British journalist Edgar Wallace head-hunted Forbes for the new Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg.

But Johannesburg was not big enough for Forbes.

“Johannesburg, for all its wealth, had the narrow mentality of a suburban parish,” wrote Forbes in 1903, shortly before he jumped on a ship from South Africa to New York. Forbes travelled first class, even though it was beyond his pocket, with the idea that to be at the top you had to be with people that were; opportunity, number one well spotted.

It was still a struggle in New York, with no job in sight, before to opportunity number two came along on a golf course. A fellow Scot mistook Forbes for a caddy. Forbes played along and carried the clubs and chatted to their owner who introduced him to a financial magazine owner.

Forbes ended writing about “dry goods” like silk – which turned out to be just that – and along the way gathered credibility and saw opportunity number three in the fact he found people who ran business more interesting than the businesses they owned.  

The young Forbes also continued his philosophy of front over funds by leaving his shabby flat for the luxury of the Waldorf Astoria to keep up this idea of mixing with the right people. To pay for a hotel bill that was more than he earned, Forbes saved the money for taxis, given to him by his paper, and walked to jobs instead. Surely any entrepreneur, worth their salt, will relate to this mixture of shoe leather sacrifice and canny management of your path to the top.

Forbes launched his world famous magazine in 1917 by simply seeing those opportunities that others had missed and grabbed them with both hands. So the hundreds of billionaire big shots who made the cover of Forbes Africa over the last three years should tip their hat to a man who once laboured and dreamed in Africa - just like them.