The Rand Club is open for business – and it’s flourishing – even though everywhere else in the world many old-style gentlemen’s clubs are being consigned to the scrapheap of history. This year, the club is on track to make its first operating profit in decades, but it won’t be doing that from its members.
Instead, the club which was once the home of Randlords and insurrectionists – the Jameson Raid was planned from there – and the target of insurrectionists during the 1922 miners’ rebellion, has opened its main bar to the public and its doors to showbiz, advertising agencies, film-makers and celebrities – and the model is working.
The amazing rebirth is all down to the current committee, dubbed “the Rand Club Salvage Committee” under chair Rick Currie, which took over in August 2016. Currie, who was the youngest member when he joined in 1975 is a fourth generation Rand Club member, the first to achieve this. His son Richard William Currie is a fifth-generation member.
The Rand Club had been actually closed for nine months – ‘in hibernation’ – when a special members meeting was called to invite any last proposals to save the club.
The Salvage Committee approached the existing committee with an audacious plan – they, all businessmen, would extend the club an interest free loan to pay off existing debts and provide some working capital in return for getting a chance to save it.
“In truth, everyone had given up by then. The club was shuttered, there was a residue of staff, there were no bar or dining facilities, but even so we were burning though R150 000 a month. The former committee had concluded that the club couldn’t be saved and they had agreed to sell the building, close up the club and try to take the treasures and members and merge with the Johannesburg Country Club.
“But you can’t do that, they are two wholly different institutions, with different DNA. It wouldn’t work.”
The group pooled together and settled the debt, leaving enough over as working capital and then they set about running it as a building not as a club, leveraging the property asset. By the end of the financial year in 2018, they had managed to cut the loss for the year to R844 000, this year the omens are good that they will record a profit R178 000.
They have done this by cutting costs and aggressively seeking out new business, from functions to venues for film shoots and hosting events. They have also renovated three of the club’s many bedrooms to five star status.
“You’d be amazed of the demand for this kind of accommodation in the inner city,” says Currie, “believe it or not.”
One of the other innovations was to approach well known Johannesburg antiquarian book and map dealer James Findlay, who had been looking for a studio venue, and offer him the dilapidated basement theatre space – at no rental but on proviso that he upgrade the area at his own cost.
“Today the club uses it as function venue, in fact it’s one of the most fascinating, plus James brings in a whole bunch of different people who wouldn’t otherwise visit the club,” says Currie.
The next group that the committee is looking at working with is the Military Associations of Gauteng representing the famous Rand regiments, to provide them with a fitting and central space to display their heirlooms and history, while providing a ready-made venue for their association get togethers, whether formal in the dining room or informal evenings, while creating another uniquely authentic club drawcard for the public.
“We’re looking at giving them 97 Fox Street, the little bar that is an annex to the Club, which has its own bar, on the same basis that we have done with James,” says Currie.
The committee has achieved all this without increasing membership, in fact the Rand Club only has 155 paid up Town Members out of a total of 628 members, the balance of whom are either absentee, country or honorary members.
“At one stage we had nothing to offer our members,” said Currie, “but now we are getting to a stage where once again we have created a stable clubbable environment for people to join. Membership costs R9 600 a year, which when you think of it is less than your DStv subscription.”
Concerns about inner city security are misplaced, he says, as are worries about parking.
“For a start, Uber has changed everything, you don’t need parking, but if you do come here at night the streets are empty, parking is freely available and the areas is patrolled.”
The advantages to becoming a member, apart from discounts on drinks and food and free use of function rooms for parties up to 25 people and free rein of all the facilities from the immaculate snooker tables to the turn of the century library upstairs and the continually upgraded business centre, is the reciprocity with many clubs overseas and locally, if you are a regular international traveller.
So, who are these new club members?
“They’re young, professional, live and/or work in or near the CBD, they’re artistic – and they are eccentric,” says Currie. “Why? Because eccentric people add great value to mankind.”
The main bar, reputedly the longest in the southern hemisphere is open to the public at lunchtime and in the evening.
“Every time I go there and meet some of the new faces, I come away feeling energised, having gained immensely from the interaction, that’s just part of what makes this club so special.”
And, the Rand Club hasn’t just turned a profit, it’s also about to be totally debt free from the original salvage committee loan two years ago, after the maquette of the full size Paul Kruger Statue sculpted by Anton van Wouw in 1896 that adorns Pretoria’s Church Square was successfully auctioned in May this year for R9.2-million, much more than the club expected.
It used to flank one side of the entrance to the bar, facing a statue of Cecil Rhodes before being replaced by a bust of Chief Albert Luthuli; downstairs from the imposing portraits of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and the late Nelson Mandela. It’s the kind of symmetry that gives Currie hope.
“When I went to the Bulawayo Club, there’s a portrait of Rhodes on the one wall facing Mzilikazi, the Ndebele king on the other, in a country that has survived civil wars and desperate economic conditions. We aren’t embarrassed by our legacy, on the contrary it’s time to continue co-opting the symbols of the new.”
With thanks to: Saturday Star and Kevin Ritchie
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