benjamin Trisk
Benjamin Trisk, the new part-owner and CEO of CNA. Photo: Exclusive Books
  • The new CEO – and part-owner – of the CNA chain has big plans to stock the stores with books in African languages.
  • Benjamin Trisk, the former CEO of Exclusive Books,worked for months on crafting an offer to buy the CNA chain from Edcon.
  • Edcon – owner of Edgars and Jet – has been struggling for survival, with billions in debt.
  • CNA has to suit the needs of the people – but in their own language, Trisk believes.
  • For more visit Business Insider South Africa.

The new CEO – and part-owner – of the CNA chain has big plans to stock the stores with books in African languages and make each outlet distinct.

After working for months on crafting an offer to buy the CNA chain from Edcon, Benjamin Trisk, the former CEO of Exclusive Books, finally has the deal in hand.

On Tuesday, Edcon announced that it will sell CNA to a consortium lead by Astoria Investments, an investment firm controlled by the asset manager RECM and Calibre Limited (RAC).

Edcon – owner of Edgars and Jet – has been struggling for survival, with billions in debt.

Last year, the group was saved from collapse by securing a R2.7 billion lifeline - a deal struck with landlords, the Public Investment Corporation, and creditors. It has already shut the loss-making Boardmans and Red Square chains.

“CNA is an important but not a strategic part of the Edcon business, as it is not focused on clothing, beauty and home categories,” Edcon CEO Grant Pattison said on Tuesday.

“I brought the (CNA) deal to Jan van Niekerk (CEO of RECM) after working on it for eighteen months,” Trisk told Business Insider SA.

The 72-year-old Trisk is investing his own money into CNA, alongside Astoria. They will be the main shareholders in CNA, and Trisk will be the new CEO of the retail chain. Trisk has brought in the former Exclusive Books general manager of procurement, Olinka Nell, to help run CNA.

Trisk has warned that some of the 167 CNA stores will have to close their doors. “But no store will be judged purely on their numbers.”

Trisk, who has an MBA from the University of Cape Town, started his career as an analyst at a stock broking firm in Johannesburg. In the late 1980s, he was appointed to manage a diverse chain of bookshops, which included the then small Exclusive Books chain.

After building it out for a number of years, he pursued other interests, but returned to Exclusives in 2013 as CEO and part-owner as part of a takeover deal. He then left the chain in 2018 again after an acrimonious fight with its board. According to reports, he was suspended by the company's board for undisclosed reasons. 

“I have a very clear vision of what I want CNA to be,” Trisk told Business Insider SA.

“It has to be the first port of call for the mother who is concerned about whether her child is coping with maths. I want it to be a store that has a sensitivity for what a young black child in grade one or two is going through.”

Trisk, who chairs the literacy NGO Nal'ibali, is passionate about books, and this will be a big focus for the new CNA.

Trisk believes that without a "reading population” South Africa won’t be economically successful, and that CNA is uniquely positioned to serve the country at a time where it needs literacy most.

CNA has to suit the needs of the people – but in their own language, he believes.

“We already have a huge reading public. But we need to give South Africans what they need. Books about Peter and Gretel in the Austrian alps are no good, they don’t work here. We have a dearth of books in the vernacular.”

Trisk says when he started an African literature section at Exclusive Books it quickly became the fastest growing genre across the store network.

While he says he would like to turn all CNA’s into the Exclusive Books in the Cavendish mall in Cape Town - his favourite book shop – this realistically won’t happen.

Instead, at the very least, he wants each CNA store to differentiate itself, with managers getting more freedom with merchandising.

“It won’t be same stuff in the same place, store after store, we want to make things interesting.”

He says that the CNA stores will feature “lots of our own of our product”.

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