A tribute and farewell to Burkhard Herrmann

Born on the 19th July 1944 in the town of Neustadt in the Principality of Schleswig Holstein, Northern Germany Hans-Burkhard Erik Horst Herrmann sadly passed away on the 16th December 2022 following a short, serious illness. A fulfilled life has come to a peaceful end in the presence of close family and friends.

Burkhard Herrmann, as most of us in South Africa knew him by, was the child of Franz and Carlotta Herrmann, farming parents from Schashagen, a small farming village in the district of Ostholstein, in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. They owned and ran a mixed farm with fields of crops, milk cattle and a few hogs, typical farmers of the time. Burkhard was the youngest of eight children and was the last of the five sons to still be surviving at the time of his passing.

Sadly Burkhard’s mother passed away when he was only three years old and he was then looked after by two of his older sisters. His father remarried a few years later and Burkhard remained on the farm while he attended a local school. He graduated with his Abitur (A-Levels / Matric) before he undertook to do an apprenticeship as a grain trader with Alfred C Toepfer in Hamburg, Germany, a company that would have a big influence on the rest of his life.

He is survived by his lewensmaat (Life partner) Sonja, his children Moritz and Franziska and her husband Fred Bardt, his grandchildren Felix and Lilly, and two sisters Gudrun von Maltzan and Heidi von Stefenelli.

The late Burkhard Herrmann with his granddaughter Lilly Bardt

Alfred C. Toepfer Company, a trading company registered in January 1920, specialised in agricultural products, particularly grain. Most of the agriculture products were being imported and paid for in foreign currency, as were many other products being imported into Germany. Germany was still suffering from the aftermath of the Second World War and the destruction of most of its infrastructure. Added to this was the reluctance of allied countries easing the burden of the availability of foreign currency. The country subsequently began a slow but continuous improvement of its standard of living, with the export of local products, a reduction in unemployment, increased food production, and a reduced black market.

Alfred C. Toepfer Company was a very successful company that also provided various commercial, shipping, logistics and administrative services and to aid the rebuilding of Germany it financed companies in other countries that would aid the import of German product into those countries and thus ease Germany’s access to foreign currency. Burkhard Herrmann was a prodigy of this strategy and he arrived in South Africa in 1967.

As a budding entrepreneur Burkhard first established Traconsa (TRAns-CONtinent SA) (Pty) Ltd in 1968, a company that imported and marketed cutting tools and thread rolling equipment with Fette of Germany his main supplier. Burkhard had seen the potential of supplying the engineering industry in South Africa with quality products imported from Europe and in particular his home country Germany.

The natural progression into also importing the equipment that the tooling is used on did not take long. Burkhard had built up a strong relationship with Helmut Toepfer (grandson of Alfred C Toepfer) while working in Germany and after Toepfer visited South Africa the two of them became partners in the new business, which they registered as Retecon – an abbreviation for REliable TEchnical CONsultants. Through Toepfer’s contacts and network, Burkhard had quick access to overseas machine manufacturers, which helped in securing some reputable and well-known agencies that the company still represents today.

The late Burkhard Herrmann with his school buddy and business partner Karlo von Langermann

At the time the partners could not have envisaged how computer numerical control (CNC) would influence and impact the equipment that they were importing, into South Africa. But the companies that they decided to represent in South Africa in those early days would become leaders in the technology and today manufacture the most advanced equipment available.

Three years ago the Retecon Group of Companies celebrated the half-century mark, which all began with the establishment of Retecon Machine Tools in 1970. The 1970s started off promisingly from a technology standpoint. Manufacturing was starting to see the benefits of computer control. In 1970 the US machine tool exhibition IMTS had over 50 machines featuring Numerical Control (NC) and Direct Numerical Control (DNC). In fact, according to the AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology – this and other technologies were expanding so rapidly that the show switched from a five year to a two year cycle after that.

That same year a company was established that arguably would become South Africa’s most successful machine tool, metalworking equipment and related equipment supply company.

The first sole agency agreement that Retecon signed was with Bavarian company Maho, selling and servicing their universal milling machines in the South African market. This company is still linked to Retecon but through acquisitions is now part of the DMG MORI Group. Retecon would go on to sell over 1 000 of Maho’s machines and would sell the company’s first NC machine in South Africa to Wits University in 1978. Today the products from Maho are manufactured by the company’s Pfronten, Germany plant and are largely full 5-axis machining centers and are amongst the leading machines in the world, due to their efficiency and accuracy.

Burkhard, who was owner and MD of the company until 2000, later became Executive Chairman of the Group up until his permanent retirement in 2014. During his tenure Retecon would sell over 6 000 machines into the South African market.

Burkhard spent many years associated with the Machine Tool Merchants Association of South Africa (MTMA), serving as Deputy Chairman for many years.

A great school buddy and friend, Karlo von Langermann, followed Burkhard to South Africa and the two of them would be involved in business together for virtually their entire working careers. Karlo was MD of Traconsa until his retirement and return to Germany.

The late Burkhard Herrmann with his son Moritz and grandson Felix Bardt

Burkhard married his late wife, Ilka, also born in Germany in the town of Luebeck in the Principality of Schleswig Holstein. Ilka was a teacher and followed Burkhard to South Africa. The couple had two children, Moritz born in 1973 and Franziska born in 1977. The couple had separated amicably 15 years ago.

While running a very successful business in South Africa Burkhard embraced his passion for the outdoors. He was an avid horseman, hunter, wing shooter and dog handler. All these outdoor activities enabled him never to lose sight of his dream of becoming a farmer.

Farming was always his passion but he was too young and too far down the line to inherit the family farm. He was very disappointed but in those days the inheritance rules did not provide for son number five to have any claim to the family farm.

His wish finally became a reality in 1989 when he found and fell in love with farm Fortress, some 12kms North West of Frankfort, Free State. By 1990 his hankering for farm life became so compelling that he decided to purchase the farm. The town of Frankfort lies on the banks of the Wilge River, south east of the Vaal Dam and Vereeniging, surrounded by farmlands that yield and feed corn, cattle and wildlife.

Also known as Fortress Bonsmaras is a beautiful farm (2.925 ha) and the capacity of the feedlot is about 2 000 weaners of Bonsmara or Bonsmara-cross per annum. Farming of Bonsmara was part of Burkhard’s life for 32 years and he became an expert in the breed, holding annual auctions of his cattle.

Farming became more and more the centre of his life. Here he met another love of his life, Sonja. The two of them had been living on Fortress permanently since his so-called retirement in 2006.

He was also a great supporter and sponsor of the local community. He committed to sponsoring a trip for the matrics of the Zakhe school to his farm every year to get them interested in farming. The boys get to spend a night on the farm to see how his operation works. Burkhard had also said that he would mentor a Zakhe matriculant every year on Fortress Farm.

Burkhard spent his retirement life on Fortress Farm and was involved in its running right until his end. He was allowed to live out his final days on Fortress, cared for by his loved ones. He has been laid to rest on a spot he had chosen overlooking one of the most tranquil parts of the farm.