A Tribute to Garnet Venn

A Great Tree has Fallen 

We pause to celebrate a life well lived and look back on the road that the founder of our firm Garnet Venn has travelled. His journey in the firm began in 1955, the same year that he ran the Comrades Marathon, a distance of some 90 kilometres. He completed the arduous route within time, finished 64th and was awarded the Geraldine Watson Trophy for being the last runner to complete the course.

This was an early sign of the pioneering spirit and tenacity of the man who was to lead the firm for 23 years as its Captain and Pilot [1961 to 1984].  There were many other signs back then which would have given clues to his entrepreneurial character which was to pervade the firm and become inculcated in its culture.  He had served briefly in the South African Air Force, qualifying as a pilot on a Tiger Moth and then graduating to a Harvard Aircraft.  In his own words “I loved flying a Harvard, doing aerobatics and formation flying, especially low flying”.   Those two words tell us more about his willingness to taking measured risks in life, to vigorously pursuing his dreams and to becoming fully proficient in the tasks at hand.

Garnet’s sense of adventure is perhaps epitomised in a journey he undertook with Oliver Hart in 1960 just after completing his five year term of Articles of Clerkship under Denis Lowe.  The two of them hitch hiked from Pietermaritzburg, through Africa to Cairo, on to Europe and the United Kingdom.  In a period of 6 months they visited 38 countries and no doubt cemented a relationship which was to prove invaluable to the firm in the decades ahead.  They journeyed on a shoe string budget, supplemented by odd jobs and the friendly hospitality of the folk they met along the way.  The character building and mind broadening benefits of travel equipped Garnet with even greater wisdom to engender in his firm.  Note the First Team rugby blazers from their days together at Natal University in Pietermaritzburg.

Garnet married Joan Campbell on 16th December 1961. They are proud parents of four daughters, Linda, Colleen, Jenny and Tory and doting grandparents of 11 grandchildren. We really appreciate the many sacrifices made by Garnet and his family in the pioneering days of building the firm from its tiny beginnings to one of the largest practices in KwaZulu-Natal.

Garnet’s strong sense of family was always extended to our staff. While he was certainly a tough task master, his empathy and support for those enduring personal difficulties will long be remembered by the folk he helped along the way.  He shared the wisdom he had gained through the hardships he too had encountered.

Denis Lowe started our firm on 1 March 1952 at Hosking’s Chambers, Timber Street and was joined by Garnet three years later.  They saw a gap in the market for offering specialised debt recovery services to businesses operating in and around Pietermaritzburg.  In 1957 Andor Nemeth, a refugee from Hungary, was taken in by Denis to assist as a clerk in the firm while offering Andor and his wife accommodation in his home.  Garnet became a partner on 1 October 1960 and the firm’s name changed to Denis Lowe, Venn & Co.  Denis died tragically on the 9 May 1961 at the age of 37 after suffering a severe brain hemorrhage while at the office some 6 weeks earlier.

Garnet rose to the challenge and worked a 7 day week with long hours every day to keep the firm going and to support Denis’ widow.  His dream before Denis passed away was to become a conveyancer – a dream he generously gave up to Andor Nemeth who had proved to be a reluctant debt collector after his harsh experiences at the hands of the Russian Regime in Hungary in 1956. 

We so easily forget that back in those days the books of account were hand-written [no accounting machines let alone computers], letters were either hand-written or typed on manual mechanical typewriters [no Tipp-ex or error correcting aids], copies were re-typed or made with carbon paper [no photocopiers] and all correspondence was sent by post or by hand [no telex machines, telefax machines or email].  Garnet did it all, with minimal support staff, in addition to consulting with clients, balancing the books, running errands and keeping the offices clean and presentable.

Oliver Hart joined Garnet and Andor in January 1962 and the “big three”, as we fondly refer to them, became partners later that year.  It was not until 1970 that the firm’s name was changed to Venn Nemeth & Hart.  Garnet’s incredible work ethic, discipline, commitment to service and vision formed the cornerstones of his leadership of the firm for 23 years [the longest serving Chairman of the firm] until his first “retirement” on 30 April 1984.  In that time, with the support of Andor and Oliver, he grew the firm to eight partners and 37 staff members.  As the firm grew so it moved premises from Hosking’s Chambers across the road into the old Southern Life Building in Timber Street, then on to 17 Buchanan Street [first owner occupied premises] and by April 1984 on the 7th and 8th floors of what was then the United Building Society [now ABSA] on the corner of Longmarket and Buchanan Streets.

Garnet spent the next 2 years doing voluntary Christian work for African Enterprise in Pietermaritzburg.  This gave him the opportunity to pass the leadership baton to Oliver Hart and allow Oliver an unfettered opportunity to lead the firm through its next phase of development.  Here we see another fine example of Garnet’s selflessness and devotion to the service of the needs of his fellow citizens.  He switched from tending their legal needs to serving their spiritual needs.

Oliver continued the vision of encouraging specialisation within the firm by dividing it into three divisions and so we needed an experienced person to lead our Debt Recoveries Department.  There could be no better person to do so than Garnet Venn. The firm was privileged to welcome Garnet back into the fold in 1986.  With his usual humility and unselfish spirit, Garnet elected not to re-enter general practice nor return to his area of expertise in Matrimonial Law [where he could have competed with his partners] but rather to devote himself exclusively to serving the needs of the firm by heading up its efforts to improve and expand on its formidable reputation for recovering the book debts of its business clients.

With that same sense of humility and placing the interests of the firm above his own, he passed the baton of leading the Debt Recoveries Division to Charles Jones in 1999.  Garnet’s son-in-law, Anthony Grant took over the leadership of that division in 2005 when Charles left for Australia.  Garnet continued to actively serve in Debt Recoveries until December 2012 when his health let him down for the first time in 58 years. Shortly thereafter Garnet retired to enjoy more time with his beloved wife and family.

Having led the firm for 23 years, Garnet served under the succeeding Chairmanships of Oliver Hart, Andrew Burnett , John Wallace, Matthew Francis and Guy Smith.  There can be no finer example for us all than to follow in the footsteps of a man who always “walked the talk”, gave his all and in his own words “lives to work”.

We stop and salute Garnet as well as express our sincere gratitude for the foundation he laid, which we all depend on.

He leaves deep footprints in our hearts, and in our firm. Our heartfelt condolences to Joan, Linda and Anthony, Colleen and Geoff, Jenni and Clive, Tori and James and all his grandchildren.


Rest in peace Garnet-We thank God for the gift of your life.