Quinton van der Burgh on Changing the Game

Quinton van der Burgh on Changing the Game


Vital Stats

  • Player: Quinton van der Burgh
  • Company: Quinton van der Burgh Investments
  • Turnover: In the billions
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: quintonvanderburgh.com

Quinton van der Burgh Investments is the holding company that owns equity shares in 32 businesses. Eight of those businesses are mining concerns co-owned with his two brothers. The mining and prospecting business (Burgh Group) was launched in 2002.

Van der Burgh currently focuses the majority of his time on growing Innovatec Africa, a start-up he bought 85% of in 2013. Van der Burgh is also the creator of reality show Clifton Shores.

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The entrepreneurial mindset

I was a terrible student at school. I didn’t listen, I was ADHD, and I didn’t like to attend class. To be honest, I’m not even sure how I passed; I tend to think I was lucky. But school was a great place to sell things, because I had a captive market with lunch money to spend. I almost got kicked out twice because of my little side businesses. As long as I was trading, I was alive.

Entrepreneurial family

My dad owned a number of supermarkets, and on weekends my two older brothers and I would work in the stores doing stock take, pricing goods and counting tills.

It gave us a strong feeling for figures, but it was also an opportunity to work and save, and to buy things like Ghostbuster stickers which I then sold at school.

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My dad was successful, but he taught us to work for the things we wanted. It was also a great introduction to the basics of trade. And that’s what entrepreneurship is – trading. Money in and money out, buying and selling. Cash flow.

Heart of a trader


That’s what drives me. I love a challenge, and I want to be involved across the whole value chain. My passion is business, and I love all aspects of the market – I enjoy learning about new sectors that I know nothing about. I want to look at new industries and touch it all.

I haven’t succeeded in everything, but that’s where the real learnings happen. All industries are different. What succeeds in one doesn’t necessarily work in another, but it’s so rewarding figuring that out.

Follow your passion

Succeeding at something I’ve never done before is what drives me and gets me up in the morning. I like guiding from the sidelines. I manage, run, strategise. I need to be a part of the success, not just invest money. But, you can only do so much.

I’ve built a team of experts to assist me, and I believe in hiring the best. When we invest in a business, we look for the loophole – that thing that we can take, tweak and triple the company’s valuation in a few short years.

It’s not about the money

I could retire right now. But it would bore me to death. And I wouldn’t be giving anything back. I don’t build businesses to have a good life. I build businesses because that’s what drives me, and what I live for.

Leaving school

I just didn’t want to be there anymore. By this stage the family business had grown, and included supermarkets, car dealerships and cellular stores. I had a colleague at one of the car dealerships who had contacts at Eskom. He knew what their needs were, what they were purchasing and how they chose suppliers.

We decided to start a business selling filters to Eskom. This was the mid-1990s and I was 17 years old. I had R50 000 saved up, and used it to buy stock.

The money was saved up partly from working, and partly from buying, suping up and then selling cars. I had access to scrap yards, and was always on the lookout for parts. I made a profit each time, which I saved, and also used to invest in my next car. I eventually saved enough to buy a BMW 318.

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A complete disaster

We didn’t need R50 000. We needed a few hundred thousand. It was a great idea, but it couldn’t sustain itself. We couldn’t run without cash flow. It was a big lesson to learn.

I was 18 and my first business had failed. And so I went back to working for my dad, first as a salesman at an Autopage Cellular store he owned, then working my way up to becoming area manager.

And then my oldest brother and I had an idea for a side business. At the time, the big mobile companies in the UK had a policy that second-hand phones and 14-day returns were all stored in warehouses, and then packaged and sold in bulk to other markets.

We started importing these – 1 000 phones per package. We’d buy them, unlock them, package them and sell them. I’d go over to the UK to get them, and then we’d literally drive around Witbank and Pretoria selling them. I’d pack 500 phones into my BMW and head to Pretoria. We were a completely turnkey operation.

There were eventually five of us trying to sell 15 000 phones a month. Our little operation got my dad’s attention, who decided that we weren’t ready to be running a side business of the size it had grown to. He put a friend of his in charge. Just like that, I’d been circumvented in my own start-up and I realised that if I ever wanted to build something that was really my own, I needed to leave and actually go out on my own.

I believed the only way to do that was to go to the UK. I made contact with the broker who sourced and sold the phones. I wanted a job in London.

He agreed, but said he’d pay me commission only, no basic salary. Meanwhile, my dad said that if I left, I was leaving with nothing. I did it anyway. This was my chance, and I had enough faith in myself to believe I’d make it work. I had no idea.

I shared a room with four guys. It was a whole new experience for me. I was used to people doing stuff for me. This was a whole new way of life. It was also unbelievably liberating.

I wanted to make a name and career for myself, and this was my chance. I’m never happy. I never will be. Things are just things; they come and go. I care about achievements. It was time to start shaping my future.

I began working immediately. I opened the office at 5am each morning (we traded internationally, so had to start early), and then I sold phones. My agreement was 10% of the gross profit on each phone, which was £1. The first month I sold 30 000 phones.

The next 60 000 and the third 80 000. In rand value, I’d made R3 million. Not that it mattered, because he never paid me. He was shocked and completely unprepared for how much I sold, and decided he wanted to review the agreement. Since I was earning on a commission basis, this meant I was earning nothing.

In month two my dad came to visit. I had to borrow cash from a housemate so that I could take him out to lunch. I didn’t want him to know I had no money. By month three things were getting desperate. By this stage my boss had a new partner who promised to sort things out. It never happened.

They gave me £100 pounds to tide me over, and that was the last cent I saw from them. I learnt a lot about taking people at their word, and how quickly someone will go back on their promises.

A new opportunity

And then a new opportunity presented itself. By this time, I’d built up real relationships with my clients. They knew me. They trusted me. They knew I stuck to my commitments, even if that sometimes meant going head-to-head with my boss. They wanted to do business with me, but they didn’t want to do business with my boss.

They told me they would give me upfront cash, I could find the stock, and they’d deal directly with me. It was my first introduction to the power of OPM – using other people’s money to fund your business.

I did it. I was now working even harder than before. The money would get transferred into my bank account, and I’d wait at the bank for the funds to clear, and transfer them immediately to my suppliers. With a money order in hand, I would then go and fetch the stock, and get it loaded by the end of the day. I worked from 5am to 10pm each night. Missing my targets and deadlines was not
an option.

And then I made my next big mistake. I found an amazing deal. A company in China was selling Nokia phones at 20% below market. I’d built up profits, and I had a South African client who I told about the deal. He sent me £300 000 (about R6 million at the time) and I put all my savings into the deal as well.

We were going to buy up stock and test the waters. I paid, and then the guys (whom I’d vetted) disconnected and disappeared with the money. Just like that. Everything I’d saved, gone, but even worse, my client’s money was gone too.

I knew my only option was to be completely upfront with him about what had happened, and to promise to pay him back within six months. I managed to pay him off — everything I made went to that debt. It was worth sticking to my word. He’s still a client of mine today, almost 20 years later. Money comes and goes. Your reputation doesn’t.

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I’ve lost a lot of money over the years

It wasn’t the first time I’d lost money, or the last. But through it all, I’ve built up an unshakable belief in relationships. They come first. When markets shift (as they do, particularly in the import/export game), I take the hit. Over the years I’ve taken a lot on the chin. These principles are so important to me.

Too often I’ve seen markets dip, and people start panicking, which leads to cutting corners and doing shady deals. That’s how you burn bridges. It might be a short-term solution, but it’s not a long-term one, and I always look long-term.

Don’t rip people off and jump ship

Quinton-van-der-Burgh-successful-entrepreneurMy number one rule is to have integrity. Always honour what you say you’ll do. Think long-term. Where’s the next goal? What’s happening in ten years? In tough times people want to milk the system. It’s a short-sighted, big mistake. I’d rather go broke, back to nothing and build myself up again than do that. Today’s failure could be a much bigger opportunity down the line.

After six years in London I started looking back to South Africa. I’ve maintained business interests overseas, but it was time to come home. By this stage, my brothers had shifted into the industrial sector, focusing on belting, earthmoving and hydraulics. They were still involved in the family business though. They were also very interested in coal mining.

They’d been researching prospecting and development of coal assets in South Africa. It was a very risky play, and would involve all of our collective savings, but if it worked, the rewards would be huge.

Taking risks with big rewards

At 26, I was given the opportunity to buy my way back into the family business with a 25% equity stake. I decided to do it, and moved back home. Their prospecting idea was incredibly risky – and incredibly exciting, which is what I live for. I’m the cowboy of the three brothers. I’m the gambler and highest risk-taker.

My middle brother, Stanley, is the most conservative. He’s a hard worker, likes things simple, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s built an earthmoving business from scratch, going from one machine to 300, and he’ll change a tyre himself if needed.

He’s a tradesman who always haggles for the best price. He’s grounded, not flashy, and all about family. My oldest brother, Wayne, is more like me. He’s a networker and a dealmaker. He’s willing to take risks, although not quite as aggressively as I am.

As a trio we work well together. Stanley covers earthmoving, I’m the numbers and strategy man, and Wayne focuses on operations. We support and complement each other. But we’re also very different – I always look a few years ahead. Wayne and Stanley like to focus on the now.

Boardroom meetings have been known to get heated, with three brothers who want to end up punching each other. We don’t back down. We’re all opinionated. And yet it works. This big risk we took has paid off – tenfold.

Becoming coal miners started with a big gamble. My brothers had found land in Mpumalanga to prospect. It was risky.

Mining for opportunity

Experts told us that while it could be a very lucrative seam, it might also not be what it appeared to be. It was a 50/50 risk, and it would take almost everything we had to find out. If it worked, it would be like striking oil. If it didn’t, we’d all be back to square one. I was 26, but my brothers were older, with families to support. We decided to go for it.

It was two years of digging holes before we found the seam, and four years of making no money, while pouring money from our other ventures into prospecting and development. We all refused to take a loan. We’d rather do it slowly, and debt free, or not at all.

Every year we had the same discussion: Should we carry on doing this? Is it worth it? We’re not the majors. We’re not a big mining house. What the hell are we doing? But persistence pays off. We stuck to it. Our reputations were on the line, and a stubborn streak was evident in all three of us. We wanted to prove we could do it, and that this wasn’t rocket science. We could make this work.

This is true of everything – you can do anything. And if you don’t have the knowledge or expertise, get stronger people than yourself into the right positions, and put your heads together and work – hard! And learn, learn, learn every day. Today, that business’s turnover is in the billions, and it all started on a calculated gamble, and a desire to build a legacy.

Innovate Africa

Currently, van der Burgh spends most of his time on Innovatec Africa, a start-up he bought 85% of in 2013. “Real innovation is happening in the tech space, and I’m chasing the opportunity that will make me a global brand,” says van der Burgh.

“I want to be in the top ten futuristic tech companies in the world. That’s what I’m aiming for, and so I’ll never stop looking for the next big thing.”

Van der Burgh believes Innovatec Africa is the vehicle for that. “We have very talented teams here; lots of innovative development is taking place. We look for ideas that are in concept stage that we can run with.”

Innovation is expensive though, which is why van der Burgh is concentrating on building a sustainable brand that can support that innovation.

“There are 12 companies under Innovatec Africa; we’re aggressively acquiring companies and distribution rights for large brands. There’s a huge opportunity for us to develop these brands in markets they haven’t previously dominated, particularly in Africa.

“Through our acquisitions, which are all companies that excel in their fields, with excellent teams at the helm, there’s very little that we don’t do that corporates need, from software and hardware integration, to consumables, boardroom outfitters, landline and VoIP connectivity, integration of data solutions, cloud services, servers, and even training. But at our core, while we’re building this big machine, we have an amazing innovation arm, which is sustainable because of all the other areas we focus on.”

The show Clifton Shores was the result of a bee in my bonnet. Two things were happening simultaneously. I wanted to be involved in TV, and I also wanted to give my personal brand some exposure. I’ve got big plans for who I want to be, and where I want to go. Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth and Richard Branson all have something key in common – they’re been very savvy at building their brands. People know them, and as a result, they’re trusted, and entrepreneurs bring them ideas. They make a difference.

I saw a reality show as a way of both satisfying my desire to create a successful TV show that could be distributed in the US, and growing my personal brand. I have an eventing and marketing business, Quintessential, and this became the vehicle for the show.

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Clifton Shores

Clifton-shores-south-africaWe had four US girls and three South African girls, all based in a house on Clifton beach. The US element was important – US audiences love seeing other Americans and what they’re doing, even if it’s not in the US itself. It was a ‘fish out of water’ idea. They ran my company for me and put together glitzy events, and we filmed their interaction, and dealing with daily challenges.

I was a secondary character. It was unscripted, but of course we had to add some drama, so we’d pair up people who we knew didn’t get along, or wouldn’t work well together. The show cost more than we made, but the exposure was incredible. We really got the message out there that if you’ve got a business idea or contact, come to Quinton.

We’re currently getting ready to launch the second season, now rebranded as The Shores for the US market. I took two years to be ready to do it again. It takes a lot out of the participants. This time we’re going online only. Each episode will be available free on Youtube.

This is where TV is headed anyway. I’ll make money on the clicks, but the idea is to really build up a subscriber base for future projects. I’m looking long-term here. Right now it’s costing money, and I’m having a blast. In the future though, I’ll see real returns with a dedicated subscriber base. That’s the plan.

Doing Good

Generosity-waterThe non-profit Generosity was launched seven years ago by Jordan Wagner and his father. They’re very, very passionate about global access to water. I met Jordan on a movie project in the US two and a half years ago. I loved his story.

Our partnership works perfectly: He’s the NGO guy, I’m the business guy. Generosity already had a lot of celebrity endorsements before I came on board. The big idea is to solve the water crisis, step by step.

The NGO has already built 570 wells globally, giving communities access to clean water. But there’s always more to be done, and ultimately, in order for an organisation to be sustainable, it needs to produce its own income rather than relying on donations. This is where I came into the picture.

Generosity needed a ‘for-profit’ arm that would give the NGO an annuity income and create a business around a water brand.

We’ve spent two years developing the best technology for the healthiest drinking water possible, bottled in BPA free bottles. This is not spring water — we don’t want to take more resources from the ground in poor areas. It’s government water, treated with reverse osmosis. The result is a level ten water that is not only extremely healthy for you, but tasty as well.

All bottles have a QR code, so the consumer knows which well that batch of water is funding, and where it’s being built. 20% of every bottle goes to the project. In the US, bottled water is a $10,8 billion industry.

We’d like to see some of that going towards solving the global water crisis. We’re also targeting the corporate market because they’ll get tax rebates, and high volumes mean we can lower the price, although this is a premium product, and it’s packaged and marketed as such.

We’ve already made plans to enter the Australian and New Zealand markets. The idea is to eventually have Generosity everywhere — you can launch your own company in your country — we’ll give you the product as a turn-key operation.

You do the marketing and sales to corporates and throw a big yearly event. We’re looking for well-connected JV partners who also want to give back.

Nadine Todd
Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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