Vanessa Gounden: A Flair for Business

Vanessa Gounden: A Flair for Business


Vital Stats

  • Company: HolGoun Investment Holdings
  • Player: Vanessa Gounden
  • Launched: 2003
  • Visit:

Coco Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” It’s an approach that’s guided Vanessa Gounden throughout her career and her astonishing success as an entrepreneur who is able to turn a love for the corporate world, a passion for fashion and design, and even an interest in alternative medicine, into a multi-million rand organisation. One of SA’s most successful female entrepreneurs shares the secrets of her success.

South Africa’s first female mining magnate is the granddaughter of a sugar plantation worker who grew up on a smallholding in KwaZulu Natal. Under the Group Areas Act, her family was forced to move to a township when she was a teenager. But the courageous and free-spirited Vanessa Gounden is not the type of person to let anything stop her from achieving her goals.

She completed an honours degree in human resources at the University of Pretoria, and went on to work with trade unions and in the government of former President Nelson Mandela. She was also the VP for customer services at SAA, and GM of human resources at the National Intelligence Agency.

In 2003, Gounden decided to tackle the business world, teaming up with her husband Dr Sivandran Munsami Gounden to launch HolGoun Investment Holdings, of which she is CEO. She has since become one of the country’s most successful female entrepreneurs.


Along with several directorships, she is also actively involved in community work. Combining business savvy with a flair for the creative, she recently launched her own fashion brand, Vanessa G London, and acquired exclusive Sandton City boutique D’Oré, which she revamped and turned into a must-see décor and design experience that houses top international fashion brands.

HolGoun’s business approach is to only invest in entities and projects that the company can directly grow and develop.

This approach has seen HolGoun acquire a strong and diverse portfolio of investments in several sectors including mining, financial services, healthcare, property, media and entertainment, fashion, security, and film production.

The group’s interests range from strategic minority interests to controlling shareholder interests in its underlying investments. She reveals the secrets of her success to Entrepreneur. 


  • 2003: HolGoun Investment Holdings is established
  • 2006: The company gains traction based on the investments made
  • 2008: The group begins to diversify into other industries
  • 2011: The exclusive fashion label Vanessa G London is launched
  • 2012: HolGoun buys exclusive boutique D’Oré and revamps it
  • 2014: The group’s asset base is valued at R2 billion. The original high-risk, high-return business model has morphed into a medium-risk, medium-return one with the holding company achieving an average return on investment of 15%
    per year.

What prompted you to start your own business after having worked for so many years?

I had been working in government and related sectors for a long time when my husband and I agreed it was time for us to create our own destiny and launch a business that would be sustainable.

We wanted to look at investments that would be different from the norm, and that would involve the business from conceptualisation through to development.

We pooled our life savings and started HolGoun, deciding to specialise in things Sivi understood as an engineer. We positioned ourselves as high-risk takers in the mining sector, doing things nobody else would do.

We did lots of research – I worked from a desk in our bedroom – but it was a sharp learning curve and in the beginning we burned our fingers as a result of a bad partnership. Nine years ago I was R20 million in debt, but since then we have turned the business around. After that failure, we went on to buy platinum mining rights on a number of farms before the metal became popular. This was the start of HolGoun’s mining success.

What was your approach?

When we started our applications for mining rights, we were dealing with data that was more than 20 years old. Our approach was to develop the projects up to a point where we could sell them on and others could develop them further.

Today, 80% of our interests lie in the resources sector and we are the second largest shareholder in Samancor Chrome, one of the largest integrated ferrochrome producers in the world. We turned R1 million into R200 million, which gave us the cash base to invest in coal, uranium and chrome. We now have an asset base valued at more than
R2 billion.

The company straddles a range of activities and investments — how do you manage to devote the right amount of time and energy to each of these?

I am hands on and I divide my attention among each of the businesses daily. I have strong project management skills, which means that I emphasise implementation, strong follow through, reporting, and matching initiatives to timeframes.

Managing such a diverse portfolio requires many long hours, but this business is my passion. Also, I have surrounded myself with the best people. Each division has its own MD, responsible for the daily management of the business.

We make no compromises on competencies and we only hire people who are qualified for the job.

In addition, they have to be comfortable with the idea of working for a family business – HolGoun is essentially a corporate platform built on family values. My husband and I have been together since high school, and we share the same business, social and political beliefs. He is strong on strategy and my ability lies in implementation – this makes working together easy.

What impact has the economy had on HolGoun?

We have certainly felt the impact of the slow economy in the mining sector. But it has affected our lifestyle and leisure businesses too.

For example, we order stock six months in advance; when the rand tanks you cannot pass that cost onto your clientele. We’ve survived the worst simply because we never go overboard, even during good times. We conserve our cash for the bad times, and we pay off debt quickly.

That is why we always have cash reserves to help us continue with our strategy, regardless of the economic outlook. We also review the business month-by-month to ensure that our strategy is on track.


Why have you ventured into other industries?

From 2008, we began to diversify. We’ve moved into healthcare, fashion, music, movies and security, and we have also become the controlling shareholder in Daly Debt Corporation, South Africa’s biggest debt collection agency.

That was a decision based on the poor economy at the time. We needed to have different building blocks in the group and we went for industries that would provide low hanging fruit. On the pharmaceutical side, for example, HolGoun Healthcare has developed a range of nutraceuticals, Best 4, aimed at helping to improve the quality of everyday life.

We worked with a number of medical professionals to develop premium formulations that target specific diseases and ailments. It made sense to go this route, rather than to develop prescription medication, which would have been a much lengthier process. The nutraceutical business is exciting, and we’re watching it grow as our products are being distributed by Dis-Chem and other large pharmacy groups overseas.

Goliath Music is run by my son Lee Gounden, who is a musician and a producer. It’s a boutique record label that supports and promotes local talent. The division offers world class audio recording facilities at Goliath Studios, which is fully equipped for corporate and commercial recordings.

We also have Goliath Productions, a film company that targets the black market, promoting excellence in story-telling, production and direction. We are focusing on developing alternative and informal distribution channels for film, to ensure that movies are more accessible to ordinary South Africans. Our most recent film is Gog’Helen, an action comedy written and directed by Adze Ugah. We’re now working on a range of new film projects.

Our long-term strategy is to list each of the subsidiaries, and to keep the holding company as a family business.

How did you integrate a fashion label into the business?

We launched Vanessa G London in the UK in 2011 to a star-studded London crowd as part of the lifestyle and leisure component of the holding group. It’s the only true international fashion label with South African roots. I’m inspired by what’s not been done before – bringing together fashion and original art.

I call it ‘art‘outure’ or ‘wearable art’, and the idea is that every garment pushes the boundaries of fashion and art and becomes a talking point. My goal is to grow the label into an international, respected fashion house. Having gone global already through a selection of top multi-brand stores in London, Moscow, Zurich and the US, the label has now finally been launched in South Africa.

The launch of the label was a strategic move for me and has allowed me to express my love for fashion. It will take time to build, but I have every intention of creating a top-end global brand to compete with the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton. Nobody has broken into that top echelon in the past 20 to 30 years, and although I am new to fashion, I want to be the one who does it.

In 2011 we bought D’Oré, which was the first high-end, multi-brand boutique in South Africa when it opened its doors in 1973. We have revamped it and the new house of D’Oré is typified by elegance and style that caters for the boutique’s traditional customer base, as well as a fresher appeal that targets a new audience.

The value of project management skills in business

At the foundation of project management lies a bedrock of fundamental organisational skills.

An experienced project manager, Vanessa Gounden attributes much of her success to her skills in this area, which she views as critical to the productivity of any organisation.

“Project management skills help with the execution of strategy, through repeatable, reliable performance and standardisation,” she says.

Project management processes include:

  • Project initiation. Agreeing to the terms of reference, critical path and overall scope of the project, including documentation that would be signed off by
    a board.
  • Planning. Using project management tools to plan time, people, activities, resources and finances.
  • Internal stakeholder management. Communicating the project plan to your project team, ensuring that the aims, objectives, milestones and interdependencies are known to all interested participants and groups.
  • Delegation. The project manager needs to be assisted by a project support team overseen by a project sponsor, so that the actions can be agreed upon and delegated.
  • Management and motivation. Informing, encouraging and enabling the project team, reviewing progress, adjusting plans where necessary.
  • Project completion. Reviewing and reporting on project performance, acknowledging the project team, and perhaps considering lessons learnt during the project.
  • Project follow-up. Training, support, measurement and reporting results
    and benefits.

“Project management skills lead to better communication and collaboration,” says Gounden. “In HolGoun’s various business interests, they have paved the way for us to explore new products and markets.”

Inspired by Chanel

Gounden has enormous respect for Coco Chanel who changed fashion in the 19th century and freed women from corsets and bustles.

It’s not hard to see why Vanessa Gounden would be inspired by the woman who brought the world the iconic two Cs. Women’s fashion at the time was oppressive — they could barely move in their corsets and long skirts. Chanel challenged the status quo and gave them pants.

Chanel revolutionised the fashion industry and influenced every designer who came after her. Her signature suit — a collarless cardigan jacket trimmed in braid with a straight skirt — is the single most copied fashion item of all time.

Here’s why Coco Chanel inspires Gounden:

  • She went from being a poor, orphaned child in France to the head of one of the most successful fashion empires in the world — training as a seamstress on the way.
  • Chanel brought a new vision of fashion to women and revolutionised her industry. Her adherence to that early vision is what made her an innovator.
  • She demonstrated the importance of being an icon in her industry. It takes an iconic brand to sustain market share and growth.
  • Chanel was willing to take risks to reach the top, often scandalising polite society as she did so.
  • She found inspiration in everyday places and used her creativity to make her ideas come to life. By looking to the ordinary to seek ideas, she created the extraordinary.
  • Chanel is also remembered for building an empire. With the launch of her classic perfume Chanel No.5, she laid down the model for the financial and marketing success of almost every major fashion brand today — her company earned the majority of its sales from accessibly priced, high-margin items such as perfume and accessories, while producing high fashion, big ticket collections that drove demand and elevated the status of the brand as a whole.
Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.