Special Effects: Rafi Leigh

Special Effects: Rafi Leigh


Like many entrepreneurs, Rafi Leigh, founder and MD of Special Effects, knows that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. But he’s also discovering that there are different types of growth – and that not all of them involve chasing prospective clients. Recently he’s learned that an investment in the growth of employees can provide just the kind of tipping point the business needs to take it to the next stage.

Reaching a growth ceiling

As its name suggests, Special Effects started out servicing the film industry doing in-camera special effects. “Initially we serviced this industry almost exclusively and developed a reputation as the ‘go-to’ company in our field,”

says Leigh. But while this had obvious positive spin-offs for the business, the market pool was small and Leigh realised that the business needed to diversify into other markets if it was to grow. “We branched out into doing special effects, digital graphics and specialised devices for brand activation and point-of-sale, particularly for below-the-line campaigns servicing the advertising industry,” Leigh explains.

The shift proved successful and today this work accounts for the lion’s share of Special Effects’ market. The company boasts an impressive client list that includes the likes of Nike SA, SAB Miller and Outsurance, to name but a few.

But in spite of the additional new business opportunities that his diversification strategy afforded the company, Leigh quickly realised that there was a limit to the growth it could deliver. “It would allow us to grow organically, a little bit every year, but I really wanted to see the business ramp up in a big way,” he says.

Learning the value of letting go

In trying to find a way to make that happen, Leigh found himself tackling one of the most common challenges facing entrepreneurs – how to find the tipping point that will move the business into a whole new profit zone.

“When you talk about growing a business, most of us immediately look outwards to the market and start considering how we can get more of it,” Leigh says. But in the end, his answer came from inside the company. “I realised what I suppose many entrepreneurs come to realise – that if you want to grow a business, you need to start by growing the people inside it, because doing so allows them to take ownership of more, and leaves you to focus your energy on the future direction and expansion of the company,” he says.

All well and good, but handing over significant parts of their business is something most entrepreneurs battle with, and Leigh is no exception. “It didn’t come naturally. I’m a control freak and handing over that control to other people is obviously scary, but I realised if I didn’t do it, we’d continue with the status quo. And that wouldn’t get us anywhere,” he says.

Handing over

In what Leigh describes as the most exciting and rewarding period of his career, he embarked on a programme to hand over first knowledge and then shares to staff.

“Fortunately I have always played ‘open cards’ with the people in the organisation, so they’ve been party to things like what our costings, margins and profits were, and of course they were already responsible for the output and the work we produced.

“I simply tried to share additional knowledge about costing mechanisms, business management and client relationship management,” Leigh explains. This ensured that staff were able to manage both the client and project management side of their accounts. Leigh’s second step was to change the business from a CC to a Pty (Ltd) in order to be able to offer staff the opportunity to buy different classes of shares. “I strongly believe that it’s important for staff to actually own a vested interest in the business in order for them to feel a true sense of ownership, one that inspires and motivates them to take decisions that are best not just for the job at hand, but for the future of the company as well,” he says of his decision.

The next step

But while these are big changes for the company, Leigh is quick to point out that they are not a precursor to him making an exit. “I’m still 100% involved – I’ll just be free to focus on taking the business where I want it to go, which is into a new realm of growth,” he says.

Company: Special Effects

Player: Rafi Leigh

Est. 1996

Contact: +27 11 493 9666


Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.