WOA Fuels & Oils: Pria Hassan

WOA Fuels & Oils: Pria Hassan

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Player: Pria Hassan

Company: WOA Fuels & Oils

Launched: 2007 (Holding company WOA Investments started in 2005)

Contact: +27 (0)31 563 0502, woaonline.com

Pria Hassan is used to obstacles, which is not surprising when you consider the industry in which she’s chosen to operate. CEO of WOA Fuels and Oils, which specialises in the supply and delivery of petroleum and petroleum related products to a wide range of business sectors, Hassan is one of a very tiny minority of women in the notoriously closed, highly-competitive, often shady and entirely male-dominated fuels and energy sector. In the four years since the company’s inception, she’s had to deal with gender-based prejudice, the struggle of convincing banks to finance her venture, expectations of kick-backs and what can only be described as frankly uncompetitive behaviour.

But Hassan is not a woman to be kept down. “The more people who expected me to fail or told me I couldn’t make it, the angrier I got and the more determined I became to operate in this sector – successfully and ethically,” she says. Founder of investment holding company Women of Africa (WOA), which has interests in the logistics, facilities management, property, technology and motor industries, Hassan only got into the fuels and oils business in order to service WOA Logistics.

Overcoming start-up challenges

“WOA Fuels and Oils was really started as an internal support division to curb the very high fuel costs of our logistics business. In South Africa, fuel costs are twice as high for logistics as they are in any other country, and we realised that if we could get into the business we could supply product to our own division and curtail costs,” she explains.

The barriers to entry, however, are high and usually enough to convince most people that this is an industry left well alone. “It’s such a closed community. Fuel companies favour certain wholesalers, making it very difficult to compete,” Hassan explains. As a start-up and new entrant she had to quickly familiarise herself with fuel pricing and market dynamics, and ensure that she had the right supply at the right time. And then of course, there’s financing.

Securing capital

“You need capital to compete in this game, and you need enough to buy the product, sell it at a competitive price and manage cash flow while you’re waiting to be paid,” says Hassan. To be precise, she needed R1 million in capital to get WOA Fuels and Oils off the ground. It’s a big ask for any entrepreneur, but as a women in the energy sector, Hassan faced additional hurdles. “The fact remains that many of the decision-makers in the financial services industry are men, and many of them still believe that women run businesses based on emotion. I had to work so hard to prove that I knew my stuff and that my business case was sound, and based on numbers and hard facts,” she says.

But she also counts herself lucky in her relationship with Absa Bank, from which she eventually secured the loan. “It took an incredible amount of perseverance. I realised that, when you’re asking for money, you can’t just give up after the second or third ‘no’. I wrote letters to almost every top decision-maker I could think of, stating my business case and outlining why I should be granted the loan. It took a lot of effort but eventually it paid off, and for entrepreneurs, that’s what counts.”

Toughening up

Hassan comes across the same gender-based scepticism on countless occasions, but she deals with it with a brand of self-assured aplomb that can only come from knowing you know your stuff.

“I learned pretty quickly that when you open your mouth as a woman in a male-dominated industry, you’d better make sure you know what you’re talking about. When you do, you’d be surprised how quickly you earn respect,” she says. Nevertheless, she learned to develop a thick skin and broad shoulders. “This industry is tough and I’ve had to become aggressive and forceful to show that I mean business,” she says.

But while she may have adapted in order to compete, one thing she won’t compromise on is integrity. “Unfortunately back-handers are a feature of this industry, and for me, that’s a line I was never willing to cross, no matter how it might have helped my business. One of the things I am most proud of is that I can say we got to where we are today with our ethics and integrity intact.”

Gaining recognition

Earlier this year Hassan, in her capacity as CEO of WOA Fuels & Oils, won the Metropolitan Oliver Empowerment Award for the Top Black Female Entrepreneur, and was recently nominated for the Islamic Finance Business Awards.

Although relatively new, the company has made good inroads into the industry, leveraging off the vast business network that WOA Investments has forged over the years. Its core business clients include various government departments and parastatals. The company has managed to control the cost of getting the product to the customer (a significant component of the fuel price), through major rail accounts that allow it to move product into Africa, and through partnerships with road transporters.

Looking to new opportunities

With her market position firmly established, Hassan is always on the look-out for new opportunities. In January 2012, she will be launching WOA Pharmaceuticals, which has similar ‘accidental’ origins to the Fuels and Oils division. “As part of our CSI focus, we were delivering kits into African countries to combat HIV, TB, malaria and cervical cancer. Doing so made us realise the enormous need amongst African women, and there was a strong desire in the market to purchase the kits on a commercial basis,” she explains.

With that will come a whole new set of challenges, but Hassan has proved herself more than up to the task.

Hassan’s advice to entrepreneurs

  1. When trying to access finance, it’s critical that you convince your bank to buy into you as much as into your business concept. You have to convince them that you will make good on any debt you incur and that you’re the kind of person who can make the business idea work.
  2. Understanding a new industry is critical but it doesn’t come from reading books. Immerse yourself in organisations that focus on the sector and network, network, network.
  3. In any tough industry, be prepared to hone your political skills. You’ll need to draw on them to lobby.
  4. No matter what the temptation, run your business in such a way that there can be no comebacks regarding your integrity. It’s not always easy, but you won’t regret it.
Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.