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Black Like Me: Connie Mashaba

In the early 80s, Connie Mashaba worked for Southern Sun hotels as a junior bookkeeper. In 1985, her husband Herman Mashaba asked her to join his fledgling business in Garankuwa, north of Pretoria. What started out as a small manufacturer of hair care and grooming products for the black consumer has grown into a multi-billion rand business and a household name.

Monique Verduyn

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In the early 80s, Connie Mashaba worked for Southern Sun hotels as a junior bookkeeper. In 1985, her husband Herman Mashaba asked her to join his fledgling business in Garankuwa, north of Pretoria. What started out as a small manufacturer of hair care and grooming products for the black consumer has grown into a multi-billion rand business and a household name.

Herman Mashaba launched Black Like Me with his wife Connie at the age of 26, with R30 000 he borrowed from two friends. They marketed and distributed ethnic hair products and, within seven months, the loan was repaid.

In 1997 he sold 75% of the business to Colgate-Palmolive, buying it back in 1999. His company had 47% growth in 2001 – the most rapid in the industry sector. Black Like Me re-invented its image in 2002, launched into the UK, and added fragrances and cosmetics to its range. In 2003 it entered the personal care market.

Today, Connie Mashaba has set the company – a model of African entrepreneurship – on a solid growth path, merging the business with cosmetics company Amka, driving its market share, and streamlining its operations to strengthen its performance.

Entrepreneur spoke to her about what it’s like to be the driving force behind a leading South African brand.

What role did you play in the establishment of  Black Like Me in 1985?

I was involved in the company from the beginning and I did everything from reception all the way up. I’m an all-rounder, but my love has always been for administration and finance, so that was where I landed up.

Related: Herman Mashaba On What SA Entrepreneurs Need

You took six years off to study between 1997 And 2003. What did you study?

I left when Black Like Me formed a strategic partnership with Colgate-Palmolive. Herman stayed on as MD, but I did not want to be part of a corporate organisation.

I also wanted to complete my studies as I had never had the chance to do so. I finished my bcom and followed that with Honours in business management. My goal was to consolidate the knowledge I had gained through work experience.

How have your studies benefited you in your current position at the helm of the company?

Achieving a qualification gives you a greater, firmer belief in your own abilities. When you combine experience with education, you have a winning formula.

Herman Mashaba relinquished the reins to you in 2004. What were the reasons for this move?

In 1999, Herman bought the business back from Colgate-Palmolive and spent the next few years injecting flexibility, speed and entrepreneurial flair into the company. By 2004 he wanted to enter a new business environment and there were several people who were possible candidates to take over from him, but because of my experience in the business the board took the decision to appoint me as MD.

What particular challenges have you faced (if any) after taking over from Herman?

We are in an era of vastly increased competition, particularly in the lifestyle industry, so differentiation and relationship building are extremely important. I have also learnt a lot about leadership – people cannot be taken for granted, and you have to keep the channels of communication open at all times.

Why did you decide to merge with Amka in 2004 when you took over?

Our two companies had been long-time competitors, and we agreed that by merging the businesses, we would increase our market share significantly. As a result, Amka bought a 49,9% stake in Black Like Me. The BEE deal was one of the biggest ever in the beauty industry and saw two serious black companies joining forces.

There were great synergies between Amka and Black Like Me, from both a manufacturing and a distribution point of view, and Amka had a distribution network established in over 39 African countries.

Related: Black Like Me: Herman Mashaba

What value has this brought to Black Like Me?

It has streamlined our distribution, enabling us to reach every corner of the country. It has also provided us with a vehicle for further expansion into Africa. Another important outcome is that we both have increased buying power.

What challenges did you face as a result of the merger and how have you overcome these?

Herman and the Kalla family had been competing for many years, so the two businesses were fairly familiar with each other. Nonetheless, integration itself is not easy as two organisations have to learn each other’s cultures and approach to business.

We were fortunate that both companies were family-owned businesses and were entrepreneurial ventures – that meant there were some fundamental similarities and common values that eased the way for us. It took about a year for us to become fully integrated.

How have you maintained the identity of the Black Like Me brand within the merged company?

I am responsible for the sales and marketing of Black Like Me, so I am fully involved in the identity of the brand. I think it’s important that I am here and doing things hands-on.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs whose companies are going through some form of significant change such as a merger?

If it’s a good merger, one plus one will equal three. Success depends on the trust and respect you have for one-another, as well as shared commitment to the business. Number one rule: do not go into a partnership if you have any doubts.

You have set the company on a specific growth path. What is your strategy?

My strategy focuses on three simple tenets: Give people what they want; do not take customer service for granted; and do not be static – when you stagnate, you die.

You are well on your way to building Black Like Me into a major African brand. What challenges have you faced in marketing the products beyond our borders?

We are exporting to about 10 African countries and also to Papua New Guinea and the UK. However, our focus remains on South Africa because we still have so much to build here. The most challenging aspect of exporting to other African countries is collecting payment. Getting products through customs is also very difficult.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to export into Africa?

The most important advice I can give is to start by establishing your brand at home first. Only once you have accomplished that should you start studying the foreign market you want to enter. It’s important to pinpoint your reasons for wanting to do so, so that you are clear about this upfront. It is also essential to establish partnerships in the countries you wish to export to – you cannot do it yourself from South Africa.

What level of interaction does the black like me brand have with its customers?

We have two types of customers: wholesalers and retail stores, and consumers in the lsm 4 to 7 brackets. The former are most receptive to initiatives like product promotions.

To reach consumers we promote our product in print media and on tv, where we tend to sponsor certain shows. Our primary interaction with consumers is at store level and our in-store promotions are extremely successful.

What is the key to maintaining customer loyalty?

Competition is growing in our market, but the key to customer loyalty is firstly the quality of the product. Secondly, we place a huge emphasis on education at salon level. In Gauteng alone there are over 4 000 salons that use our products. We have teams who visit them regularly and demonstrate new products to them.

Black like me is over 20 years old. How do you ensure your products remain relevant to a fast-growing black middle class?

We redesign our packaging every two years to keep it fresh and up-to-date. We also have a dedicated research and development team that conducts intensive research into the cosmetics market to ensure that our products meet the needs of our target market, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Our range has grown to include not only hair care, but also skin care products, cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances.

How big is your management team?

There are six people on the team, three men and three women. It is focused entirely on sales, marketing, public relations and promotions.

How would you describe your management style?

It is democratic and consultative, but i am not afraid to show authority when i have to. I expect people to be responsible and accountable, and because i trust and respect my team, they are.

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

You are a highly successful leader, from both a financial and operational point of view. What would you say are the key reasons for this success?

I’m passionate about the business. I am committed to making sure it succeeds, and i am surrounded by people who are all working towards the same goal – as a team, we understand where we are going.

Does the business still maintain its entrepreneurial flair?

Most definitely. When we come up with decisions, we go with them there and then. There is no corporate machine standing in our way. We have also retained all the flexibility of an entrepreneurial business. And we work from the grass roots up, not from the top down.

What is the most important lesson you have learnt about being involved in a business with your spouse?

The day never ends and you always take your work home with you. On the other hand, you always have a profound understanding of the problems and challenges you both face and you can rely on one another’s support. You also know that the advice you receive is relevant and apposite.

What are the next big goals you have set for  black like me?

My aim is to grow the business in the face of fierce competition. I want to reach as many black women in South Africa as possible, no matter where they live, whether it’s in villages, towns or cities. I want them to know and understand our products. I also want to ensure that every woman in this country can afford to buy our products.

How do you develop your knowledge and skills?

I surround myself with people who are knowledgeable. I ask questions, i attend seminars, i read as many books as i can about subjects that interest me.

Is there anyone whom you look upon as an inspiration in your career?

There are many people, but i prefer to focus on the qualities and strengths they have and to admire and emulate those, rather than to focus on the individuals themselves.

What major strategic moves did you make over the years that made the biggest positive impact on your business?

Our single most important strategy has been community involvement. The community projects we have sponsored and supported have differentiated the black like me brand.

We have educated hairdressers in rural and urban areas and taught beauticians how to use our products; we have sponsored boxing events; and we have funded emergency helicopters for the annual pilgrimages to Moria in Limpopo.

Giving back to the community at this level – and being visible at events that are seminal in the lives of our consumers – has carved a space in their hearts and minds for black like me. In-store promotions have been invaluable in increasing the visibility of the brand.

Working closely with salons and salon associations to educate users of our products has also contributed enormously to growth. The products work and once people know how to use them properly, they are hooked.

What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business in this country?

Understand the market you want to go into, be passionate about what you want to do and be committed. It’s a cliché, but if you do not love your business, you cannot succeed. It was John Maxwell who said, “winning is an inside job”. Trust and respect the people you work with.

If you don’t give them that, they will sabotage you, even without knowing they are doing so. Be positive in your outlook.

Despite the very serious issues that South Africa faces, the possibilities for economic growth are enormous, and job creation is possibly one of the most important things you can do for this country today.

What have you brought to the business that has complemented or extended Herman Mashaba’s legacy?

I’m benefiting from what he has built and I work hard to maintain his legacy. I have cemented the relationships he created within the industry. I have been most fortunate in that the respect he built in this sector has opened doors for me.

At the same time, I have to ensure that my actions remain consistent with the foundations he has laid. Relationships in business are extremely important and when someone has been as successful as he was, it’s vital that you do everything in your power to maintain those bonds.

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+.

Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

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The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn

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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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