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.
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.
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.
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.
Rich List: 2019 Richest People In The World
They’re worth billions, and their wealth continues to grow each year. Here’s the top 10 richest people globally in 2019.
10. Jeff Bezos
Net Worth: USD 139,5 billion
Jeff Bezos founded e-commerce giant Amazon in a garage in Seattle, USA in 1994. He also purchased The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013.
Bezos believes in always taking a long-term view and living in the present moment.
“I think this is something about which there’s a lot of controversy. A lot of people — and I’m just not one of them — believe that you should live for the now.
I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you’re planning for that in a way that’s going to leave you ultimately satisfied. This is the way it works for me. There are a lot of paths to satisfaction and you need to find one that works for you.”
7 Self-Made Teenager Millionaire Entrepreneurs
These teenager entrepreneurs have already made their first million and more. How did they do it and what’s their secret to success?
1. Evan of YouTube
Evan and his father Jarod started a youtube channel ‘Evantube’ to review kids’ toys. The channel was a resounding success with other kids – so much so that today it boasts just over 6 million subscribers.
Evantube brings in more than USD1.4 million a year from ad revenue generated on the channel.
How did it start? With a father-son fun project making Angry Birds Stop Animation videos, and morphed into doing reviews on toys and video games. But Jarod’s dad is aware of the responsibility of Evan’s sudden fame and hopes to teach Evan about the importance of being a good role model for others.
“Most recently, we had the opportunity to work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and were able to fulfill the wish of a young boy whose dream was to meet Evan and make a video with him at Legoland,” explains Jared. “It was a really incredible experience. YouTube has definitely opened many doors, and the kids have gotten to do some pretty amazing things.”
Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.
- Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
- Company: Property Point
- What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
- Launched: 2008
- Visit: propertypoint.org.za
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.
While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.
Risk, reputation and relationships
“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.
So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?
Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.
“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”
Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”
A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.
“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”
Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”
This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.
“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”
In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”
Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.
“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”
Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.
Building a sustainable start-up
While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.
Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.
1. Align and partner with the right people
This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.
2. Make sure you get the basics right
Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?
3. Understand your value proposition
Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?
4. Unpack your value chain
If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?
8. Don’t ignore technology
Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.
Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.
“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”
Networking, collaborating and mentoring
Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.
“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.
“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”
The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.
To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za
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