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Carrol Boyes

Teacher turned manufacturer, retailer and international exporter, Carrol Boyes has deftly crafted a coveted, high-end product range associated with fine living the world over

Monique Verduyn

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Carrol Boyes

It was legendary author Kurt Vonnegut who said, “The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow.” Iconic South African designer Carrol Boyes has accomplished both. The one-time English and art teacher began designing house wares after school hours back in 1989.

She had turned 35 and was adamant that she was not going to be one of those people who live with regret for all they did not do. “My dream was to be an artist and to earn enough money to survive from my art,” says Boyes. “I realised that I would have to try to make it at some point, or end up spending the rest of my life wondering whether I could have.”

A fine arts graduate with a major in sculpture from the University of Pretoria, Boyes was also a realist. Knowing how difficult it is for artists to pay the bills, she opted to take a more practical approach.

“I wanted to create things that would be accessible to most people, rather than an elite few,” she says. “My aim was also to combine sculpture with functionality. It’s easier for people to justify buying an expensive object that they have fallen in love with if they have a practical use for it.”

The result is a range of high-quality tableware and home accessories that are exported throughout the world and have succeeded in putting South Africa on the design map.

Recognising that superior design addresses people’s needs, Boyes initially focused on knives, forks and spoons, objects that quickly became fun to hold and to use. “Cutlery is traditionally quite plain and unadventurous. I decided it was time to introduce something new and quirky.”

Boyes is surprisingly humble, insisting that her main goal was to earn a living rather than make a fortune. But it was probably her old-fashioned approach that paid off. She left teaching in 1990, having paid off all her debt and with enough cash to survive for six months. She recalls applying for an overdraft, but the business was unknown and she was turned down.

“In retrospect, that was most likely a good thing as it forced me to be extremely conservative. As far as materials and equipment were concerned, I bought only what I could afford. The initial expansion of the business was definitely curtailed by the fact that I did not have access to huge sums of money.”

Boyes was comfortable with the rate at which her enterprise grew; others would be ecstatic – it thrived, experiencing 100% growth every year for the first six years. “I always seemed to underestimate the rate at which we would develop. Every six months the premises would suddenly become too small and we would have to employ more staff.”

The business was given its first big shot in the arm by Peter Visser in 1989. Situated in Cape Town’s Loop Street, his uber trendy store, Peter Visser Interiors, was the last word in home décor. “People went to the shop to see what was hot and because my products were displayed there, they were immediately given the stamp of approval. It really all came about by word of mouth. To this day, I believe that is the strongest marketing tool available.”

This initial interest sparked a flurry of magazine coverage and publicity. Boyes had accomplished what many entrepreneurs dream of: she had introduced something new and idiosyncratic to the market, giving her a competitive edge that has yet to be challenged.

From there, Carrol Boyes Functional Art began to appear in other interior decorating stores and galleries, and the demand exploded.

By 1992 Boyes was not coping. Help arrived in the form of her family. The company’s head office in Cape Town was bolstered by the construction of the main manufacturing plant on her father and brothers’ farm in Letsitele, Limpopo. This facilitated future expansion, enabling Boyes to bring on board a general manager and a management team to oversee production.

She took the opportunity to begin to extricate herself from her all-encompassing role in the business. “As the company got bigger and bigger, I began to realise that I was really good at some things and less so at others. The day-to-day supervision, for example, is something that I leave to my management team. My function is to steer the direction and vision of the company and to drive the creative side.”

Boyes spends a great amount of time on aeroplanes, promoting her brand around the world, but she still ensures that she visits the factory at least every second month.

She is also quick to admit that her management style may sometimes be less than democratic. “I listen to and consider what people have to say, but I often end up making decisions on my own.”

One of the factors that contributed to the phenomenal success of Carrol Boyes was the early establishment of an export arm that has taken the brand on a worldwide journey. It was also in the early 90s, with the business still in its infancy, that the signature pewter and stainless steel pieces began to receive attention from local expats living down under.

Ex-South Africans returning to visit their families could not help noticing that there was nothing like Carrol Boyes anywhere else and that sales were booming. This interest opened a new door for the business. “Exporting is one of biggest challenges for any South African,” says Boyes.

“It requires endless patience and persistence, the resilience to compete in a world in which you are completely unknown, and more financial resources than you ever anticipate.”

Boyes attributes her success in the export market was purely due to the fact that she did not give up too soon. “It’s tempting to believe that because we have language in common with places like Australia and the UK, we will have similar approaches to everything. That is not true. I had to get to know the different markets, spend time understanding diverse aesthetics, and get used to other ways of doing business.”

Today, she has agents in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries, maintaining that it is vital to have someone on the other side who understands the market.

2003 saw the beginning of the second phase of growth, with the first dedicated Carrol Boyes store opening at the Cape Town Waterfront and the second in Pretoria. The attractive, eye-catching stores have had enormous value for the business as they are based in retail centres, and draw customers almost as a matter of course. There are 20 local stores today, three overseas – including one in New York, an online shop and any number of stockists.

Worldwide, the Carrol Boyes brand has come to represent a coveted, high-end product range associated with fine living. “That’s a result of the decision I made early on to steer the product line in this direction, in terms of marketing, pricing, positioning and target market.

I had no desire to compete with manufacturers at the lower end of the market – there were too many, and they were doing it too well. My interest was in creating three-dimensional, sculptural forms. The hand finishing and composition of my creations takes them into a completely different realm from ordinary cutlery, and enables me to find a specific market for them.”

It’s a market comprising both young and old – anyone who enjoys having something special in their home. Although household items are traditionally targeted at women, the nature of the products is such that men love them too. “I think that has something to do with the metal and the way the products are manufactured, as well as the fact that there is an inherent sense of humour in every piece.”

While the business’s growth was consistent, it did not always come easy and Boyes faced several financial challenges. “It’s always the finances,” she says. “I constantly had to find the balance between having enough money to expand, and not sinking into so much debt that I would not be able to sleep at night.”

One of the aspects she found most exacting was her role as employer. “Employing people has always been very stressful for me,” she notes. “The idea of having someone’s life in my hands was nerve-racking. It was a responsibility I took very seriously and still do to this day.”

Dealing with a company that grows exponentially year on year can be chaotic. At first, Boyes did absolutely everything herself – from drawing and sculpting the design, to making moulds, pouring the moulds, and then grinding and polishing the finished product.

“As the orders increased, I brought in people to help me with all these processes, but I still do all my own designs.”

That said, Boyes is an artist who enjoys the world of work. One of the things she enjoys most about owning a business is that she has the opportunity to learn about everything – banking, labour relations, legal systems, dealing with people at the hardware store, negotiating good prices for raw material. She’s done it all.

But she also learnt that you can’t do it all forever if you really want to move to the next level. Among the tasks she handed over were finance and human resources. There is a point at which a business grows to such an extent that to make progress, the founder has to bring in people who are experts in their field, rather than continue to be a jack of all trades.

“Recruiting new staff is always tough; people may come with excellent credentials, but until they are actually doing the job, you never know what you are going to end up with. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to employ people who are personally referred to me.”

When Carrol Boyes pieces came onto the market they were unique. But is it possible to maintain the edge when the competition hots up? The truth is that Boyes has had many imitators, but no real competition.

It’s a subject about which she is sanguine. “No-one can match the product quality standards or uniqueness of what we do. If you copy someone, you can only ever be a copier,” she says. “But our customers know what a Carrol Boyes original is and they do not want second best. We have never felt the impact of imitators on the bottom line.”

She has felt the emotional effects however. It was in 1996 when she first noticed that there were people creating replicas of her work; she remembers that it felt like she’d been stabbed in the heart.

“But I got over it,” she laughs. “You have to accept that whenever you create a new aesthetic, an innovative way of manufacturing something, there are people out there who will try to copy you. Being first and being ahead goes a long way to ensuring longevity.”

The modern world seldom looks kindly upon those who dream of turning their artistic talents into financial rewards. “Determination is essential,” says Boyes. “People do not believe in artists, nor do they believe that a sculptor can also be an entrepreneur.

It’s such a fallacy. Creativity combined with common sense is bound to yield great results.”

Boyes’ practical approach belies the level of resolve she required in the early days. Introduce something completely new onto the market and the detractors quickly line up. “Nineteen people may love your work, but the twentieth one will hate it and will tell you so; you cannot allow that to affect you. That may sound trite, but there is huge risk in letting criticism get you down.”

With the down economy here to stay, how difficult is it to sell high-value items? Boyes believes that to panic at this point would be a big mistake. “If you have a good business model, stick to it. At times like this, it’s advisable to look at ways to do things better.

I believe that the current climate offers huge opportunities for those who are inventive and prepared to take a few risks while others are running scared.” With the business on track for about 20% growth by the end of the year, she clearly need not be alarmed.

Her focus is on growing the overseas market and opening more dedicated stores. New product development is always on the cards and, at 53, Boyes is building up a team of young artists who are learning about the business and being primed to introduce new inspiration.

An eye for the unusual

Carrol Boyes has distinguished her products in the heavily overtraded décor market by focusing on the unique and unusual. Entrepreneurs are envied for their originality, and it’s an attribute that Boyes has honed, recognising that good design is timeless and creates a new language that is easily understood.

To turn a compelling idea into a sustainable, successful business, Boyes has focused on drawing inspiration from the world around her, from what people do, how they live, and how they like to embellish their environment.

In a sense, she is required to know what people want before they know they want it. It’s not an easy faculty to build: “I often fall asleep with a potential design playing on my mind and then, in the moment of waking – that space between the sub-conscious and the conscious – it will come to me.”

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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appanna-ganapathy

Vital Stats

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

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

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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