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Imperial: Dawn Jones

Imperial CEO and 2007 Boss of the Year, Dawn Jones, talks frankly about her career, the changing face of the car rental industry and what it takes to be a leader.

Juliet Pitman



Dawn Jones of Imperial

When next you take a wander through the business section of your local bookstore you might be struck by the plethora of books on leadership. John C Maxwell alone found so much to say about the topic that he wrote 58 titles on it. (And if you’re in any doubt that leadership is big business, just ask him about his 50 language translations and 13 million copies sold). Given that so much has been written and said about the topic, I’m dying to ask Dawn Jones, CEO of Imperial Car Rental and the newly-awarded 2007 Boss of the Year, why she believes she was bestowed with this prestigious title. But the question renders a usually highly articulate woman stumped and distinctly uncomfortable for a few seconds. She’ll come back to that question, she says.

When she does eventually answer, she explains why she finds the question difficult: “I don’t like the focus and attention to be on me – I like it to be about the business, and the business is about a team, not one person.” False modesty? You wouldn’t say so if you read through the pages-long nomination document put forward by her staff to the Boss of the Year judging panel. It’s not necessarily what they have to say about her, but rather the fact that there are so many of them who say it. And therein lies the answer to my question. Leadership isn’t about having a vision; it’s about being able to take people along with you to achieve a vision. And doing so requires the ability to make a connection with individuals and teams. It requires the ability to communicate whatever vision you have and to speak in a voice that people can understand and relate to.

And while many of the old business guard might argue otherwise, making a human connection is not a soft skill. Generation X (and the Millennium Generation following closely behind) is a very different animal to its baby-boomer predecessor. For one thing, Xs do a great deal more questioning. They’re more inclined to fob off authority and make up their own minds about things. And in a business climate experiencing an almost critical skills shortage, they have the ability to exercise far more choice than in the past. Which means leadership today calls for a very different skills set than it did in the past. Critically, it requires the ability to inspire people so that they want to be a part of your journey. And at this Jones is an expert.

It’s a skill she had way back when she joined Imperial founding members Carol Scott and Maureen Jackson as a 21-year-old. Up against car rental giants Avis, Hertz and Budget, the little team had five cars between them and operated out of the Durban airport car park. When she’d hired out all five cars she’d have no transport home, so she’d hitch. “We didn’t have enough money for a kiosk, so we’d literally entice our competitors’ customers to come to us. I would see someone getting into a competitor’s car and I’d just approach them and say, ‘I see you’re renting a car from X. Won’t you give us a try? We’re a new company and we have a really superb service – whatever rates you’re getting we’ll match them.’ I think people were so shocked that they didn’t know what to say,” she laughs. But the fact is that she convinced them to be part of the Imperial journey. The company went from five cars to 100 in a few short months.

If it’s true that people are attracted to others because they see a mirror of attributes that they value in themselves, it’s not surprising that a woman of Jones’ pluck and gumption was impressed by Carol Scott, who started Imperial Car Rental under Bill Lynch of the Imperial Group. She relates the story of how they met: “In 1980 I was working at Budget in the old Elangeni Hotel and Carol walked in and started chatting to the concierge about this new car rental company she was starting. I remember being so impressed by her – she had such a presence and she was talking about how Imperial was going to be the biggest car rental company in South Africa. I just knew I had to meet her, so I asked him for her phone number and called her up.

“We met in this tiny office that had boxes of car oil lying all over the place and she told me she’d identified a gap in the car rental market and that I could join tomorrow. At that point she had no cars. She offered me R275 a month and I said yes. My manager at Budget told me I was mad, offered me an extra R25, which Carol then matched, and said women knew nothing about business. That decided it for me. I left immediately and joined her.”

The ‘gap’ that Scott had identified was for a highly personalised car rental service. “We turned the disadvantage of not having a kiosk into our biggest advantage, because it forced us to meet and greet people at the airport and this was really unique in the industry. So no matter what time of day or night people arrived, we’d be there to welcome them, give them their keys, show them to the car and follow them out of the airport onto the highway. Nobody else was doing that,” says Jones. She admits however that it wasn’t easy. “We had to pound the pavements. I couldn’t have a car unless I had a customer so I’d just knock on doors to find business. I had no idea where to go but I think that naiveté, ignorance and enthusiasm were my strengths back then,” she laughs.

While there were no doubts about her sales ability, Jones recalls how, initially, the older and more sophisticated Scott wasn’t entirely sure about her ability to run things. “In the beginning there was a guy who ran the workshop and she kind of thought he might be the overall manager. But the more she thought that, the more determined I was to prove myself,” she says.

In doing so, one of her biggest lessons was managing people – and it stood her in good stead later on in her career. “Oh my word did I employ some noo-noos!” she laughs, “For example I employed a really lovely girl who was gorgeous and who the customers loved but what I didn’t realise was that she was a prostitute.” Growing serious again, she continues, “I also learned how difficult it was to employ someone who was older, more experienced and more qualified than me. I think when you’re young you see that as a threat in some way but as you go on you realise that the more people you employ who are better than you, the better it is for you and for the business.”

After four years Imperial had established a national presence and the 25-year-old Jones moved to Johannesburg to take up a position as sales and marketing director. The position, and the growth of the company, brought a new set of challenges. “For me the biggest thing was letting go. When you’re in a business at its inception, it’s very difficult later on not to do everything yourself. You tend to want to hold on to certain things. What I had to learn as I went up through the ranks of the company was to empower people,” she says.

And if there’s one thing Jones knows better than anyone it’s that empowerment goes hand in hand with development. After all, it’s something she was on the receiving end of. She explains: “At such a young age I was given so many opportunities to grow and develop and the Imperial group was fantastic about empowering us to be successful. So today, developing people is really close to my heart. I believe very strongly, because I’ve been there myself, in putting small people in big chairs. And it’s amazing how people rise to the occasion when you give them the chance. Of course, not all of them do and you do have failures, but the important thing is that you give them the support and guidelines they need. There’s a certain amount of hand-holding and a certain amount of letting go and you have to know when to do which one and how much.”

She’s had the good fortune of watching some powerful leadership icons over the course of her career and Jones is the first to point them out. “From Carol I learned to fight for business and then of course there was Bill Lynch. At board meetings if you put up a presentation or a graph, he’d tell you that didn’t tell him about what was really going on in the business. He’d tell you to talk to him about what your gut said. And I think I’ve tried to continue that – to talk to people and to listen when they talk back.”

So in-between all the talking and listening and empowering, where’s the room for the hard-nosed stuff of business, you ask. It’s an excellent question. Being liked and respected by your employees does not necessarily a good leader make but Jones can be tough when required. And while she’s happy to give people a chance to grow, she’s not tolerant of non-performance. “You need to be tough sometimes. It’s a two-way street,” she says.

She’s also more than capable of making the right call when it comes to business decisions. If nothing else, her quick reaction to changing market conditions in the car rental industry proves that. “Our strategy has always been to position ourselves as a premium brand at the top end of the market but over the years we’ve had to change this. With low-cost airlines coming into the market about five years ago, car rental is no longer just for senior businesspeople. It has meant people who couldn’t fly before now can and obviously they need a rental car when they arrive at their destination. So in the past five years the profile of our customer has changed and this has required something of a paradigm shift. All your business processes are geared towards being a corporate car rental company but suddenly you need to change that to accommodate a little old lady who’s hiring a car for the first time to visit her grandchildren. It’s been a huge learning curve for us – massive.”

Thirty percent of Imperial’s customers now come from the leisure market but gaining this market share has meant implementing some drastic changes. Instead of processing customers as quickly as possible (one of Imperial’s selling points), Jones explains how staff had to be retrained to develop the skills necessary for processing families and holidaymakers. It’s meant having a bigger customer receiving area (holidaymakers come with more luggage and an entourage), baby car seats and child-friendly reception areas. Different customers also demand a different marketing strategy.

To accommodate all these changes, Jones has changed the entire management structure of the business. “We’ve moved away from the traditional structure of a business where you have an ops director and a sales director, and have split our business into different channels that focus on our different customers. Each of these channels has a channel director who’s responsible for everything pertaining to that market. The four markets are the international tourist, the corporate market, the domestic leisure market and the insurance vehicle replacement market. Each has different needs and needs to be approached differently,” she explains.

The recent acquisition of Europcar means Jones faces new challenges in the year ahead. Always fiercely proud of the Imperial culture, she says, “The challenge now is to inculcate the culture into a new group of staff without forcing it on them and to try to find common ground, because different companies have different values and ways of doing things.” Mergers are seldom simple, especially from a human resources point of view, but Jones is undoubtedly the best person for the job. “Communication is everything,” she quips, “and I’m sure the reason so many companies fail is because they fail to communicate. It’s something that we’ve worked very hard on and it can take up an enormous amount of time doing roadshows all over the country, but it’s worth it. Things like video conferencing are simply not personal enough – and how can I expect our employees to engage with customers on a personal level if I don’t bother to engage with employees in the same way. Leading is done by example.”
It is – gratifyingly – an answer to my very first question and brings to mind one of the truer things written about leadership – that a great leader never expects anything from people that they couldn’t deliver themselves. And if anyone has been there and done that, it’s Ms Jones.

Dawn Jones’ advice to aspirant entrepreneurs on starting and building a business

  1. Starting a business requires lots of courage. You have to take risks in order to succeed – but they need to be calculated.
  2. In order to lead a business, you need to start off with an idea – a dream or a vision. You need to be able to visualise it and follow it through.
  3. Above all you need to love what you do and do what you love. The passion required for success will only be there if you are doing something that you love. It’s not something you can fake.
  4. Building a business takes personal sacrifice, especially in the early days and you have to be prepared to make these if you want to succeed. Having said this, it is important that you seek a balance between your work and life as the business grows.
  5. Don’t ever give up. Many things may go wrong. You have to persevere.
  6. Surround yourself with good people whose strengths lie where your weaknesses are. This is vitally important. They need to complement and support you. But you need to look after them – they need to feel part of the vision.
  7. When it comes to failure, you firstly need to think of it as a learning opportunity. You must expect that with risk comes possible failure, so grow from it. Its vital that you don’t use failure as an excuse to give up – giving up is easy, moving forward takes far more determination, maturity and courage.
  8. Stick to your game plan!
  9. Look to the many wonderful entrepreneurial South African role models. Be inspired by their creativity and diversity.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

Company Posts

Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

In business, your offering is only as good as your relationships. Neil Robinson from Relate Bracelets explains how FedEx Express has helped the business grow into Africa and beyond.






Vital stats

  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit:

Neil Robinson, MD of Relate Bracelets understands the importance of business relationships. While Relate is a non-profit organisation, it is run like a business. It does not rely on donors, but instead produces and sells a product.

For each bracelet sold, one third of the income goes towards the materials and operating costs, one third supports the people who produce the bracelets, and one third goes to the charity for which that particular bracelet is branded.

In order for the business model to work and be sustainable, Relate’s partners are incredibly important. These include the retail chains that stock the product and who provide prime point-of-sale positioning, the charities who Relate works with, and most importantly, Relate’s logistics service provider, FedEx Express.

“Retail is all about visibility and availability,” explains Neil. “A brand is a living, breathing thing. People can see it, use it, and comment on it, but if they can’t access it, it’s all for naught. And so, at the point of purchase, it’s both visible and available, or it’s not.

“Logistics is key. You need to get your product to the retailer on time, 100% of the time. The expertise and focus that FedEx displays in supply chain and logistics encompasses far more than just retail, they understand our specific needs, making them a strategic partner, rather than merely a supplier.”

Related: Zenzele Fitness’s Clever Tactics To Grow In Next To No Time

Building a relationship

The FedEx/Relate Bracelets relationship stretches back to 2009, when Relate Bracelets launched its first campaign with ‘Unite Against Malaria’ leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

“We did the first campaign in partnership with Nando’s,” says Neil. “Robbie Brozin was passionate about the cause, and he pulled in strategic partners to launch the campaign. Within two years we’d shipped hundreds of thousands of bracelets. FedEx was an incredible partner, ensuring the integrity of our product and time-sensitive deliveries, and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

As with all good B2B relationships, the FedEx and Relate Bracelets teams understand that regular strategy sessions and updates are important.

“FedEx understands the inner workings of our business,” says Neil.

“A successful campaign has multiple elements, from planning and strategy, to marketing support, pricing and distribution planning. Of these, distribution planning is the most critical. For us, the bridge between our brand and the consumer is logistics. FedEx have delivered beyond expectations. They literally and figuratively go the extra mile for us.”

Protecting a brand

FedEx has customers across different industries and each of their needs are different. In the case of Relate, who operate in the retail sector, buying patterns are important. “Retailers run a tight ship,” explains Neil.

“They have planning cycles and seasons. Besides the fact that penalty clauses are built into contracts, you can’t miss a deadline by two days, or you’re in the next cycle, and that might be two weeks later. Not only are you missing out on valuable shelf time, but this can affect an entire campaign. Lost sales can also influence the retailers’ buying decision the following season. FedEx has made it their business to understand our business, so they know what’s at stake and what’s important to us.”

Supporting growth

FedEx has also played an integral role in the overall expansion of Relate Bracelets, particularly into new markets. “As a global organisation, FedEx has been absolutely critical in supporting us to grow our business into Africa, the US, Australia, the UK, Western Europe, and now New Zealand. They play an enormous role in the delivery of our products, with sophisticated tracking systems ensuring that the quality and integrity of our products are maintained.”

Through the relationship with FedEx, Relate experiences the benefits of working with a globally recognised and credible brand. “When you work with quality, you get quality.”

Related: Entrepreneur BB Moloi’s Inspiring Story of Rise To Success Through Grit And Hard Work

The business

If you’ve ever bought a beaded bracelet that supports a cause (for example: United Against Malaria, Operation Smile SA or PinkDrive), chances are it was a Relate Bracelet. If you bought it at Woolworths, Clicks, Sorbet or Foschini, it most definitely was.

To date, Relate Bracelets has raised more than R40 million, which supports various charities and ‘gogos’, women living on government grants and supporting their grandchildren, and who desperately need the additional income Relate Bracelets provides.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

Max Lichaba finished school with a Grade 10 and no prospects, except for a burning desire to do more with his life than become a miner like all the other men in his community. This is the story of how he started a jewellery business, lost everything, and painstakingly built it up from scratch again.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

I grew up living in the garage of a friend’s house in the small town of Virginia outside Welkom. My dad lived on the mines, my mom had five kids and nowhere to live, and he gave us a roof over our heads. It was a mining town, and I was expected to become a miner. But, my mom wanted us to have an education. She never blamed anyone for our situation — she just tried to make a plan. School was one of those plans. But, it needed to be a school close to home, and free — or as close to free as possible. That left only one option: A remedial school in Virginia.

Looking back, it had its pros and cons. I got to work a lot with my hands, and discovered I was really good at it. But the school ended at Grade 10, which meant I would never matriculate, and my maths and language literacy skills weren’t great by the time I left. I was never challenged, and an unchallenged mind doesn’t grow.

I’ve only recently completed some financial literacy courses so that I can run my books and understand my numbers. I’d left that to my accountants, and learnt it’s unwise — you have to be on top of your numbers. I didn’t have these skills from my youth, so I needed to go out and get them, ten years after starting my own business. But, if you’re serious about growth, it’s never too late.

By the late 1990s I was 16, helping my mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and my school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself. Harmony Gold owned the mines in our area and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill the local community.

I wasn’t satisfied with my Grade 10 qualification. I didn’t want to be a miner, and I wanted more than selling fruit and veg on the side of the road. I knew I was good with my hands, and I saw the jewellery school as an opportunity.

Related: How To Build A Disruptive Attitude

I applied late, but that didn’t stop me. Every day I went to the school, and sat in the waiting room, determined to secure a spot if one opened up. There was one student who hadn’t pitched at the start. I pestered the registrations office to let me take her spot. I was relentless. One day I received the call: “Fine, the place is yours. When can you start?” I replied that I was on my way.

Everyone at the school had completed matric. I was the youngest person in the room with the lowest qualification — but I was good with my hands and hungry for success. Six months later I was one of the best in the class. I spent all my time there, practising and getting better and better at my new craft. I realised that I wanted to make beautiful things I could sell — I was already thinking about a small business.

As we were finishing our course, a local jewellery manufacturer, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students. I was chosen, which secured my first job in the sector. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it to South America. With 3 000 employees, it was a major employer in our community, predominantly of women. After nine months, I had the down-payment for my first car, and had just moved into my first flat, when we arrived at work to closed gates. Overnight, and with no warning, the company had closed down. We were all given a letter, stating that we would receive our salaries at the end of the week, and that the business had been liquidated.

Finding a light

max-lichaba-entrepreneurThe women around me — many of whom were the sole breadwinners in their households — were kneeling and wailing in shock. I was also in shock, coupled with a good healthy dose of anger. And then I started thinking. I had no dependants. No children relying on me to be fed. I was 19 and I’d find a job. But what about these women? I couldn’t help everyone, but there were four gogos I knew. In my community, gogos are the backbone of everything. I didn’t hesitate, I just said to them, let’s start something together. Let’s meet at my house tomorrow. We can make this work.

Here’s the problem. A machine costs between R50 000 and R100 000. We didn’t even have R5 000. We needed to start small. Putting our heads together, we realised that the simplest thing — and one we could afford — was beads. We needed to start bringing in cash, and this was the fastest, simplest way.

Between us we collected R1 000 to buy beads and start working from my flat. The local Nigerian market loved them, and then we had a stroke of inspiration — we approached church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear at competitions. This became a steady source of income.

We spent 18 months focusing on beads, and then I started looking at our growth opportunities. The business was very hand to mouth — we used our cash to buy more materials. There wasn’t room for expansion, and after a year and a half I wasn’t any closer to buying machines. So, what could we do?

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

After researching SME support programmes, I found SAB’s Kickstarter competition and we entered. We won in our region, and with the R20 000 prize money were able to buy small machines. We didn’t have an innovative business, but we were operational. I believe that gave SAB faith in our business.

Start small, but start — that’s the key. I could have gone out and tried to figure out how to raise R100 000 for fancy machines. I didn’t do that. Instead, I focused on trading — bringing in cash to feed and support us.

The equipment took us to the next level, and I was able to look for our next opportunity, which was a programme run between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Dti that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas. There were many forms to fill in and our capacity to deliver if orders came in was checked, but eventually we were approved for the programme.

We were still in my flat, and we needed more space — but we couldn’t afford rent. We found a tiny shop and convinced the landlord to let us move in, if we agreed to start paying R500 per month as soon as we could. Always ask — you never know what the answer will be. If you’re polite and friendly, people often want to help you — or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.

When everything goes wrong

kwa-lichaba-founderWhile we were gearing up for our first foray into global markets, I concentrated on local growth — and that meant Joburg. I didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford transport, so I hitched rides, wearing a suit and tie. I had a jewellery business and needed to look the part. I made sure I was always the smartest looking guy in the room. If you take yourself seriously and project where you want to be, others will take you seriously too.

I really struggled to get our jewellery into local stores, but we finished the dti’s six-month programme and were considered export-ready.

Step one was making the products. The African element was popular, so we focused on that. Our choir market had grown, and we were able to use the cash to manufacture more products for export from those sales. Our first trip was to Nairobi and we received immediate orders. Our second was to London, and we realised we were onto something.

The Dti gave us an incredible opportunity. They work on turnovers, and move you into different regions based on your level. We worked with them until 2015, and gained a foundation for growth. They also helped us build up our cash reserves.

At the time, we were exporting our jewellery successfully, we’d won Kickstarter and had deployed those funds into the business. But, I was looking for more. Success makes you feel invincible, and my experiences with the Dti had been positive. Then I found another opportunity: We could open a school, similar to the one Harmony had run, and give youth the opportunity I’d received. The Dti funds initiatives like this, which meant we could give back to our youth, with government support.

I achieved the NQF accreditations I needed, and set up the school at a cost of R900 000. We were told we’d be paid within 60 to 90 days of each student enrolling, and we took the plunge.

But harsh reality stepped in. I took my eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school at a time when we’d moved into new, bigger premises to handle our increased international orders. The first payments came through 12 months later than expected. Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school, and the result was that we couldn’t pay rent for the jewellery business.

Related: Successful People Always Chase the Impossible – Here’s Why

After two months our landlord told us he was locking our doors. I begged him for more time, promising I’d pay him soon. I kept hoping the Dti payments would come through, but they didn’t. I was in Joburg trying to get paid when I received a call from someone I thought was my friend — he was laughing. Our doors had been locked and all my equipment was being auctioned off. I raced back to Welkom but couldn’t stop it. I owed R30 000 and couldn’t pay it. I watched my machines get sold for R300, and I couldn’t even afford to buy them myself.

At the same time, I realised that as I’d built the business, I’d paid less attention to family, and more to friends — and I was learning that they weren’t very good friends. They’d laughed at my fate and told me that they hadn’t expected my good fortune to last. I realised I was surrounded by people who didn’t truly care about me, or believe in me, and some were even satisfied at my loss. It was time for change.

One of the toughest things you’ll ever do

Starting over is one of the hardest things in life. I had nothing, and worse, I’d failed the people I had wanted to protect. They were all jobless, my old ladies and my new staff. The younger staff who hadn’t been with me at the beginning were particularly angry and wanted their salaries. I was devastated.

The one light at the end of my tunnel was the support of my brothers, who came back to Welkom from Joburg to help me. It was a stark and humbling reminder of the value of family. I’d been open and shared my story, asking my friends for assistance. They all said no. I realised these were just ordinary people, and I’d put too much faith in them. My brothers were the opposite. They each took out a R3 000 loan that they couldn’t afford to help me pay my staff and settle some debt. And they did it in faith, believing I would make a plan to pay them back. I would never neglect my family again.

I needed to get back on my feet, and I no longer had a business, or the school. I started by reaching out to my old school — could I teach there? For six months, that’s what I did. I taught and saved every cent I could. I sold most of my furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When I had enough cash in the bank, I started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom. I knew my equipment was specialised, and I had a feeling that the people who had bought it wouldn’t be able to use it. I was right — I started to find my machines at different pawn shops. Piece by piece, I bought them back.

It took eight months, but I was able to get back up and running — at a very small scale. I worked from my flat, exporting to India and the UK. I was totally focused. I vowed I would never lose sight of my core business again, even if I pursued other ventures.

I finally got the cash I was owed for the school, and paid my gogos’ retirement packages. I then made my second biggest mistake. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get into retail stores in South Africa. There isn’t enough of a funnel for gold jewellery in the local market. But, we didn’t want to admit defeat, and so we opened our own stores in a Pick n Pay centre in Welkom, in Randburg, and in Orange Grove. The money we made overseas went into these black holes — and we did it for three years. Having a personality that won’t admit defeat has its pros and cons. It’s kept me going in the face of enormous adversity, but it’s also sustained me when I should have admitted defeat and moved on. We spent too much on stores for limited returns. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit a second defeat so soon after the failure of the school. Whatever it was, I held on too long.

But, you live and you learn. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.

Starting over and pursuing passions

I wasn’t done trying new things though. I’ve always loved cars. When I was at school, we learnt to fix cars. I’d had this idea for a while: A luxury car wash where you could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama and drink a beer while you waited. I thought the combination would attract more people. At that stage, we’d closed down two of our Lichaba Creations stores and only had one still operational. I bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and started building my dream, brick by brick. It’s a big building, and it took my whole family a year to finish. It was funded through the jewellery business, so we built on and off, depending on cash flow.

I wanted to launch in December, so towards the end of 2013 we all put our backs into getting it finished. My brothers travelled from their homes in Vereeniging every day, and together we got it ready. We opened on 16 December and haven’t looked back.

Related: 4 Success Lessons From The Entrepreneur Who Quietly Grew Pinterest Into A $12 Billion Company

Kwa Lichaba gives us incredible returns. We chose to charge an entrance fee to attract a specific clientele. It was trial and error at the beginning, but slowly we’ve shaped one of the go-to venues in Soweto, with a vibrant, loyal clientele.

We realised we had something worth more than gold: Access to a captive, middle to upper-middle class black market. It took us a year to get traction with the concept, but we now host corporate-sponsored functions throughout the year, giving brands access to our clientele. It’s an incredible model, and one we replicated in Lesotho — my grandmother’s place of birth — in 2016, and this time we didn’t lay a brick ourselves.

Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customisation and sound business, followed, reflecting my passion for cars. We also opened a refinery to recycle precious metals ourselves, so that we can supply the gold we need for Lichaba Creations, which continues to do very well overseas.

I’m in a good place. I know that life — and business — have their ups and downs, and I have no doubt there are more lessons to learn on this journey. As long as I apply those lessons and keep picking myself up, I will always have something to show for my hard work, and a legacy to leave for my children and the people I love.

Lessons Learnt


Know your numbers

This sounds so obvious, but I trusted people with my books for years — mainly because I wasn’t financially literate. I reached a point where I would no longer accept that I couldn’t run my own books, and so I upskilled myself. I took business management, bookkeeping and finance courses. It’s never too late to learn something new.

Education is everything

This is one area where I’m lacking. I’m filling the gaps as much as I can in my later life, and determined to give my children a better education than I had. I also want to help other children. Through the Lichaba Foundation, we close Kwa Lichaba on Wednesdays so that we can feed Soweto’s children and gogos in need once a week. We also have social workers and educators on site, to try and do as much as we can. Once a week isn’t enough, but it’s a start — and you always need to start somewhere.

Pay it forward

There are so many people who have helped me over the years. Never forget that you don’t achieve success alone. It always takes a village. I believe it’s our duty to give back if we succeed. We started out making boerewors rolls from the boot of our car and handing them out in townships. Today we have the Lichaba Foundation. We support the children of Soweto, have a magazine that supports local businesses and gives them free marketing, and the Miss Lichaba competition, an annual pageant for Soweto-based teens. The winner receives free university tuition, and is the face of all our businesses for a year. She is also expected to give back to her community, paying the idea of social awareness forward.

Work as a community

All of our businesses operate within a community — which is true of all businesses. You can’t operate as an island, and ignore those around you. And why would you want to? It creates goodwill, a vibrancy that operating alone could never achieve, and encourages everyone to work together towards shared goals.

Look for your own opportunities

When I look back at my life, it was tough as a kid. There was so much pain and embarrassment. Kids laughed at me because I sold fruit and vegetables at the side of the road and went to a remedial school. I was driven to prove myself. I’m a human being and a man. It’s my life, and only I can prove myself. I wouldn’t let my circumstances hold me back. I saw these things as challenges and obstacles I had to face, but also as opportunities. You need to look for opportunity. No one else will do that for you.

Listen to the podcast


Matt Brown interviews Max Lichaba and unpacks his incredible journey from small-town kid to successful entrepreneur.

To listen to the podcast, go to or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Co-Founder Of DataProphet Daniel Schwartzkopff Talks AI And How To Prepare For The Coming Change

Artificial Intelligence is set to change the way all companies do business, says Daniel Schwartzkopff of DataProphet. Those who don’t prepare for this inevitability right now run the risk of getting left behind.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Player: Daniel Schwartzkopff
  • Company: DataProphet
  • Position: Commercial director and co-founder
  • Established: 2013
  • Visit:
  • About: DataProphet is comprised of a diverse team of skilled computer scientists, statisticians, actuaries, engineers and mathematicians who deliver actionable Artificial Intelligence solutions to organisations.

Can you give us some background on yourself? What sparked your interest in the fields of AI and machine learning?

I first developed an interest in AI and machine learning when trying to build a system to play poker against humans and win in 2011. Subsequently, it has been proven that heads-up limit hold’em poker is a solved game, meaning there are now unbeatable AI bots in this variant of the game.

How did DataProphet come about, and what does the company do?

DataProphet started as a machine learning consultancy in 2013 after noting the lack of such businesses in South Africa. This was at the beginning of the machine learning renaissance — the advent of graphic processing unit (GPU) processing had enabled techniques developed in the 1950s (neural networks and deep learning) to finally become viable. The use of a GPU as opposed to the CPU to perform the calculations necessary for deep learning brought about a 100x increase in calculation speed. This allowed companies and individuals access to the technology that only a nation-state with a supercomputer would have previously had.

DataProphet developed expertise across many industries with a major focus on insurance, financial services and manufacturing and began to develop products. It is now primarily focused on the global expansion and distribution of its Omni manufacturing product that is able to massively reduce defect rates by optimising with machine learning. This software is in production at several global sites.

One of our clients, Atlantis Foundries, the largest foundry in the southern hemisphere has been using our software since the beginning of the year and has achieved a 0% defect rate on shipped parts for several months — a very exciting milestone for us.

Is there a difference between AI and machine learning?

This is a fairly contentious question and largely depends on who you ask. In my opinion, Artificial Intelligence refers to the broader concept of enabling machines to perform tasks that previously only humans would have been able to do. In some narrow applications machines can now perform these tasks much better than humans.

Machine learning is one way to enable Artificial Intelligence and refers to the idea that machines can perform as more than just calculators, essentially discovering the underlying patterns/equations that govern a system just by providing them with enough data.

These can seem like such high-level concepts, so can you give us concrete examples of how they can affect of a business?

All industries will use machine learning as a fundamental part of their operation in the future. For example, machine learning can provide more accurate pricing models for insurance. It can reduce defect rates in manufacturing by predicting whether a part will be faulty, and then adjust the operating parameters to produce less faulty parts in future. Netflix and Amazon use machine learning in their recommendation systems to provide you with content and products that you want and thereby increase sales.

Self-driving cars are entirely powered by machine learning. For retail, machine learning can predict what a customer will buy and generate personalised specials based on anchor items that will draw the customer back to the store. It can perform more accurate demand forecasting than any linear model.

The opportunities for implementing machine learning in business are vast and most of the S&P 500 either have in-house data science teams or are using machine-learning powered products already. The only requirement is data. Data is extremely valuable and generally enterprise-size businesses have the quantity of data necessary to build an effective model.

How will these two concepts disrupt the working environment?

Rules-based professions can and will be displaced entirely by AI systems. Lawyers, doctors, accountants and so on. Jobs requiring empathy and human interaction will be the last to go, along with engineers, programmers and other professions that have a design or management element.

How should companies prepare for the coming change?

Businesses should begin to aggressively store and utilise their data. Machine learning can significantly improve efficiencies in almost all businesses.

In 1965, corporations remained in the S&P 500 Index for an average of 33 years; by 2012 this had shrunk to 18 years. In a single year, Kodak’s net earnings dropped from $1,29 billion to $5 million. All they did was fail to act on a market shift with the introduction of the digital camera. Machine learning is having the same effect on other  industries. Uber’s core business model is based around machine learning and they are effectively shutting down the metered cab businesses in every city they operate in.

Taxi businesses faced no competition for decades and grew complacent and failed to innovate. Now some of the largest cab companies in the world have split up and filed for bankruptcy protection. Lemonade Insurance Company is disrupting the insurance industry with crazy growth figures and much lower pricing because of their use of machine learning and an app to radically change the status quo. This is not the distant future. The time to engage with machine learning is now.

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