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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

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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.

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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Entrepreneur Profiles

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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