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Jenni Button

Jenni button Nearly lost it all save for her unrelenting spirit and creative passion. This is her story.

Juliet Pitman

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Jenni Button designer

Jenni Button is bouncing out of her chair, talking a mile a minute about her new ventures as she sits in her Parkhurst-based Philosophy boutique, surrounded by garments in a riot of gorgeous colours of luxurious fabrics. The energy that radiates from her is electric.

It’s Friday afternoon and the feisty blonde is in high spirits, throwing her head back and laughing loudly as she recounts how she made (and lost) her name in fashion. You get the distinct impression she’s like this most of the time.

To listen to her rattle off ideas, you’d never guess this was someone who recently lost a major court battle in which she was hoping to be awarded what she believed were her rightful shares from the sale of the Jenni Button fashion company. And she was barred from ever attaching her name in any way to any clothing brand in South Africa.

“To add insult to injury, the economy took a complete nosedive, which means I had to borrow money from the bank to build my guest house, my latest venture – not a great time to be building or borrowing money from banks, let me tell you!

And I lost my two beloved cats to feline leukemia,” she says of the year that she describes as ‘an absolute shocker.’It’s the kind of year that would make even the most battle-hardened businessperson give up and go home, but astonishingly, Button is brimming with confidence, exuding the kind of energy, enthusiasm and passion one associates with young entrepreneurs who are still blissfully naive and have yet to learn how it can all go horribly wrong.

She simply refuses to lie down and die. Hers is a story of troubled times, and how to bounce back. Here’s how she did it.

Happy beginnings

It all started off happily enough. Jenni Button first made her name as a fashion designer at the age of 23 when she opened her first Jenni Button clothing store in Adderley Street, Cape Town, in 1984.

“I’d left advertising to do my own thing and had always been passionately interested in fashion, the female form and making women look beautiful,” says the former fine arts student. She worked from home. “I’d do all the cutting on the bed, and the lounge was full of garments and ironing boards – crazy times!” she remembers.

The young designer caught the fashion world’s attention. Her extreme minimalist style in muted tones of blacks, whites, greys and beige stood out in stark contrast to the patterned, coloured prints that dominated fashion in the mid-80s. “In many ways I was lucky. I was designing the kinds of clothes I loved to wear back then, but I was also in the right place at the right time,” she says.

It was a time when minimalist designers like Georgio Armani and Calvin Klein were just coming to the fore. Women were coming to realise their power in the boardroom and were dressing accordingly.

Partners & growth

Right from the start the store took off. “It was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t produce the clothes fast enough – part of the reason the store looked so minimalist was because sometimes we literally only had four or five garments left to sell,” Button laughs.

Within a year she had brought in partners Mandy. Chemaly and husband-and-wife team Liz and Phil Biden. Both Chemaly and Liz Biden played a hands-on managerial role in the company, leaving Button free to design. Phil Biden took up the position of chairman.

The company opened stores in Hyde Park, Sandton City, Claremont and a second Cape Town city store. At its height there were six stores in total. Jenni Button became synonymous with understated elegance, sexy sophistication and ‘Queen of the boardroom’ style.

She became famous for dressing South African celebrities, such as news anchors Gillian van Houten and Doreen Morris and many participants in the annual Best Dressed Woman of South Africa award. Internationally, she became popular among international film stars, with Bo Derek and Jacqueline Bisset listed as clients.

The Jenni Button label was a key showcase in all of South Africa’s major fashion shows, including Lucilla Booyzen’s SA Fashion Week. Then in 1997 the company decided to sell. “Mandy Chemaly was ill at the time and didn’t want to be in the rag trade anymore. We were approached by The Platinum Group and decided to sell,” Button says.

Coming undone

It was the start of what was to become her biggest mistake, one that ended unhappily in court in October 2008 when a judgment brought to a close the sorry tale of how not to sell a business.

To cut a long story short, Button and her partners sold 70% of the business to The Platinum Group in 1997. At the time of the sale Button owned only 35% of the company. She ceded 5% to her partners, who owned the remaining 65%, so that The Platinum Group could purchase the 70% they were looking for.

A written agreement at the time of the sale stipulated that she would be offered at least a 30% interest in the new company. But – and this is the crucial bit – the agreement stated that the terms and conditions of this interest would be decided at a later date.

She would work in the new company for two years and that during that time, a shareholders’ agreement would be drawn up. It was all a bit vague and worryingly lacking in concreteness.

No shareholders’ agreement was drawn up and it slowly dawned on Button, who was working at the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, that her requests to finalise the shareholding and transfer the promised 30% shares to her name were falling on “deliberately” deaf ears.

She brought a court application in which the judge ultimately found that, “for reasons of vagueness and unenforceability” the provision in the agreement to give Jenni Button 30% was void. The shares were never transferred to her name. “I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on,” she says.

Naming rights

At the time that Button brought a court application to transfer the shares to her name, the Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd group brought a counter-application to bar her from using her name in her new clothing range, which was called ‘Philosophy’, but which she marketed as being ‘by Jenni Button’.

The court ruled that, on purchase, the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company had acquired all the goodwill to the ‘Jenni Button’ name. Although there was no registered trademark, the court found that for Jenni Button, the person to use the ‘Jenni Button’ name, infringed the goodwill rights that the Pty (Ltd) company had to the trademark.

With hindsight

All this begs the question: “What on earth were you thinking?”. What would make a smart businesswoman with experience enter into an agreement to sell her own name, without any concrete safeguards in place to ensure she got an appropriate payment for it?

It’s not the selling of the trademark that’s baffling; Donna Karen did it, but she was handsomely remunerated, something that Button sadly cannot claim. These are questions that Button has had to answer thousands of times, and has no doubt turned over in her own mind many more, and she takes them in her stride.

She says: “The deal was done and signed in two days. So firstly it was rushed because the buyer was going overseas and it needed to be finalised quickly. Secondly, it’s not that I got bad legal advice; I didn’t get any legal advice. That was my single biggest mistake. I was naive and I thought I was in good hands. I trusted too much. I truly believed that the provision in the agreement to offer me 30% in shares would be honoured. After all, I was going off to work in this new company.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption to make. Together with The Platinum Group, she was going to help take the Jenni Button brand to new heights and, although she’d sold the rights to her name, she believed she’d own 30% of the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, so the pay-off made sense.

Learning the lessons

“I believe that everything in life teaches a lesson, so let me tell you the one I learned: never agree to a rushed deal and never, ever, ever do any kind of deal without getting your lawyers to look at it,” Button says emphatically, describing herself as “totally lawyered up these days.”

It’s a lesson she’ll never forget. She’s registered the rights to her name overseas and sells the Philosophy range through Jenni Button International. “No one can use my name overseas without my permission – and that’s something they won’t get,” she says.

She’s also registered Jenni Button Jewellery and Jenni Button Gallerie locally and overseas. Philosophy has been running internationally for nine years and exports to London, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona. The label has developed a loyal following, particularly in LA, and among the likes of Charlize Theron, Marla Maples and Cheryl Tiegs.

Moving on

Button is adamant that she never wants to endure the drama of another legal fight ever again. But while she describes the process as “totally destructive” and while it might have been financially crippling, it clearly wasn’t creatively so.

In spite of the court case, the economic downturn and other personal challenges, last year was one in which Jenni Button had enough creative energy to start three new ventures. The first, and perhaps the one she’s most passionate about, is her new guest house, Maison du Sud, currently under construction on the side of the mountain in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.

“That court judgment was absolutely devastating, but the day I walked out of there last year I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be up there, on the top of that mountain running my guest house,” she says.

She describes it as a luxury residence offering a completely unique experience: “There are only four suites and it’s priced between R3 500 and R7 000 per person per night. I am going to run it myself, which means I plan to do most of the cooking and the hosting.

So it will be like coming to stay at Jenni’s, but with a combination of exclusivity, privacy and luxury – all on top of the mountain set amongst gorgeous old oak trees.” She’s combining this new venture with her old passion for painting, which she plans to pursue in the studio that is being built in the guest house for that purpose.

She also plans to host painting getaways where guests can take a package that includes accommodation at the guest house and access to painting time in the studio. “I also want to host regular cocktail parties there to promote fantastic local artists,” she adds.

Creative powerhouse

Button has employed her creative eye in doing all the decorating for Maison du Sud. “The style is very ‘French meets African’ and I’ve used some beautiful antiques that I’ve been collecting for a long time,” she says.

In fact, creativity, decorating and hospitality are connected to her other two ventures, one of which is corporate clothing. Button landed the contract to do the corporate wear for Sol Kerzner’s luxury One & Only Resorts establishment, which opened in Cape Town this year.

The other is interior decorating, and she’s been approached by Toni Stern, the owner of the luxury floating 150ft house-boat hotel, the Zambezi Queen, to do the interiors. And although she knows she doesn’t yet have a reputation as a painter, she’s already started work establishing one.

Her first work, a portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, sold for R250 000. Button will continue to be involved in Philosophy, running the online store but leaving the day-to-day running of that business to Noel Hibner, who’s been with her for 15 years. “I will always love fashion and the rag trade, but I want to move into other creative fields now,” she says.

The living brand

Button markets all of these ventures through the extensive network she’s built up over the years. There’s no doubt that she’s a born salesperson and that, combined with her creativity, is what made her successful in the first place. It’s also what she’ll draw on in future to grow her ideas into successful enterprises.

Looking back on it all she concludes, “I suppose that’s why I’m able to feel at peace with everything that’s happened. I realised that a brand is not a label or a sign outside a door. A brand can be a person – think of Madonna or Sol Kerzner.

It’s a living thing that’s made up of the sum of all the ideas, creativity and all the positive energy that you have.” Understanding the power of this brand essence has enabled Button to start again. “When someone takes everything away from you, they can’t take that. It’s the most important thing you have and it’s the thing that you can draw on to build success any time you choose,” she concludes.

Jenni Button’s secrets to success & inspiration

  • If you don’t have absolute passion and pure conviction about your business venture, don’t bother doing it.
  • Being naive has its virtues in business but make sure you get all your admin perfectly in place. Many an otherwise savvy business person has been brought down because they didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it came to issues of partnership agreements, tax or legal documents.
  • If you choose to delegate (something I don’t do easily) make sure you check and double-check that it’s been done, and done properly. Your business relies on it.
  • Make sure you have a business plan and that it covers all potential areas of risk.
  • Do not procrastinate! “Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.” – Don Marquis
  • Change your thoughts and you can change your position in life. “It’s not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it’s the one that’s most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
  • “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill.
  • Refuse to be a victim! “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” – Steven Biko
  • Be flexible. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
  • “If moment by moment you can keep your mind clear then nothing will confuse you.” – Sheng Yen

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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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.

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

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

Slikour’s Moto: If You Dream It, You Can Be It

Rapper and entrepreneur Slikour believes his success is the result of one key element: The aspiration to make something of himself, and create a platform for his voice to be heard. Now he’s bringing that mindset to South Africa’s black urban youth.

Nadine Todd

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Take note

Before you can achieve great success, you have to believe in the possibility of success. This is the single greatest secret to changing your circumstances — you have to believe it’s possible.

Did music or entrepreneurship come first? Siya Metane, aka rapper Slikour, isn’t sure himself. The two have worked hand in hand for him since he started selling cassette tapes of his own music when he was 12 years old.

What has developed over time however, is an innate and deep understanding that with his success comes a responsibility to pay it forward, and help his community and kids like him see that they can be anything they put their minds to.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

If they can dream it, they can be it — provided they realise they can dream it in the first place. This is his challenge, and greatest driving force.

Start small, but dream big

I bought cassette tapes on Smal Street in the CBD for R5. My best friend, Lebo and I recorded our own rap music onto them and sold them in our neighbourhood for R15. We needed the mark-up — it meant we could buy more tapes, and also that we were making a profit.

Related: Zuko Tisani Learnt These 7 Invaluable Lessons On His Path To Success

I’m not sure if we were trying to start a business or launch our rap careers, but if you’re living in a hood like Leondale you don’t always recognise that there are opportunities open to you. No one is going to do it for you — you have to have your own aspirations, and find a way to make them happen.

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

That was one of the biggest and earliest lessons I recall growing up: The ability to dream big can be stifled out of you. I lived in a hood where there were no aspirations past our neighbourhood — the neighbourhood and its opportunities were everything. If 90% of the people you know are suffering, who are you to not suffer?

It’s a very limiting mindset, and one that does a lot of damage to our youth. I knew kids who had incredible potential, but could only look at their immediate environments for opportunities. So a budding young scientist doesn’t find a way to change the world — he finds a new way to make drugs.

Those are the limiting aspirations I was surrounded by. I call it the Trap, and it’s the driving force behind everything I do today. I want South Africa’s urban youth to recognise the Trap, and understand that they should have aspirations beyond it, because they have the abilities and potential necessary to break free.

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

I was lucky, I wasn’t a victim of the Trap. What so many people don’t understand is that I could have been. Hard work, drive and discipline aren’t enough to break free of the Trap. You need to believe you can break free — to look beyond your current circumstances. In my experience, that seemingly simple mindset shift is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It’s more complicated and pervasive than you can imagine.

Two things showed me a different way. First, my mom got me bursaries at Holy Rosary Convent and then St Benedict’s College. I was surrounded by rich white kids, full of privilege, and it struck me that here were the same talents and opportunities, but with a wealth of aspiration in the mix.

Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

That was the real difference — not ability, but recognising that ability and having the aspiration to do something with it. It was eye-opening. The second was meeting my best friend, Lebo Mothibe. Lebo, or Shugasmakx, as he’d later be known in the music world, had one foot in the privileged world, and one foot in our world.

His mom lived in the hood, his dad was a wealthy entrepreneur who lived in Illovo. And Lebo straddled both worlds effortlessly, and with humility. But he looked beyond the limiting beliefs held by many of his neighbourhood peers.

Find people to inspire you to reach success

His dad was also the first self-made, wealthy black man I met. But when I heard his story, I realised that it wasn’t overnight success. He’d slept on Lebo’s mom’s couch while he slowly but steadily built his business. It gave me an understanding that success is earned. You need to work at it, and push on against adversity. This had a huge impact on me.

Lebo was the ying to my yang. Even though we didn’t think of each other as business partners, that’s what we were, from the age of 12. We formed Skwatta Kamp, we hustled and shook up the music industry together, and changed the face of rap music in South Africa.

I was the dreamer, the visionary, and Lebo was the executor. He found a way to make my crazy schemes and ideas come to life. This is exactly what a partnership should be — helping each other grow, and complementing diverse skill sets.

Build your success, one step at a time

We built our success, brick by brick. I entered a TV show competition, Jam Alley, and won. I used the cash and Dions vouchers to buy recording equipment. Lebo’s dad helped with speakers and a keyboard. My brother, who was studying IT, downloaded software and helped us with our recording quality. Everyone pitched in with what they could. 

Be your own biggest cheerleader

We tried the recording contract route for a while, but realised that the only people who cared about our success were us. And so we hit the streets — hard. We had street crews, we sold our own CDs and negotiated with music stores to carry our albums.

Recording studios kept saying they’d sign us, but they never had a studio available. They just didn’t see the value in rap and hip hop. They didn’t believe there was money in it in South Africa. We needed to prove there was.

Gallo finally approached us and signed us after we won at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) as an independent act. We used real guerrilla tactics to get our name out there — on stage, with that platform, we told our fans that if a music store didn’t carry our album, to burn it down. We wanted the attention — that’s how you build a name.

Related: Entrepreneurial Powerhouse TBO Touch On How Success Is Built From Small Acts

Our first album went gold, and we used that to push the idea of rap into mainstream media. If 20 000 people bought the album, another 200 000 had bootlegged it. There was money here; and slowly brands and advertisers started realising we were right.

Drive a movement with your business

We were musicians, but first and foremost we were driving a movement, and that meant we needed to be businessmen as well. We hosted end of year parties, and got brands on board, realising we had a captive audience that aligned with their target market demographics. We started our own label, Buttabing Entertainment.

Our goal was to find and nurture young musicians from the hood to get them established in the industry, and show other kids in the Trap that it could be done: Anyone can create their own destiny. One of the things I’m proudest of is discovering a kid in Katlehong, Senzo Mfundo Vilakazi, who would develop into Kwesta.

He’s doing phenomenally well, and recently appeared on Sway in the Morning, one of the biggest hip hop shows in the US. Our success spilt over into Kwesta, and now his meteoric rise will hopefully inspire a whole new generation to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.

Pivoting to further growth

All success has its pinnacle. By 2010 we had achieved so much as Skwatta Kamp. We’d brought rap music into the mainstream and opened opportunities for countless kids, as music labels actively sought rap and hip hop acts. I realised that I’d hit a ceiling. I needed to step back, regroup and figure out what to do next.

What I did was something I’ve only ever associated with privilege. I moved home, spent a lot of time lying on the couch, and wrote. I wrote my life, my lessons, my dreams, my ideas. I don’t know how I reached a point where I was able to do that, but I’m grateful. I started collecting my thoughts and understanding my purpose.

During that time I was approached to join a few marketing agencies. I had no formal marketing training, but we’d worked with big brands at our parties and activations.

Sprite was the first to recognise that they had an opportunity to authentically connect with the black urban youth through us, and so we partnered up. I learnt above-the-line marketing in a Coca-Cola boardroom, and built onto what we’d learnt on the streets about below-the-line marketing.

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

That experience had drawn attention, and so for a while I joined an agency. But its mandate was sponsorships, and my heart was with the black urban youth. I’d discovered my purpose, even if I’d subconsciously been living that purpose for almost 20 years.

I wanted to create a platform that gives young black artists a voice; established artists a way to reach out to the youth that other platforms don’t offer; and brands a way to authentically connect with that audience — not just to sell products, but to show black urban youth that their culture is important, that it holds value, and that they, in turn, hold value.

Related: Shark Tank’s Romeo Kumalo Weighs In On High-Impact Entrepreneurial Businesses

Adidas’s support of Run DMC in the US showed that kids from the ghetto had a message worth listening to. Big brands have the power to connect the unheard and voiceless to the mainstream, if it’s done correctly. I had the marketing experience to understand the ROI that brands need, as well as what I could do with that to support black urban youth.

All I had were dreams and a URL, but that was enough. I quit my job and launched my website, Slikouronlife.

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

This is my politics and CSI. If we can get marketing to marry culture, and change the positioning and perception of young black South Africans, we can show there are opportunities out there, and create aspirations.

But we need to put culture first and tap into the authenticity of who we are as South Africans. We need to recognise and acknowledge the mental traps that exist in our neighbourhoods, and that we are victims of limiting beliefs, and then show that there is another way.

Everyone told me I was nuts. That black people don’t go online. I did it anyway. With Skwatta Kamp we had created a market for our music. Kids supported us; my name added value — and then brands came on board. We now average between 200 000 and 250 000 unique visitors a month, which is impressive for a mainstream website, let alone a niche music site.

Ten months ago we were a team of three operating from my house with one desk. Today we’re a team of ten with one focus: To make a real difference on the ground. To give the voiceless a voice. To prove that if we can drive the aspirations of South Africa’s urban youth, the sky will be the limit.


Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Edward Moshole started a business in 1999 with just R68 in his pocket. Today he has a company that not only has a turnover upwards of R25 million, but is also on the cusp of expanding to the next level. Here’s how he’s turning clients into partners.

GG van Rooyen

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In 1999, Edward Moshole was a cleaner with just R68 in his pocket, but he noticed a business opportunity.

Good quality detergents and disinfectants could make a tough cleaning job much easier, so he started buying quality products in bulk and selling them to his fellow cleaners. He wasn’t satisfied, though. He wanted a business that made and sold its own products. So, he tackled the long and arduous process of creating cleaners and detergents that could pass strict regulations and compete with the best products on the market.

It wasn’t easy, but he kept at it. In fact, he only got his first real breakthrough in 2006 when a supermarket agreed to start stocking his products. Today, his Chem-Fresh products can be found all over Africa, and he counts Pick n Pay as one of his main clients. How did Moshole manage to turn R68 into an empire?

Here are his rules for building a large and sustainable operation.

1. Find the right clients

“Very early on, I identified Pick n Pay as a must-have client. I could see that the company was changing its strategy — it was starting to move into townships and rural areas, places where it hadn’t been operating until then — and I thought it would be the perfect place to sell Chem-Fresh products,” says Moshole. But getting in wasn’t easy.

“As a small business, you don’t get to sit down with decision- makers. Becoming a supplier to a large retailer is a difficult process. It took me years to get a foot in the door, but I didn’t give up. I just knew that Pick n Pay was the right company to do business with, so I kept at it.

I refused to take no for an answer. Today, Pick n Pay operates more like a partner than a client.

Related: Attention Black Entrepreneurs: Start-Up Funding From Government Grants & Funds

Thanks to my partnership with Pick n Pay, I’ve been able to scale Chem-Fresh quickly and access a distribution channel that allows Chem-Fresh products to be sold all over the continent. Once you have the right clients, you gain instant clout and reliability.”

2. Own the manufacturing process

chem-fresh-products

PC: risingafrica.org

When starting out, entrepreneurs often have little choice but to buy other companies’ products and resell them. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — it can be a successful strategy. However, it can eventually limit your growth.

Firstly, buying and reselling products places a cap on your margins. When you own the manufacturing process, you can increase your margins, since making and selling products tends to offer wider margins than merely buying and reselling.

That said, you have to keep in mind that this is only true when you operate at a certain scale. Making and selling something in small quantities can often be more expensive and time consuming than simply buying it from a supplier. You need to crunch the numbers and make sure that the expense of a manufacturing facility is actually worth it in the long run.

Secondly, it allows you to keep control of the quality of your product. “The secret to any great brand is consistency,” says Moshole.

“People should know what they can expect from the brand, and one of the best ways to ensure this is to have total control of your product. If you make it yourself, you’re in charge of the quality.”

3. Be willing to diversify

Some companies can grow while sticking to a very specific niche, but most have no other option but to diversify. Although Chem-Fresh started out selling just one or two products, Moshole soon started to expand the range. The company now has more than 100 products.

“Generally speaking, you can only capture so much of a market. Sometimes it makes sense to actively try to grow your market share, but it’s also a good idea to diversify. Not only does this open more revenue streams, but it also protects the business against market changes. So, if the sales of one product slows down, another speeds up and everything evens out,” says Moshole.

Related: Sibongiseni Mbatha’s Top Collaboration Techniques To Grow Your Business

But the important thing is not to stray too far from your comfort zone. Chem-Fresh now has a large product range, but it has stuck to an industry that it is knowledgeable about. The company has built a name for itself within a specific industry.

4. Build a strong foundation

“Don’t wait too long to start thinking about the long-term life of your business,” advises Moshole. “The stronger the foundation of the business, the easier it is to grow it, so you need to implement the right systems and processes early on. If you don’t, the business will fall apart without you.

“You will always be very involved at an operational level. You’ll be so busy with the daily grind, that you’ll never be able to take a strategic view and focus on building the company.

So, you need the right systems and the right people. You need to know that the business can keep going without you. If you do this, you will be able to grow the company while others deal with the operational demands.”


Key Insights

There’s no substitute for perseverance

It took Edward years to get his product onto Pick n Pay’s shelves, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Today, the relationship is more like a partnership.

Own the process

In the right quantities, producing and selling your own product can significantly increase your margins over selling someone else’s products.

Strategically increase revenue streams

Diversifying your product range within your niche allows you to offer the same clients a greater range, tap into new markets, and protect the business against market changes.


TAKE NOTE

Take a long-term view when contemplating the growth of your company. It’s never too soon to prepare a business for growth. Implementing the right systems and processes right now can make it much easier to scale the operation down the line.


Related: 6 Of The Most Profitable Small Businesses In South Africa

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