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From Dirt Poor to Self-Made Millionaire: Lebo Gunguluza

Dirt poor as a child, Lebo Gunguluza, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and all-round mover and shaker, became one of South Africa’s youngest self-made black millionaires at 27.

Monique Verduyn

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Lebo Gunguluza

R60 and a whole lot of nerve. That’s what Lebo Gunguluza had on him when he arrived in Durban in 1990, determined to enrol for a BCom at the University of Natal. His father died when he was a child and his mother worked as a nurse. There was not much money to go round and what she had managed to save for his tertiary education went on getting him, his brother and his sister through high school in the turbulent late 80s.

“There were so many boycotts at the time that I missed two years of school, so my mother took her savings and sent me to Woodridge College, just outside Port Elizabeth, which was a multiracial school,” he says. “It was a great move on her part as I managed to get a really good education there, but it meant there was nothing left over for varsity.”

Driven from an early age

Gunguluza says his dream to study business was enabled by his appetite for risk. He had no money and no place to stay, but he also had nothing to lose. “Whatever you do, the higher the risk, the higher the reward. I had been accepted at the university, but I could not pay the fees so I was not allowed to register. But it didn’t matter – all I knew was that I had to get in so that I could do a business degree and become an entrepreneur.”

That level of resolve so early on in life, coupled with his understanding of how important a solid education can be, were to stand him in good stead later on at pivotal moments in his work life. It also highlighted how determined he was to lay a solid foundation for the development of his career.

By chance, and probably thanks to his colourful personality, he met a guy on campus who let him sleep over a few nights while he tried to arrange finance. On the last day of registration his tenacity paid off and he secured a bursary to pay for his studies at the Pietermaritzburg campus. It was to be the beginning of a turbulent but inspiring career. But, by mid-year, his funder decided to pull out of the country, leaving him high and dry. With no resources, he had to find another way to stay on and complete his degree.

“I’ve always been a creative thinker. At school I won a national essay competition on how to launch DSTV. I have applied that skill where possible throughout my life. I knew I had to earn some cash so I went to Edgars and offered to become an agent for the retailer on campus. I would sign up new accounts and they would pay me commission. They agreed, and I did so well that I ended up working in-store. I was making enough money to survive by working during the day and catching up on my studies at night. But it was a struggle to pay fees, so I got a loan to help me get by.”

Learning on the job

That meant that when he graduated in 1994, he had a debt to pay back. But, armed with a degree, some work experience and a formidable ability to sell, he took his pick from several job offers and went to work at the SABC as a sales executive.

“I wanted to be in an environment that was creative. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find out where your talents lie when you are young so that you can make choices that hone your skills.”

It was also at this time that he set his financial goals. “I had grown up so deprived that I was determined to make a lot of money and never experience poverty again. I set three goals: to become a millionaire by age 25, a multimillionaire by 35 and a billionaire by 45.”

Gunguluza did well at the SABC. His drive to succeed was unremitting; he was promoted four times in the space of two years and became marketing manager for Metro FM by age 24. But his impoverished family back in Port Elizabeth was still dependent on him and he was simply not earning enough to take care of everyone, even though they believed he was coining it in Joburg.

That was when he decided to save enough money to go to the US for a few weeks and do a specialised broadcasting course which would boost his earning potential. But his gameplan changed when he got back and was recruited by advertising mavericks, Herdbuoys.

Read Next: Tim Tebeila on the Importance of Recognising a Gap

Making a million

“My salary doubled, but the ad industry is a tough business to be in. I was working really hard but still not making much headway. There was no way I was going to make that first million. Then something struck me. I was really good at throwing big parties at home. Why was I getting all these people to eat my food and drink my alcohol for free, when I could be making money from them?”

That was 14 years ago and he was then 26. He took the plunge once again, leaving Herdbuoys and the comfort of a monthly pay cheque behind. Fuelled by the desire to build a business that would earn him enough to take care of his family and achieve his first big goal, he started Gunguluza Entertainment.

He had no money for cash flow in the business, but he put his considerable ability to leverage situations to great use. In addition to being a skilled salesman, Gunguluza is a networker of note. It’s a talent that comes easy to a person who’s passionate about entertainment and media.

“There was a night club called Insomnia in Sandton that was not doing too well. I approached the owners and told them I would bring the crowds if they let me take the door. That way they could make their money by selling drinks.”

It was a great idea that took off immediately. Why? “Because there were no clubs for young and trendy black people in the north at the time. Most of them were in Hillbrow or in the townships. On the first night I made R7 000 and I knew I was on to a good thing.”

But like many young entrepreneurs, Gunguluza treated the money as his own and not the business’s. After a few weeks, however, he realised that he had to start saving the cash he made in a business bank account if he wanted to hire some help. For about four months he did really well, earning more than R5 000 per event. But then a copycat came along – a celebrity who had kept an eye on Gunguluza’s parties and started to throw his own. The clubbers descended in droves, leaving Gunguluza with an empty dance floor.

Changing direction slightly, he started to book artists he had come to know over the years and quickly became a popular talent manager. By this stage he was making about R100 000 per event, and also taking the opportunity to build his brand. “I made sure I was on radio all the time and I positioned myself as a local entertainment expert,” he says. Then, in 1997, he heard that a new youth radio station was about to be launched and his skill in sales came to the fore once again.

“I was far from reaching my R1 million goal, but I knew radio and I knew parties so I called YFM and convinced them to give me half a million rand’s worth of airtime to organise the launch event on their behalf. Kwaito was big at the time, and I knew all the stars. I met with sound, stage and lighting guys and used the media space I got from YFM to barter with them so that we ended up with R4 million production. I also made sure I partnered with a team who were used to hosting huge events in the white market because they had the experience. 15 000 young people came to that party, and they each paid R100 to attend. I made R1,5 million cash, with all costs covered, and YFM got a fantastic launch party.

“That experience reinforced what I found out early on in business. You don’t always need money to acquire things – it’s often possible to use your resources and barter when you don’t have cash. Without funding, tenders or loans, I had made my first million at the age of 27. It’s a principle I still live by today. I never borrow money from the banks. It can cripple you forever. The other problem is that many young people who secure a loan treat it as a lotto win and live the high life on it. That’s why so many projects are abandoned half way.”

Living the high life

Gunguluza knows what he’s talking about when it comes to squandering. He spent that first million in one year. Instead of using that money as seed capital, he bought a GTI and partied like there was no tomorrow. By the end of 1999, he was flat broke. His car was repossessed and he was blacklisted.

“I hit rock bottom for a few reasons. Aside from the flashy lifestyle, I realised then that you have to choose your market sector carefully. Entertainment is a fickle industry and promoters can be unscrupulous. Often we would not get paid on time. I made up my mind that whatever I went into next, it would be in a space that pays well and has structure.

“At that time I was sharing a townhouse with my cousin, and I was so down and out that I would walk to the CNA and stand in a corner reading business books that I could not afford to buy. Often the staff would come and chase me away so I’d go home, change my clothes and come back. I read about Aristotle Onassis, Richard Branson and Donald Trump and realised that if I wanted to succeed, I would have to change my mindset. These people had huge personalities which impacted their business lives.”

Three key points stood out for him:  Whatever business you go into, you had better know it inside out, down to the last bolt; you must always have a strong sales ability in the business; and cash is king, so whatever money you make, try to retain as much of it as possible and use it to advance the company.

Applying the lessons

Although he did not have much experience in communications, Gunguluza was a media maven. He approached Penta Publications and started to sell media space for them. It was a steep learning curve and Gunguluza took full advantage of it, getting to know the tough world of magazine publishing and corporate events. Satisfied that he had picked up enough, he left nine months later and started working on his communications business, Corporate Fusion, a name that indicated a new direction for him – the rigour of the world of big business. Within 18 months it was generating more than R2 million. He ran it from his townhouse with a single telephone line.

With his appetite for risk growing stronger, Gunguluza knew it was time for him to go to the next phase if he really wanted to grow the business into something substantial. He contracted with several big clients and, through his knowledge of radio and print media events, he launched several awards shows – lavish evenings that became the talk of the town.

He also began to build an extensive public sector network that saw him consulting on communication strategies with several municipalities. By 2003, at 33, his business was turning over R14 million, a result of several big ticket contracts he had secured with blue chip companies. He’d reached his next milestone before the age of 35 and had become a corporate communications specialist by applying his now considerable media and publishing experience.

Read Next: Paul Veltman on Why Bigger is Always Better

Living large, falling hard

But then he dropped the ball once more. Blinded by his success, he bought a Porsche and started travelling the world. Although he did not repeat the same mistake he’d made before with cash flow, this time round he left the business in the hands of others.

He soon lost touch with what was going on in the company and came home one day to the biggest crisis he had yet confronted. An event for one of the country’s largest financial services companies had turned into a shambles. It was so bad that Sunday Times columnist Gwen Gill went on about it for several weeks in her social pages, ripping the event to shreds. Gunguluza lost the client, as well as R7 million worth of other business in three weeks. Four months later he was in debt to the tune of R4 million. He could no longer pay salaries and had to retrench staff, a period he recalls as the most painful time of his life.

To quote Japanese-American academic Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, I have failed three times, and what happens when he says, I am a failure.”

Gunguluza refused to see himself as a failure. He sold the office building he had bought back to its original owners for R1 million, and bought a Primi Piatti franchise in Rosebank. With his background in entertainment, he and his wife were determined to build the restaurant and use the cash they made to pay back all their debtors. As a result of his flair for fun, it soon became one of the most popular Primi sites in the country, and turnover growth was high. It was the place to seen in Rosebank and was frequented by Joburg’s who’s who. But Gunguluza’s relationship with his wife soured and they separated in 2008.

He handed Primi over to his ex-wife and started focusing on the other business interests he had been growing quietly in the background. “I hardly ever slept at that time. When I was not at the restaurant I was developing a new media business and creating new partnerships. I had managed to settle all my debt and build a company that had already turned R2 million by the time I was out of Primi.”

The birth of an empire

Media, hospitality, technology, property and investment – those were the five sectors Gunguluza wanted to be in. “I wanted to use the media business to develop other companies within the GEM (Gunguluza Enterprises & Media) Group of Companies. I was now chasing my R1 billion goal, but I knew that if I started from scratch it would take far too long. My strategy was to acquire an interest in existing companies and triple their turnover by boosting their sales and marketing. Really, it was the same strategy I had applied years back to quadrupling the airtime I got from YFM, just on a bigger scale.”

Next, he partnered with Uhuru Communications, the publishers of SAA’s Sawubona magazine, that same year and several other youth and campus publications. He also leveraged his public sector experience by launching Municipal Focus, also in partnership with Uhuru, which covers the business of local government with a nationwide distribution to municipalities and government departments. He continues to grow his publishing footprint through a series of 12 publications.

The next phase

Indeed, there’s no rest for Gunguluza. He has acquired an interest in several hotels and also launched a car hire company that does not require credit cards and that will soon be providing flight services too.

Is there a logic to all these acquisitions? He says it’s part of his strategy to own every link in a chain – eat, stay, drive, fly.

He is also growing his capital interest through projects he invests in and which make him easy returns. That’s what’s enabled him to grow GEM into a multimillion rand business in just two-and-a-half years. The big news is that he plans to launch the first African television channel early next year – a concept along the lines of MTV Base – which he says is a R400 million deal that will turn GEM into a media powerhouse.

These days, he leaves nothing to chance. Each of the dozen companies in the GEM group has its own MD, with Gunguluza playing an operational role in running the group which now employs about 150 people.

“In the past, my HR was a mess. I would hire people just because I liked them. Today, we have strict hiring policies and procedures and we are particular about the people we employ.”

Gunguluza says that because he was born to sell and market, his focus as chairman is on building the brands of each of the companies in the group so that they can attract more business and seek out new opportunities.

Gunguluza has not forgotten his roots or his family. His mother, sister and brother all have senior positions within the group. His success is testimony to the impact that one person can have on a family and a community. Naturally, he is a far more cautious man now than he was in his 20s and 30s, but that goal of becoming a billionaire by 45 is firmly within his sights.

Read Next: Top Business Tips From a Few Millionaires

Support for black business owners

Having seen his own star rise and fall many times, Lebo Gunguluza is determined to help young black entrepreneurs to understand the value of having a business plan and holding onto cash. That’s why he founded the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum (SABEF) in 2008.

Its membership has grown to 30 000 and he himself has become a sought-after spokesperson for black entrepreneurs, as well as a popular motivational speaker whose journey inspires others.

There were several reasons for founding SABEF, he says. Following his divorce, he was alone and realised that he and others could benefit from some sort of support system. Many people were being retrenched at the time and he was also keen to help them see that it was possible to become self-employed if you did not have a job. There is no need, he stresses, to sit at home and wait for help from government. Beyond that no one realises more than he the value of structures and plans, which is something SABEF seeks to provide for young business owners.

“SABEF is not only a great network for entrepreneurs, it helped me to grow my own relationships with both the public and private sectors. I have a huge base of people to tap into, which has also enabled me to become a successful consultant to government.”

He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Local Government Business Network (LGBN), a voluntary organisation set up to promote the relationship between local government and the private sector. Find out more about SABEF at www.sabef.co.za

Lebo’s Lessons

  1. Cash runs out very quickly and it does not come back. Cash gives you flexibility and mobility so use it carefully.
  2. The customer is everything. How you treat your customers has serious implications for the business. Treat your clients badly and they will not only take their business elsewhere, but they’ll also tell as many people as they can what a terrible company you have. Don’t fob off customers. Always get back to them and maintain the personal touch.
  3. Respect compliance. If you do not comply with rules and regulations and have the necessary certificates,  you will never be paid.
  4. Chase your invoices. Make sure you are invoicing on an ongoing basis or you won’t get the cash.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. richard swarts

    Feb 19, 2015 at 16:10

    I just heard the final bits of the SAFM interview, of Lebo Gunguluza on SAFM. He sound like a very brave & interesting, entrepreneur, that are involved in diverse enterprises. Intercellcash a south African innovation, is the kind of enterprise that Lebo Gunguluza, should partner with. richard@intercellcash.com or ralswarts@gmail.com or 0761230260

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Karl Westvig Of Retail Capital Shares His Insights Into A Year-On-Year Double-Digit Growth Business

Here’s how Karl has negotiated the many challenges of building a high-impact growth organisation that currently has a turnover of R150 million, which expects to double within the next three years.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Karl Westvig
  • Company: Retail Capital
  • Launched: 2011
  • Turnover: R150 million (2017)
  • Visit: www.retailcapital.co.za

Anyone who has successfully navigated a business from a R5 million turnover to R30 million, then to R100 million, and heading towards the billion rand mark knows that growth might be the goal, but it’s also where businesses stumble and fall.

When you’re on a growth trajectory, there will always be some areas of your business outpacing others. The trick is to hang on, and bring your customers, employees, investors and directors on your journey with you, improving the business each step of the way.

Here’s what Karl Westvig, co-founder of Retail Capital, has learnt along his journey, and why he’s continuing to enjoy year-on-year double-digit growth.

Differentiators determine market penetration

Retail Capital’s core product is a merchant cash advance. When the company launched in 2011, there was limited competition in South Africa, but Karl knew that would change. “South Africa is a high card-usage market, which is what you need for merchant cash advance products to work. You need to be able to track the monthly income of an SME to determine the size of cash advance they qualify for, and collect the loan repayments through POS (or point of sale) card machines.

“My founding partner, Dave Lewis saw the product in the UK, and believed it would work here, thanks to our high card penetration. That meant other competitors would soon join the field. The product itself wasn’t our differentiator, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a business worth pursuing.” In any industry, you need to evaluate competitors and whether the market is big enough for you. Karl and Dave believed it was, and that SME finance was under-served, but they also knew they needed a differentiator.

“We brought the concept to South Africa and built our own back-end. The way to differentiate is through channels and distribution, as terms and pricing structures are the same.

Related: Author Of The Little Book of Inspiration Gives Great Advice On Having Direction And Courage

“Our differentiator is our people. It’s about who we are and how we train. We have 40 sales consultants nationwide who conduct face-to-face visits with our customers. We don’t push product, we provide a solution. We work hard to understand each owner’s business, and whether they will get a return on investment from a cash advance. We evaluate what the money’s for, what the margin on it is, and whether it makes commercial sense. There’s no point taking money unless you can make more from it. For example, if it’s used to procure much-needed stock, or gain a large settlement discount from a supplier, that’s an opportunity. But, plugging a cash flow hole to pay salaries doesn’t make sense. You should always ask what the benefit of cash in hand is, and then determine if a cash advance makes sense.

“We’ve developed the tools we use to evaluate this in-house. We’ve gone from zero to 40 sales consultants and we’ve been testing our processes and learning from them throughout that journey. We manually underwrote our early deals, and tracked what the advance was used for, how long the terms were and whether there was a return.

“This process has been automated in recent years, and we now have a wealth of data available to us, but we also have consistency. This means our clients can walk their journey with us. They understand the cost of the money, why they are getting it and their ROI. By the time they deploy the cash, they understand exactly how they’re using it.”

Longevity is built on the right partnerships

point-of-sale-system

Retail Capital’s first product was a premium offering targeted at restaurant owners, franchisees and independent retail stores. “There are 200 000 POS systems in independent chains and single stores across the retail and restaurant sectors in South Africa, and 50 000 franchise stores,” explains Karl. “This was our target market.”

The offering suited the first segment of their market, but they struggled with franchise owners. “The independent space works for us. We’re almost like private bankers for SMEs. Our consultants understand the SME space — many of them have first-hand experience running a small business — and we work closely with our clients. We have business owners who have used us for seven years and have significantly grown their businesses over that time.”

Franchising was a much tougher nut to crack. “We faced a lot of resistance from franchisors who didn’t understand why their franchisees would need to borrow money — particularly a premium, and therefore more expensive product. We realised there was a disconnect between franchisors and their franchisees. Franchisors saw the product as too expensive. Franchisees had experience in trying to secure loans when they didn’t have assets to borrow against, and banks lend against balance sheets, not cash flow. We realised we needed to stop fighting the franchisors and partner with them instead.”

Retail Capital approached a number of franchisors and explained the pricing structure of merchant cash advances, particularly that higher risks for them meant higher interest charges for their (Retail Capital) clients. “We said we could bring the price down if the franchisors could help us derisk their franchisees with pre-vetting, and letting us know who the good operators who used their cash reserves well were. We brought franchisors into the fold and could pass on better pricing because we were taking on less risk.”

Karl has taken a similar approach to the micro segment of the market. “There are 50 000 micro retailers in South Africa, but this segment is growing rapidly,” he explains. “Within the next five years that 50 000 will be 250 000.”

It’s a segment that also benefits from cash advances, but not at the price point of Retail Capital’s premium product.

“We watched the development of mPOS (mobile points of sale) devices overseas and found local producers like iKhoka and Yoco. Our approach is simple; they have the devices, we have the capital and the system to disperse funds. It’s too expensive for us to service this sector face to face. It needs to be a fintech play, which was why we partnered with companies that had the devices.

“There are three sides to a deal. The originator (the device), the capital and the operator. The data that runs through the devices allows us to pre-approve micro vendors for a specific amount over relatively short payment terms. The risks are higher, but we mitigate them with cost-free delivery of the loans.

The systems and processes to get the funding to a micro operator and collect payments is our area of expertise, but we recognise that the originators will also want to hold the book.

“Yoco for example is building scale. To truly grow they need to become lenders themselves. This is going to happen whether we like it or not. Our current joint venture model allows them to partner with us, and eventually we will just be the operator. Within this particular market, we’d rather have that than nothing, which is why we’re flexible.

“There are other business benefits for us. Our technology is our platform, and this can be used in many other ways. We’re operating in a minefield of opportunity, collecting risk data on industries across the SME sector that we will be able to apply to other products. You don’t need to own every channel of a value chain. Working with the right partners can be much more valuable, and opens doors to new opportunities.”

Related: Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

Leverage existing platforms for growth

“The most exciting part of Retail Capital for me is re-imagining the business. Dave built a great business before he exited to sail around the world. It was profitable and well-managed, but with a single product.

“When I walked in I took a different approach. I started by asking what our customers were looking for, and listening to what they were telling us, instead of pushing them into nine-month products.

Whenever you launch a new product, you need to start with a profitability framework. For us, this meant asking what our return on capital requirements needed to be across three to 18 months. Once we knew that, we could build it and offer adapted products to the market.

“Adapted products require adapted training. Too often companies add products, but don’t walk their teams through the new offerings, and so everyone sticks to what they know.

“We also looked at what other markets we could enter, which led us to franchises and the micro segment.

“What you really need to understand is your core. Financial services are all about distribution. Can you give it out, and can you get it back? Everything else is the framework that supports this core.”

According to Karl, the question ‘can you give it out?’ is about creating a product that you deliver where customers want it, whether that’s on the phone, online, or through face-to- face engagements. “You need to give your customers touchpoints at places convenient to them. Great businesses build capacity around their customers. Understanding their routines and what’s convenient to them allows you to invest where it makes sense.

“By listening to our customers, we could give them what they were looking for. We built new products and extended existing products based on this data.”

The second question, ‘can you get it back?’, involves underwriting and collections, and this is where Retail Capital’s IP resides. “You need to be able to set different limits and risk levels for different industries. There’s no such thing as one solution fits all in the SME space,” explains Karl. “Fashion stores and restaurants can afford to repay 10% to 12% of their credit card turnover, but FMCG stores wouldn’t have cash flow if their repayments were that high. Industries have differing risk profiles and require different terms. This develops over time. The longer you spend in the market, the more you can increase your efficiencies and reduce risk.”

Impactful growth doesn’t happen overnight

Two of the institutions that fund Retail Capital’s book are Ashburton and FutureGrowth, both large and established investment funds. “Today we are a rated business. Our returns are healthy. We’re a high-yield alternative investment,” explains Karl. “As our rating goes up, our interest rate falls, and we are able to pass that saving onto our customers. But that takes time.” You don’t go from being a start-up to funded by Ashburton overnight. You need a good track record, a professional and experienced team and stable loss rates. In short, you have to prove yourself in the market. Building something of value takes time and patience.

There have been challenges along the way, matching the balance sheet. “If you’re doubling the size of your business year on year, you need to be able to fund the growth of your book. The problem is that customers and money are seldom in balance. One is always stronger than the other. If you get funding, you need to find customers. If you suddenly have an influx of customers, you need funding.

“Then it’s down to distribution. You’re doing great, signed deals go up, your volume takes off, and now you need to run to your funders for more cash.”

Related: Executive Director Hasnayn Ebrahim’s 5 Rules For Strategic Growth In Your Business

Retail Capital doesn’t only have investment funds backing its book, but also equity investors. The management team owns 51% of the business, but various funders have been involved since the business’s inception.

“From a corporate perspective, growth triggers changes in a business, and those require investment. However, while we were experiencing rapid growth, our profits went backwards. People, systems and marketing are all significant costs, and they were all happening together. At the same time, I had to keep the confidence of my board and investors.

“As an entrepreneur, you sell your vision. Mine was that we would grow between 70% and 100%, and we weren’t hitting the numbers. It’s tough to keep the faith in a high-growth environment, and you really only get three strikes. How do you explain your vision, inner workings and full pipeline to a board that’s removed from your business, is risk-averse and doesn’t understand your sector? There was a six-month lag between where we were and where we said we’d be, but I knew we’d get there. However, confidence was waning because of the mismatch between the business and its investors.

“I realised I needed to find shareholders who understood where we were going. FutureGrowth was already funding our book. They understood our business, and we’d worked well together. They wanted a stake in the business, and they supported a management buy-out that would exit an investor who wasn’t comfortable in the business, and enable management to increase their stake.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to patience. Build the business that you envision, step-by-step. It takes time, but if you do it right, and lay strong foundations, the right people who share your vision will come on board.” 


CASH ADVANCES:

South Africa is a high card-usage market, which is what you need for merchant cash advance products to work. You need to be able to track the monthly income of an SME to determine the size of cash advance they qualify for, and collect the loan repayments through POS (or point of sale) card machines.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Bertus Albertse Overcame Adversity To Build A R80 Million Franchising Business

This is how an entrepreneur who is still under 30, and who launched Body20 from his living room when he was 24, has built a R80-million business that has just gone global.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Player: Bertus Albertse
  • Company: Body20 Global
  • Launched: 2013
  • Franchised: 2014
  • Turnover: R80 million
  • Visit: www.body20.co.za

At 29, Bertus Albertse has built a R80-million franchising business that launched in the US a year ago. He’s been an over-achiever since school, and his approach to business has been no different. Over the past 12 months however, there has been a personal shift in Bertus’ life and mindset. Just over a year ago, he realised that his childhood wasn’t something to be embarrassed about or buried. In fact, the adversity he’s lived through is a big driving force behind a need for control and success.

“It was a part of myself I’d never shared. I didn’t discuss it in school, and once I started training people and then building a business, I didn’t talk about it either,” says Bertus. “

You’re focused on giving people the best customer experience possible, and that means putting your best foot forward, all the time. Admitting you aren’t always sure of what you’re doing, that you aren’t as confident as you look, or that you’ve struggled and needed to overcome real hardships — that’s just not part of the package.”

Bertus is driven — he got good marks at school, was captain of any team he played in, and would train on Friday nights when everyone else was out having a party. This same drive has led him to learn as much as possible about business, and the more he read, the more he realised that one of the things top entrepreneurs have in common is the fact that they’ve shared their stories. Who they are and what they’ve been through are big contributing factors to their success.

“We’re made to believe that, to a large degree, our adversity is not part of what we project to the world. What do you tell a client that walks in, or a franchisee, or someone that has to be motivated on your team — do you tell them the worst part of your journey, or do you share something that will motivate them? This was always my approach. But the more I started accepting my story, the more I realised that the power of my story made me who I am today.

“Books like Simon Sinek’s, Start With Why, and A Storyteller’s Secret have had a massive impact on me. We shouldn’t ignore the fundamental things that have brought us to where we are today. Mindset, willpower, discipline, the ability to pick ourselves up when we fail — these are all critical success factors, and they’re all mental. If you want to build a strong business, you need to start with your mind. You need to know who you are, how you react to challenges, and why you are the way you are. Then you can harness your strengths, and hopefully work on your weaknesses — or at least be aware of them.

Related: The Wolf Within Bertus Albertse: Body20’s CEO

bertus-albertse-body20“Every time you solve a problem, it makes you realise there’s a bigger problem that you didn’t know you didn’t know. The things that you don’t know hurt you the most. This has been my biggest learning curve with franchising. You might know what it takes you to be successful, but what’s to say what it takes someone else to be successful? You’re now supporting other people who aren’t like you. The more honest you can be with yourself, and the more you can interrogate why you’ve been successful, and what lessons you can share with others, the higher everyone’s chances of success.”

It was within this context that Bertus realised the dangers of being placed on a pedestal. “When your success starts to grow, people naturally want to know more about you. What I found was that I’d been so busy putting my best foot forward, an assumption had grown that I knew everything; that I’d had everything in life, and that this had all been easy. The opposite was true. I knew that if I was going to inspire franchisees to believe in their own journeys, I had to let them into mine. Nothing comes easy. In fact, adversity can often be your greatest gift, provided you know how to harness it.”

With that understanding, Bertus started delving into his personal psyche, motivations, habits and the driving force behind his actions. It’s been an interesting journey, filled with pain and rewards. He now has a much stronger understanding of his personal motivations and actions though, and he’s sharing these lessons with fellow entrepreneurs.

From humble beginnings

Other than a good education, Bertus’s childhood years are characterised by having as little as you can possibly start with. His childhood is shaped by memories of the all-too familiar feeling of a car running out of petrol, or of his mother waking him and his sister up in the middle of the night, so that she could take them home for a few hours before returning them to their 24-hour créche before starting her next shift as a traffic cop. These were all factors that the future entrepreneur buried when he went to school, directing his energy into his studies and sports instead.

“There were so many things we couldn’t control growing up. My mother did the best she could do, but the reality was that we had very little. I realised that control was important to me, and that I could create my own success if I was disciplined, and so I focused on the things I could influence: My marks and how much I trained. I’d grown up watching a level of perseverance in my mom that influenced the way I viewed work as well.”

In fact, Bertus has a keen understanding of the various influences in his life and how they have shaped him. When he was nine years old, his mother married his step-father, and later, in his teenage years, he reconnected with his father. The men are vastly different in the way they view work and success, and yet Bertus learnt a lot from both of them — not necessarily to emulate either of them, but rather in what he wanted from life.

“Both the men in my life had started out without degrees. They worked and studied at night. They achieved success through sheer hard work — and they’d both been indoctrinated to work for someone else, because that gave you stability.”

For a kid who had known very little stability in his life outside of what he could personally control, working for someone else wasn’t very appealing, and his father agreed. “My father realised that if you truly want to be successful, you need to work for yourself. He really encouraged me to be an entrepreneur. One of the first things he taught me was ‘buy low, sell high, collect early, pay late’. That’s how you make money. It’s obviously not that simple, but it’s a good way for you to start thinking about business. I realised that if you’re good at something, don’t do it for free. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is understanding how you generate income and making sure that your income is higher than your expenses. But I didn’t know about assets and balance sheets and how to generate wealth at that point. I was just starting to think about what a business would entail.”

While his father was pro-entrepreneurship, Bertus’ step-father was the opposite. “My step-father is a careful man. He’s got a good job, but he’s also frugal. He doesn’t take risks, and he has no debt. He’ll buy a smaller car, but he’ll pay cash. That’s how he operates. He instilled extreme positivity in us, and always put family first, but watching him made me realise that I’m not risk averse. If anything, I have a high impulse and risk appetite. The combination of these traits can lead you to taking good risks, or bad risks — it’s all about where your focus lies. I’ve always been aware of that and tried to channel my energy into the good risks — areas of my life that I could grow, build on, and hopefully also create an avenue of wealth for others.”

For Bertus, the secret is discovering what motivates you. “I believe in living life to the fullest. I live freely. One of the first decisions I made when I started earning my own money was buying a car I couldn’t afford. This was 150% against the advice of both of my dads — but it motivated me and made me run. I ran for my life. I could have it easier, with less stress — I create stress for myself — but it keeps me focused and driven. There are so many influences around us all the time. You need to find what matters to you. Mostly it’s trial and error. That’s okay. Just keep looking for it — you will find the answers you’re looking for.”

A strong sense of self

Key to Bertus’ journey has been understanding, and to a degree mastering, his own triggers. This isn’t always possible — but the more you understand why you do what you do, the more you can learn to harness that energy.

“I grew up in an OCD household. It was always fine, because I’m also OCD — I didn’t realise how much until I got to hostel and discovered it wasn’t normal to never want to sit on my perfectly made bed, or to shower for 45 minutes or brush my teeth for two hours. Sharing a room with other boys forced me to get rid of some of those habits, and I needed to channel that desire for control elsewhere, so I shifted it to sports and academics.

“This level of discipline is still massive for me, even today. I measure my day on zero to 100 every day. And each new day I’m back on zero — it doesn’t matter how productive I was the day before, or how big a deal we closed. I feel a sense of urgency to make extraordinary things happen today, each and every day.”

Related: Join The Fitness Revolution

This sounds positive, but it has a dark side as well. “If I don’t wake up at 5am to start dealing with emails I feel like I’ve started on the wrong foot, which quickly makes me spiral and feel like a failure,” Bertus explains. “I’ve had to find ways to balance my OCD nature. I can be very disciplined, but if I start spiralling, I’m the most unproductive person on the planet. I need to keep myself in check.”

To find that balance, Bertus has learnt to choose his battles. “I can be very obsessive about one thing, and care nothing about something else. I can’t be obsessed about everything, so I have to choose where my obsessions will lie. I try and make these as positive as possible, focusing on training and supporting my clients and now franchisees.”

Bertus might be OCD, but self-discipline is a muscle just like any other — the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. “For me, it’s all about directing my energies to the right place. For other entrepreneurs, it’s choosing where they can make the greatest impact, and then being consistent in their efforts. Routine is everything.”

Bertus does have a caveat though: “Discipline alone, with no clear direction, can actually be a bad thing. You can easily become too focused on things that don’t drive success.”

24 And taking risks (to reap the rewards)

bertus-albertseBertus has never been employed. He started out self-employed while still at university. He chose to discontinue his studies and dive into entrepreneurship instead, opening a supplements store in Cape Town. “As an underweight kid I’d taken supplements to get my weight up. That, combined with training, was where my expertise lay.”

But Bertus knew it wasn’t enough. “I was just making ends meet. What I had wasn’t a wealth building mechanism at all. I wanted to make a bigger impact in my own life, and in the lives of my clients. I believed a more holistic approach focused on training was a way to do that.”

Bertus wasn’t alone. He was 24 years old, and had a young wife and three children, one of whom was from his wife’s previous relationship. Given the risks involved in trying something new, many people would have stuck with the business opportunity that wasn’t a significant success, but that was paying the bills.

Bertus had different plans. “You need to run for your life,” he says. “That stress, the risks involved — they’re what drive me. I always tell our young trainers that if they really want to be successful, they need to move out of their parents’ homes. The most basic necessities should be at risk. There’s nothing like fear to motivate you.”

With this in mind, Bertus launched Body20 from his living room in 2013. He had

R85 000 in an Allan Gray investment fund that he’d started while he was still studying. He decided the time had come to draw that cash, but it still wasn’t enough. A friend had introduced him to Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) technology, and the whole set-up was R220 000. Luckily, this friend believed in the concept, and agreed to invest in Bertus’ business idea. “I paid the loan back within a year, but he was really investing in the purpose, and he and his wife received free training. It was exactly what I needed to get me started.”

Related: From Body20 Member To Franchisee Of The Year 2017

From the word go, Bertus understood a key element that would ultimately lead to Body20’s success: When it comes to EMS technology, the tech itself isn’t a differentiator. “There’s no exclusivity,” Bertus explains. “There are multiple tech providers available, and no one holds patents. There were also already competitors in the market, so I knew this wasn’t my competitive advantage.”

What Bertus also recognised was that the players in the market were focusing on their offerings as niche. He believed it could be a more mainstream addition to training programmes, working in conjunction with conventional gym sessions, and to help pro and amateur athletes prepare for big events. He went in with a different differentiator in mind: Service.

“At the time, I just wanted to move out of my living room and into a studio. I had no plans to franchise. I believed that my passion and willingness to serve would set me apart.”

And it did. “My clients saw how much I loved what I did, and they started asking me how I’d started out. They were intrigued by the lifestyle I lived — yes, success was growing, but I was also living my passion. That drew them.”

Slowly, Bertus’ clients started enquiring about franchising opportunities, and the idea started to take shape that not only was franchising an opportunity to scale the business, but it would help Bertus to share his passion with others, empower them and provide them a means to also build wealth.

The shift to franchising

Franchising has been an incredible experience for Bertus and Body20 has gone from strength to strength, growing from one studio in 2013, to franchising in 2014 and encompassing 38 studios in early 2018, including three studios in the US. But there have also been a multitude of lessons for the young entrepreneur to learn.

“Franchising as a growth strategy has never been about the capital — if that was the case, we could be a corporate that raises funds through investors. But this is a service business, and that means you need someone in the studio who is passionate about the business and their clients, and franchising enables that. We want to create opportunities for other people. This means supporting franchisees, and in some cases, even investing in the right operators who don’t have the capital to set up their own stores.”

The shift from studio owner and personal trainer to franchisor has not been without its own significant growth hurdles.

“The most interesting lesson I’ve learnt is that franchising is a completely different business model to operating your own business,” says Bertus. “That’s the problem; there’s no one bridging the gap for you. You can go to a franchise attorney to draw up your franchise agreement, but that doesn’t tell you how to operate your franchise. How do you suddenly put up an operational infrastructure to support other people to be as successful as you, when you don’t yet know what they need? It’s difficult to know what someone else needs in their business, even if it’s the same business that you were in.

“Everyone comes at business from a different perspective. We’re all indoctrinated in different ways. I had momentum in this industry. How do you carry that through to someone else who is a mechanic, an attorney, a teacher, or a CA? What do they each need? How do different studios operate in different areas? There are so many variables to consider, and we didn’t always get them right.”

Related: Healthy Body20 Franchise Leads To Happy Hearts

Bertus understood he knew nothing about franchising — but he had no idea of the lessons that lay in store for him until he took the plunge. “This is the biggest difference between corporate and entrepreneurship,” he says. “In a corporate environment, you get clarity first, before you take action. In entrepreneurship, you only get clarity through action. You only know where you’re going once you start moving — clarity comes from doing.

“When you start taking action, you’re already on the path to finding answers — you’re hitting the problems you’re going to encounter, which gives you the opportunity to find the solutions you need to keep moving forward. You won’t always get it right — the path to successful business is littered with failures, but you can’t overcome obstacles unless you’re encountering them.”

One of Bertus’ biggest learnings has been that effort alone isn’t enough to carry you through. “I used to believe that effort equals success in battle,” he says. “This was my guiding mantra — that if you worked hard enough, anything was possible. Franchising took me from being a sole operator to a business owner, and I now know that effort equals a lot of work and a lot of lessons learnt, but that you’ll still get nowhere if you don’t have a solid strategy in place.

“Success equals strategy plus effort. Busyness and success are not the same thing, nor are busyness and effectiveness. Effectiveness happens when you’re busy with the right strategy. This has been huge for me — finding the balance between strategy and effort.

“In 2014 I used to receive no less than 100 phone calls a day. I had to deal with clients, solve franchisee problems and be available for all the people looking for me hourly. I used to think ‘how do you upscale from this?’ I couldn’t take any more calls and I didn’t have a second of the day to think about anything other than getting back to people. I knew I needed to have those problems — if you don’t, you’re not on the right wicket, but how do you upscale from taking a hundred calls to five calls?

“I once had someone tell me that the day would come when I wouldn’t receive a single call. I just thought they didn’t understand my business. After all, my primary role is sales and marketing — how could I not get that many calls? I still believed that effort equalled income. The moment I started focusing on strategy though, this started shifting. With a focus on strategy came systems, processes, well-documented operations. These all empowered people, and the ‘busyness’ started to fall away. I started to find the time to work on key areas that would drive the business forward. My phone didn’t ring as much, because there were systems and processes in place that meant the entire operation was starting to flow. I’ve learnt that the more successful you are, the less busy you’ll be. This doesn’t mean you work less, just that you do less busy work. It’s replaced with focused, strategic work. When you’re busy, you’re just dealing with what’s in front of you. A strategic focus is looking at three, five and ten years down the line.”

Going Global

Body20’s next big growth move has been into the United States. “Like any growth strategy, we’ve had highs and lows, and we’ve needed to learn a lot of lessons,” says Bertus.

“The interest and uptake has been incredible, not just within the US, but from local entrepreneurs looking to expand into international markets as well.”

At the time of going to print, Body20 had already sold three franchises in Florida, with another four in the works. These have brought strong capital contributions into the business as a whole, but not everything has been smooth sailing.

“On the one hand, the first store broke even within four months, when our projected time frame was eight months,” says Bertus. “That’s incredible. But we’ve also learnt that no two markets are the same.

“South Africa is geared for business. We love it here. We sell a lease and the studio can be open within three weeks. There’s no permitting, no inspections, none of that exists here. The US on the other hand is an extremely regulated environment. For example, we signed a lease in February 2017, expecting to be open in June and excited about a great leasing deal that gave us four months’ beneficial occupation to set up the store. Except it took us nine months to get up and running.

“In South Africa, this would have taken us under a month. It was an expensive lesson. Not only were we burning through cash, but the franchisee needs to stay motivated while you wait. The project flow and milestones are inherently different.”

From a franchisor perspective, operating across two continents also has its challenges. “We’re essentially selling our time. This is a services business, and our clients are our franchisees. What we didn’t take properly into account when we started was the incredible travel times involved in doing business in the US. It took us 20 hours just to get to Miami, and a further six to California. You have to factor in all that time when you’re planning your schedules. It’s been a huge adjustment.”

That said, it’s also clearly been a rewarding one, and Body20 is still only just getting started.


TOP TIPS

  • Clarity comes from action. You need to start to figure out what you need to do next.
  • Success is the result of effort plus strategy. Effort alone won’t get it done.
  • Systems and processes are essential if you want to move from ‘busy’ work to strategic work.

 

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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.

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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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