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Pioneer Financial Planning: Bryan Hirsch

Bryan Hirsch is well-known to South Africans as an erudite insurance pro and a trusted “regular” on radio and in newsprint. In this interview, his business mettle and moral integrity shine through

Andrew Honey

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Bryan Hirsch of Pioneer Financial Planning

One of the first things  you notice about Bryan Hirsch is his energy. It literally oozes out of every pore, so when you learn he will soon celebrate his 60th birthday, you’re nothing if not humbled. This is a man who manages assets worth hundreds of millions of rands for his clients, appears on two national radio shows that generate over 100 calls a week for him to return (something he does with almost fanatical dedication), writes a column for Business Day, has written his own book on financial planning and still finds time to be a dynamic and driven CEO for the South African branch of Pioneer Financial Planning, making him responsible for operations in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia. He’s also beaten cancer.

And Hirsch shows no sign of slowing down. If there’s anyone who is up to the challenge of leading the way in financial planning, this is the man. He has his finger on the pulse of change and a vision for the future that is innovative and exciting. There’s not much that he hasn’t seen, done and learnt during his lifetime of involvement in this industry. His experience shows, not only in the financial advice he dispenses, but also in the wisdom that colours his approach to life and people.

Entrepreneur: Who are your customers and how do you identify your best prospects?

Bryan Hirsch: One of the important lessons I learnt early on in my business life was never to underestimate a prospect. You have to remember that to each person their money is important, and a small amount of money is probably more important to someone who is not wealthy than a large amount is to a millionaire. Our customers are people who need simple solutions to protect themselves or people who have money to invest. They include older people with small amounts of money, younger people who want to start a portfolio and very wealthy people who have hundreds of millions to invest.

E: Most companies talk about their good service, but many fall short of the promise. What is your attitude to service?

BH: In terms of service, I have one simple business philosophy: to provide clients with the same service that I would expect if I was a customer of this organisation. I am fanatical about that and some people find it difficult to live up to the high standard I set in the organisation, but it’s something I will never compromise on. I give good service and I call people back.

E: Many entrepreneurs have great product or service ideas, but fall short in one key component of their business design: how they capture value. How do you capture value?

BH: In one of three ways. Firstly, we earn commission from traditional insurance products. We also earn fees which are a predetermined percentage on investment products that we sell. Finally, I charge consulting fees, although we don’t look to that to make money. A key driver of value capture is new customers. The customers we have are our stock in trade; they need to be serviced and retained, but the growth of our business has got to come from new customers. And then we also give clients asset advice, placing their assets with various institutions.


E: One of the drivers of business success is the re-engineering of a company’s business design to meet the ever-changing needs of the business’s customer segment. Has your business design changed over the years and why?

BH: It has definitely changed and is not at all the same as it was 10 years ago. This is because, historically, we operated in a far more segmented way, whereas our approach today is far more holistic. This change was precipitated by the fact that, in the past, people lapsed policies because they didn’t understand why they were buying them, they didn’t understand how those products were supposed to fit into their bigger picture. Now we look at a client’s bigger picture and sell them products that fit into this picture. I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle and believe that people should never make an investment, or add a piece to their puzzle, if they don’t understand where it fits in. So today, we don’t sell products – we look at what the individual’s needs are and tailormake holistic financial planning solutions according to their needs and wants.

 
E: How did you get into this business?

BH: Although I initially looked at actuarial studies as a potential career, all my life I have been an outgoing, uninhibited individual and I found I was very good at sales. As a youngster I used to be a Cub and we’d do ‘Bob a Job’, where you’d earn a bob for doing a job for someone. This was when I was eight years old and every year I kept a book of what jobs I did at people’s homes and would go back the following year and suggest an increase for the same job.

When I was 10, I was also a Cub reporter for The Star newspaper and I used to get scores from three different sports fields on a Saturday, phone them through and get paid two-and-six for each one. I had three grounds: the Wanderers, Zoo Lake and Pirates. I couldn’t handle all of them myself, so I had people working for me at each of the grounds. One of my co-directors’ mothers looked at all this and said to me: “You’re a born salesperson, you’re a good prospector and you’re organised. You’re an ideal person to enter the insurance sales industry.” I didn’t even know what insurance was, but I chose it when I left school and learned the business from A-Z in London and South Africa, working for Legal & General, and then at Liberty Life.

 
E: To all businesses sales are important. In insurance, sales are the business. What made you choose a business where selling is so critical?

BH: My sporting interests forced me to go into sales and there’s a bit of a story behind that. In 1968 I was working for Liberty Life as a junior clerk and the British Lions were playing against Transvaal at Ellis Park, so I asked my boss if I could go and watch the rugby, pointing out to him that I wouldn’t take lunch and that I always come in very early to work every morning. He said “no”, and that afternoon Transvaal beat the British Lions. I wasn’t at the game, but almost every other male in the company had gone, so the next day I resigned. Donald Gordon, who headed up the company at the time, phoned and asked me what I was doing. He negotiated with me, and said he would pay me a salary for three months while I tried selling on my own and if I didn’t make it, I could come back to the company. So I stayed at Liberty Life and started selling. I have never looked back.

 
E: What is your key to success?

BH: There are a number of things I try and do. On my first prospecting call, I don’t try and sell anything. I always tell people upfront what business I am in and that I’d like to come and see them. And the times when people do turn me away, I keep their name and phone them back in six months. Keeping in touch is so important because this business is about building new relationships and opening doors for the future. Some of the best advice I have heard is that successful people stop being successful because they stop doing what they hated doing initially, but that made them successful in the first place. When it comes to sales, people hate cold canvassing because they don’t like no’s. In this business you have to be meeting new people all the time. You have to keep finding new customers. And sometimes that takes doing what you don’t like doing.

 
E: Entrepreneurship is about innovation and succeeding against the odds. Where have you been the most innovative?

BH: I am innovative in my ability to cross-pollinate. I’ve never seen a customer in the light of buying one product. When I see an individual, I think of them holistically and how I can help them in all aspects, with pension funds, medical aid and investments. I also make it my business to understand people’s business so I can always identify opportunities. I keep my eyes and ears open all the time for opportunities.


E: Can you think of an example of something that you have failed at and learnt from?

BH: I failed dismally with many business partners. I am a very hard taskmaster and sometimes tried to get my own way. It was only later on that I learned there are different ways of doing things. I also learned a great lesson: that you don’t have to get to the top of every mountain. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, get off the mountain. Or go another route. I believe that prolonged stress for any activity can lead to some sort of illness. In my case I got cancer and then a relapse, all because I always had to climb every mountain or because every challenge had to be successfully completed. That is why the lesson of not having to climb every mountain changed my life. You can fail sometimes; you don’t have to succeed in everything. People strive for two reasons: the desire to succeed and a fear of failure. Both are powerful motivators, but one is negative and one is positive. I learned to stick to the positive one and that it’s okay to fail.

 
E: Who would you identify as top entrepreneurs and why?

BH: Brian Joffe, because he’s a leader of leaders, a man with something special who has been able to get people to follow him. Mark Lamberti of Massmart Holdings, because he went into an industry that had many players and competitors and he created something enormously successful. Donald Gordon – he’s been my mentor and has created two world industries in one lifetime; insurance in South Africa and property in the UK. Mark Weinberg in the UK, who revolutionised the whole insurance business, and then Jack Welch – I read everything he writes.

 
E: Where have you found your most important learning resources?

BH: The best education I got came from belonging to the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO), where I interacted with 10 other execs on a monthly basis. It’s about making company presidents better through education. You can be invited to join if you’re under the age of 45, have a certain turnover and a certain number of staff. It was a place where I could always talk about anything from life to business and knew that the other execs there had nothing other than my best interests at heart for the time that we would meet. It helped me to find a lot of solutions. I also learned a lot from my clients about service and good advice, and about how well their families were taken care of after they themselves passed away.

 
E: What are your future plans?

BH: For the next year or two I will certainly be here – we have a story to tell and one of the things we are looking at is to list our international business in South Africa. After that I need to find someone to take over from me. This is a personal business and when you are dealing with individuals, you need to ensure that you can still deliver what you initially promised. We want to make sure that even when I am not here in the future, we can still provide clients with the same service they are used to, all the time ensuring that we give them peace of mind and creative solutions.

Two critical challenges facing business today

1. Keeping people motivated and understanding what their role is in the company. It is critical that people realise how their personal needs are aligned to the corporate needs. In addition, so few companies keep their staff fully in the picture in terms of the successes in the company. People want to work for successful companies and informing them of successes helps keep them motivated.

2. Getting people to understand that there is nothing wrong with saying they don’t know how to do something. It doesn’t make you a bad employee. It’s better to ask 10 times and learn than to make mistakes because you pretended to know what you were doing.

Valuable advice for entrepreneurs

  • Once your business is off the ground, consider what will happen to its future growth if you are not there, either through death or disability.
  • You need to consider that business cycles change and it is important
    to diversify some of your investments away from the business.
  • Try to get rid of personal sureties as quickly as possible.
  • Do not be scared of giving shares away to people who have worked hard and deserve to be owners.
  • Think about selling a stake to a private equity company who can help add future value. Entrepreneurial businesses often stop growing and even die because they fall into ‘founder’s trap’.
  • As your business grows, you need to accept advice from a whole range of entrepreneurial professionals who have other skills.

Andrew Honey is the Group CEO of Entrepreneur Media SA, ThinkSales Corporation and SmartCompany Networks. He is passionate about sales and sales leadership. In 1999 he led Freewind Publications to display outstanding sales service and sales acumen at the annual Marketing Mix Magazine MOMA (Media Owners Marketing Awards) where the company defeated sales teams from large publishing houses such as Media24, Caxton, Associated, Ramsay Son & Parker and Oracle Airtime Sales (M-Net).

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Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn

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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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