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Weigh Less: Mary Holroyd

The story of how Mary Holroyd built the Weigh-Less empire is as much a story about heart as it is about having a business head.

Juliet Pitman

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Mary Holroyd of Weigh Less

One of the first things you notice about Mary Holroyd is her size. She’s absolutely tiny. Sitting in the waiting room of her Johannesburg office, I’m taken by surprise when this diminutive woman smiles and puts out her hand to me, apologising for keeping me waiting. I was expecting someone larger.

Someone shoulder-padded. A powerhouse of a businesswoman. After all, this is someone who won IMM Marketing Man of the Year. I expected to be intimidated. So, I’m ready to get down to business immediately and uncover the nitty-gritty details of what it’s taken to build the 32-year-old Weigh-Less empire. I have a list of questions to get through.

But Holroyd isn’t playing along. She laughs and talks about her UK childhood and Irish family. She asks about my family. I deflect her questions, steering her deftly (or so I think) back to the hard-nosed stuff of business. But it doesn’t work, and eventually I give in and let the conversation flow.

As I listen to her talking, it slowly dawns on me that what I’m seeing is the story of Weigh-Less. The secret to Holroyd’s success lies in precisely what she’s doing with me right now. Talking, listening, empathising – she’s totally, 100% engaged. And I realise that yes, Weigh-Less is a business empire and yes, Holroyd is a businesswoman of some merit, but that the essence of the company doesn’t lie in the answer to a question about strategy or systems or overcoming cash-flow challenges.

It lies in the fact that Holroyd has created something few entrepreneurs manage. She’s taken her unique personality – that intangible, slippery, hard-to-quantify thing that drew people to her initially and made her first Weigh-Less slimming groups so successful – and managed to replicate it throughout a business that employs over 1 300 field staff and holds over 2 900 meetings a month.

The reason this is relevant is because the ‘product’ Weigh-Less sells is not a diet plan or even the recipe to a healthy lifestyle. It’s not a magazine or a range of food products (although the company has both of these). What Weigh-Less sells is a sense of belonging.

It’s a club and no one understands this better than Holroyd. “As a former fat person, I will never forget what it was like to go to a slimming club for the first time. I will never forget how much I wanted to be accepted. And I never let my group leaders forget it either,” she says.

Holroyd started her first few groups in Durban in 1975 with just a bathroom scale and R10 to pay for printing and advertising. She ran the early groups herself and says that doing so was driven more by the need to be accepted as a foreigner into the local community than by any thought of starting a business.

But the fact remained that she was good at what she did and word spread about “Mary’s groups”, as the locals termed them. She took on more and more members but running every single group was never a realistic option. So when the company grew, she needed to hand over new groups to new leaders.

And what better people to sell the Weigh-Less journey than those who have travelled it? Every group leader is a former Weigh-Less member. As Holroyd explains, this makes them uniquely qualified to lead other people through the Weigh-Less experience: “Being a former group member means they understand the experience from the member’s point of view.

They know what it feels like to be a member and to want to lose weight. They know what it feels like to have a group leader who empathises with them and encourages them. They know how good it feels to belong to that group. And because of all these things, they know how to replicate that experience for others.”

It’s a simple concept, harnessing the immense power inherent in what is essentially referral marketing. But in 1975, when Holroyd implemented this ‘strategy’, the term hadn’t even been coined. “I’m just a housewife and I did what made sense,” she says. “Okay, I eventually did my MBA, but that was at 50 and I left school at 15.

I didn’t know anything about business. But I did know what it felt like to be a member and I just followed that.” In every decision she makes about the company, Holroyd says she keeps her members top of mind. “Take my field away and I’m blind,” she admits. “I need to be in touch with my members and my groups – from a business and personal point of view. Having that connection helps me make the right decisions for the company.”

These decisions have led to the growth of the company in a number of different directions, but Holroyd has ensured that the essence of Weigh-Less is at the heart of everything. In 1979, she launched the first Weigh-Less endorsed food item.

“The impetus behind that decision was members complaining that they didn’t have time to weigh their food, and couldn’t I develop a breadroll that they wouldn’t have to weigh. They told me if they could just have such a breadroll, they’d never cheat again, and that set me off! Because I was always looking for the one thing I could do or say or give members so that they would never cheat again and just lose weight,” she laughs.

Bakers manufactured the first breadroll. The SlimSlab, manufactured by Beacon and now synonymous with Weigh-Less, soon followed. A slimmer’s Melrose cheese wedge came next. “Every one of these products was developed because a member had requested it initially, or indicated that those things would help them in their Weigh-Less eating plan. It all starts with the members,” says Holroyd.

Today the brand endorses a range of products manufactured by other companies, as well as their own Weigh-Less range. Although the company is not involved in the manufacture of these ranges, it has strict licensing agreements, guidelines and contracts signed with each manufacturer.

“The fact that those products have our name on them is a massive responsibility, and one that I take very seriously,” says Holroyd. “They have to be of benefit to our members.” This guiding principle also sparked the launch of the Weigh-Less magazine. Now a bi-monthly glossy publication that sells thousands of copies, Holroyd recalls that it had humble beginnings.

“It started as a photocopied and stapled leaflet, but there were three core elements back then that it still retains today: a member success story, a group leader article and recipes,” she says. The magazine has been an integral part of extending the members’ sense of belonging so important to the Weigh-Less ethos. It was followed inevitably by the Weigh-Less website, which has 95 000 e-members and, as Holroyd points out, is where her next challenge lies.

“How do you create the Weigh-Less feeling of belonging in the virtual world? I believe that it can be done, that it’s possible to create vibrant online communities,” she explains.

Is there any chance of the website replacing the groups in the field? To this she answers an emphatic no. “I believe there will always be a place for the human touch because ultimately, that’s what Weigh-Less is about. Anyone can go on to a website and download recipes or photocopy the book.

What you can’t photocopy or download is the experience of being part of a Weigh-Less group. You can’t photocopy the encouragement you get each week, or the sense of pride you feel when you are applauded for reaching your goal weight,” she says. Having said that, the food, magazine and website undoubtedly play a key role in building and maintaining the Weigh-Less brand.

“I didn’t plan any of it – they sort of fell into place. I guess I was just following what made sense at the time,” she says, when asked about the brand’s growth strategy. “Years later, when I did my MBA, I learned all the terms about what we’d done at Weigh-Less, but in a way I was glad that I only did it later on in life.

Because you can know too much and I don’t think I’d ever have started the company if I’d read about all those things a business is supposed to be about! But I didn’t know, so I was guided by what I felt my members needed. I just went with what I felt was right.”

Going with her gut is something Holroyd feels strongly about – and with good reason. She ignored it once and came close to losing the company as a result. She remembers the period as one of the most difficult in the history of Weigh-Less. Realising that member retention rates and standards were dropping, she made a great effort to get back ‘into the field’ and in touch with group leaders and members.

But this involved long periods away from the office and she turned to ‘professionals’ for assistance in running things and hiring new people in these roles. “I felt at the time that I needed specific fields of expertise in the financial and managerial sectors,” she explains.

For a while, everything went to plan until Holroyd started to learn, through a grapevine of disgruntled long-standing employees and managers, of directives being issued from head office without her knowledge that threatened to undermine the fabric of the company.

One instruction was for group leaders to shred the Weigh-Less manual. “A new manual was put into the field, which left out all the major critical success factors of our company – the cultural communication and people skills specific to Weigh-Less, which is the heart of the company,” Holroyd relates, adding that the next change was a subtle removal of all staff who were close to her.

“Loyal staff were being demoted and dismissed, and I was being convinced that this was for the good of the company,” she says. A long-standing branch manager expressed concerns to Holroyd that the head of the management team was connected to a competitive company. But the person in question simply provided a convincing explanation and victimised the accuser until she was forced to resign.

Trying to fix the problems in the field and with her attention diverted away from head office, Holroyd admits that it took a while for her to realise how far the poison had spread in the company. The lightbulb moment eventually came when a member of the new management team openly challenged her during a meeting. Recognising that there was something deeply wrong, she set about investigating exactly what had been going on.

What she discovered was disturbing. One group, for example, was losing R10 000 a month. The team of professionals she’d brought in had not only undermined what she had built, but had neglected to do the most basic managerial tasks.

Looking back, Holroyd says she blames herself for what happened and although the incident took place many years ago, the lesson she learnt is still fresh in her mind. Writing about that period in her autobiography, she says: “An entrepreneur must never lose sight of the fact that the biggest qualification they’ve got is sitting in their gut.

You taste it and feel it. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. Don’t ever think because you haven’t got an MBA or BCom or any other degree, you’re any less qualified to know what’s right for your company.” With characteristic determination, Holroyd took the bull firmly by the horns and wrestled the problem to the ground. In the end, she says that the learning curve was invaluable, forcing her to scrutinise the way the company conducted the business side of things.

“I learned that information is vital,” she says, explaining the complete analysis she conducted of the business before investing in information systems that would help to ensure that she would always have her finger on the company’s pulse.

She also learnt the meaning of ‘non-negotiable’ and they’re words she’s not afraid to use. She makes sure things are done her way. And so, finally, I get to see the hard-nosed businesswoman I came expecting to find. What becomes clear by the end of our conversation is the fact that, while the heart might be what’s immediately evident on meeting Mary Holroyd, it’s balanced by the wisdom of an astute business head. And the combination of the two are worth more than their weight in gold.

Business tips

  • One of the most important lessons you can learn is the difference between delegation and abdication. At the end of the day, you’re the one who gets into bed with it. Don’t give anyone total responsibility in your business if it’s just a job to them. Don’t let anyone make decisions for your whole company on a “just a job” attitude.
  • Information has a vital role to play. It tells which direction to pursue and where to place your time and effort. The times when you aren’t sure which way to go are the times that you don’t have enough information at your fingertips.
  • Take time to talk to staff and ask them in the corridors how it’s going. You can have daily management meetings but nothing replaces those personalised questions. It keeps you in touch with what’s going on and where people are at.
  • In the real world you can’t have a monthly meeting and just rely on the fact that everyone goes away and does what was agreed. I don’t care how professional people are, I have learned that they still need to be followed up.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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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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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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