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11 Secrets Of South African Entrepreneurs On Making It To The Top

This comprehensive guide will help you learn valuable lessons from leading South African entrepreneurs on how to succeed in life – and in business.

Nicole Crampton

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Nicholas-Bell

Although it’s tough, you can succeed nonetheless

These 11 South African entrepreneurs have experienced their fair share of ups and downs. Some of them needed life changing events, and external criticism in order to pivot or launch their finally successful business or venture. But in the end, they persevered and today run some of the most thriving companies in the country.

It’s becoming clearer to many that the journey of an entrepreneur is difficult one. They start out in their garages, and some sleep in their cars to save capital. A few realise, after years of running their businesses, that it can’t scale and they’ll need to pivot. Life also happens, which means entrepreneurs also wade through life altering events that regularly drive them re-evaluate their life’s path.

Here are 11 of South Africa’s best and brightest businesspeople, sharing their stories and advice on how they overcame obstacles and struggles in order to achieve success:

Mphela & Associates on scaling their legal services enterprise

maditsi-mphela-associates

Maditsi Mphela

Vital Stats

  • Player: Maditsi Mphela
  • Company: Mphela & Associates
  • Established: 1986
  • Turnover: R100 million
  • Visit: mphela.co.za

As a lawyer, Maditsi Mphela didn’t really consider himself a businessman. But, when he started his own legal practice that is exactly what he became. Law firms are service-orientated businesses, which are notoriously difficult to scale. This is because lawyers are highly-skilled professionals and each case can take lengthy amounts of time.

As the owner, Mphela employed skilled and ‘expensive’ people who spent a lot of time on each case. There was a need to reposition in order to access a growing client base and to facilitate access to the High Court. His practice at the time was successful, earning him R10 000 in the first year and growing from 1 000 to 15 000 clients, but it started to stagnate and he needed to figure out how to scale it.

The Top Secret

Mphela found the answer by finding a specific focus for his business. Instead of being a general practice, Mphela and Associates would focus their energies on personal injury cases and cases against the state. He found that other cases were requiring more work and time, and offered relatively low incomes for his team. So, he re-engineered his firm to focus on areas that yielded huge returns.

Related: South African Entrepreneurs Blazing a Trail Overseas

Decision Inc. had to pivot to build a sustainable business

Nicholas Bell

Nicholas Bell

Vital Stats

  • Player: Nicholas Bell
  • Company: Decision Inc.
  • Established: 2008
  • Turnover: R116 million
  • Visit: decisioninc.co.za

Nicholas Bell launched his business that serviced big corporates and positioned it as a value partner. Five years after launching, his turnover was R21 million and he boasted clients like Simba, Harmony, SAB and Sibanye Gold. However, when meeting with an International Selection Panel to join Endeavour, they told him that they didn’t believe his business could scale, as the Intellectual Property wasn’t his, and that he was open to disruption.

“The feedback made me look at the business critically and evaluate our strengths and weaknesses,” he says. Bell realised that Decision Inc. was open to disruption if someone bought their single vendor. He also looked into who controlled his company’s licence to trade.

The Top Secret  

Once these weakness had been identified, Bell systematically solved each one. First, he partnered with other vendors to avoid future possible disruption from only having one vendor. Then, he turned his attention to IP: “We’re an intellectual business that relies on human capital. Our IP resides in a lot of people’s heads. We needed to get it out of [their] heads and into the business,” explains Bell.

His business had a high capacity, but more employees couldn’t do the work faster. He needed to change his business model, which is what he did. Bell’s business is now worth more than R100 million and in the next five years his business could be worth 10 times return on investment.

Get creative when the pay cheques stop coming

jerusha-govender

Jerusha Govender

Vital Stats

When Jerusha Govender went on maternity leave with her first child, her company decided to not renew her contract for economic reasons. Within weeks of the birth of her son, she had registered her business, Data Innovator. But, how would she get her idea to market? If you can’t get customers to pay for your service, you don’t have a business.

The Top Secret 

“I contacted everyone I knew. That’s a real plus point to working for a few years before you start your own business. The industry gets to know you, you build up a track record and develop necessary experience and expertise to be really innovative in your field,” she says.

However, Govender didn’t have a proven track record as a business owner, so she offered her services for free for a specific period of time to grow trust with her customers. This business model was risky, but in Govender’s case it paid off. She told her clients up front that after two free reports, she would need to be paid for her services, and they agreed. Now, her business is based entirely on referrals and clients have kept coming since she entered the market.

Related: 8 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Proudly South African Businesses

TBO Touch on fighting an uphill battle against your critics

TBO Touch

TBO Touch

Vital Stats

  • Player: TBO Touch
  • Company: Touch Central, serial entrepreneur
  • Established: 2016
  • Visit: touchcentral.fm

When TBO Touch started his career on Metro FM, critics were quick to predict that he wouldn’t be able to grow his primetime show into an asset. His goal, however, was to change the business of radio by converting three hours of radio into a ‘movement’. Throughout his entrepreneurial exploits, it’s argued that the ‘media’ is waiting for him to fail, as he’s already made headlines several times.

The Top Secret

“My mantra from the beginning of my career has been to under-promise and over-deliver.” This method allowed him to consistently keep his clients happy and coming back for more, despite what was happening in the press.

Another top secret that helped TBO Touch go from strength to strength is to continuously have a positive mindset.

“Everything looks big and daunting until you realise how easy it is when you reach the top. There is no such thing as impossible. There are minds and attitudes that create excuses not to attain goals, that’s all.”

Self-doubt or second guessing yourself can have a detrimental impact on your business, it’s better to rather be positive about your business and the direction you’re heading in.

Demographica learnt the hard lesson of adapt and grow or be left behind

Warren Moss

Warren Moss

Vital Stats

Demographica has been around for a decade already, and during this time the company has enjoyed tremendous growth. But, it had to pivot the business to maintain its growth curve.

Long-term companies can see massive disruption heading down the pipeline and that’s what happened with Demographica.

“Things like the Consumer Protection Act and the Protection of Personal Information Act were coming into being, so I realised that a database service like ours would come under threat. If we wanted to keep going we would have to change our business,” says Moss.

The Top Secret

“We weren’t simply sending out emails. We were constantly solving problems for clients. Our clients were asking us for help, and we started to build a reputation as a business that could provide advice and insight on a strategic level. We realised this was an area we could focus on, and so we started to turn into more of an agency, with a focus on direct marketing,” Moss explains.

Demographica not only pivoted, but also carved out a significant niche to operate in. “Since changing over, the company has grown by 200%.” So they completely changed their offering and overhauled the whole company in order to avoid being disrupted and to scale effectively.

Related: 10 Dynamic Black Entrepreneurs

Planet Fitness started with no credit record, no assets and no money

Manny Rivera

Manny Rivera

Vital Stats

  • Player: Manny Rivera
  • Company: Planet Fitness
  • Established: 1995
  • Turnover: R850 million
  • Company worth: Between R2 billion and R3 billion
  • Visit: planetfitness.co.za, www.justgym.co.za

“I started out with no backing, no cash, and no major corporate infrastructure behind me.” But, Manny Rivera was going to launch a major fitness brand to compete with the Health and Racquet Club no matter what.

“I had pure blind passion and only the end in mind. That’s what I focused on. I had a clear vision: I wanted to be the most profitable and successful health club in South Africa…and beyond,” says Rivera.

The first challenge was gaining skills, credibility and a share of the market: “The trick is to focus on what you do have and not what you don’t have.”

The Top Secret

Manny Rivera used the fact that he was starting smaller to his advantage. His competition wouldn’t be paying attention to him. “I knew they’d underestimate the little guy,” he says.

“I found a stand-alone club with nice, old-school equipment and started negotiating with the owner. I couldn’t get a loan to buy the business, so I had to make him an attractive offer that suited both our needs.” Rivera offered the gym owner R50 000 a month with a 10% escalation per year for the next ten years, after that the gym would be his, and that was his first stepping-stone to building a fitness empire.

Do what you know, especially if you can do it better than everyone else

busi-skenjana

Busi Skenjana

Vital Stats

  • Player: Busi Skenjana
  • Company: Brand Support Keys Marketing
  • Established: 2002
  • Visit: bskmarketing.co.za

Busi Skenjana wanted to become an entrepreneur, but she couldn’t figure out precisely what she should do. “I knew I needed a niche for myself,” says Skenjana. She understood that she had to comprehend her customers, their needs and their challenges and relate her message in a way that made them care about what she was telling them. Except, she just didn’t have an audience.

Skenjana has been a member of a stokvel her entire adult life, and it’s an industry that she knows intimately.

“I could see where brands were getting it wrong. Big companies were doing brand activations in black communities, but they were missing the mark,” says Skenjana.

The Top Secret

She suddenly realised this should be the industry she should focus on for her marketing business. Big business was missing the social path to their target marker, but Skenjana knew where they would be.

“Every Saturday there are thousands of stokvel meetings happening around the country. People are engaging with each other on a social level. It’s an engaged audience and far more focused than people at taxi ranks or in malls,” explains Skenjana.

Another top secret, Skenjana says: “If you put your market first and really focus on their needs, success will naturally follow, because you’ll be offering a service that adds real value to businesses and lives.”

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

Partner with your competitor to continue experiencing growth

Rent my ride

Rent my ride

Vital Stats

  • Player: Rudolf Vavruch and Peter Puren
  • Company: RentMyRide
  • Visit: rentmyride.co.za

Peer-to-peer car rental is an exciting business model in its own right within South Africa. There is, however, some debate around how much growth these sorts of businesses can achieve given the largely higher LSM’s and corporate entities that this model initially appealed to.

Being unable to scale would have eventually caused RentMyRide to become stagnant and the business would have slowly downsized, or faced disruption by a competitor.

 The Top Secret

Recognising this potentially limited growth, the founders of RentMyRide partnered with Uber in South Africa to provide easy and equitable solutions for both fleet partners. A separate business and platform, DriverSelect, connects these parties and enables the owners to still get great returns on their vehicles, but with far less involvement in the administration of their fleet.

Launching amidst a global economic crisis made Car Service City stronger

grant-brady-car-service-city

Grant Brady

Vital Stats

For a young company, launching and being hit by a global economic crisis is the worst scenario you can think of. Establishing and growing a business under normal circumstances is hard enough, but when the world’s economy contracts, it can be nearly impossible to succeed.

But, Car Service City didn’t close down like many other businesses did when the Global Financial Crisis of 2009 hit. They flourished. And, over the past decade the brand has expanded to over 60 franchise locations nationwide.

The Top Secret

“We believe our business is recession-proof because road transport is the main method of transport for South Africa. Because we use cars so much, we need to keep them in top condition. The maintenance of vehicles is therefore key to keep them in top conditions,” Brady says.

Car Service City also focuses their attention on one-man-show car service businesses. This allowed them to both convert the competition and create new experienced owner-managers.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Avoid assumptions that a great career will come with time and patience

Kate Moodley

Kate Moodley

Vital Stats

  • Player: Kate Moodley
  • Company: Discovery Consulting Services
  • Established: 2010
  • Visit: www.katemoodley.co.za

In her early 20s, Kate Moodley was told to have patience and build her career. Trying to beat this misconception can take many years for entrepreneurs to overcome. Listening to bad advice can be just as devastating as a disruptor or an economic crisis.

Thankfully Moodley was far too impatient to wait ten years for a promotion, which is how she became a GM at Momentum by 26.

The Top Secret

She achieved her promotion by upskilling herself while she looked for opportunities. “I went out and taught myself the skills I needed to fill that role. Typically, successful people are doing things that other people don’t want to do. Where you put in effort is where you’ll see the rewards.”

Moodley focuses religiously on her self-development and keeps herself disciplined enough to work on it continuously.

“Do it the right way. Don’t choose options that make it easier in the short term – think long-term; learn more, look longer and further into the future,” she says.

A man with ‘only matric’ on becoming a universally loved brand

brian-altriche-rocomamas-franchise-south-africa

Brian Altriche

Vital stats

  • Player: Brian Altriche
  • Company: RocoMamas
  • Launched: 2014
  • Visit: rocomammas.com

Brian Altriche started his work life airbrushing Harley Davidsons and leather jackets on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. During the late 80’s, early 90’s it was finally time to return to the new South Africa.

He moved to Yeoville and started painting signage for restaurants. Altriche had no tertiary qualifications, but he was creative, and a fast learner. He was paying attention to branding and marketing, and figuring out what customers responded to. And then his accident happened, he broke his arm and leg along with sustaining a head injury. He was stranded in hospital. During his time in hospital he re-evaluated his life path.

The Top Secret

He became obsessed with visualisation, the visualising of his life path, what a successful brand should look like, various options for how customers would experience a particular offering. Nothing would happen until he visualised it down to the tiniest detail, because once he saw it perfectly in his mind’s eye, he could aim for it and achieve it.

Twenty years later, this fanatical relationship with the power of visualisation would lead directly to the launch of RocoMamas, which is arguably one of the most successful new food chains in South Africa’s fast, casual dining sector.

Related: Funding And Resources For Young SA Entrepreneurs

Next Slideshow: 10 Inspirational African Entrepreneurs

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Abasiama Idaresit

Nicole Crampton is an online writer for Entrepreneur Magazine. She has studied a BA Journalism at Monash South Africa. Nicole has also completed several courses in writing and online marketing.

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Lessons Learnt

Can Being Deceptive Help You Build Your Business? It Worked For These 5 Entrepreneurs

We’ve all told little white lies. But what about the big ones? What if telling them would bring your business success?

Jayson Demers

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elon-musk

We all commit little acts of deception, like saying we got stuck in traffic when we were really late to the meeting because we wanted to watch the last five minutes of a favourite TV show. Little white lies? I’ve told them. You’ve told them.

But what about big lies, the kind truly lacking in integrity – like misrepresenting your sales to a prospective investor?

Obviously, there are often severe consequences to lying. Depending on the context, you could lose the trust of a peer, break a professional relationship or even face legal action. Yet, despite these consequences, lying is more common in the entrepreneurial world than you might think.

Just take as an example these five entrepreneurs, who might not be as well known or successful as they are if it weren’t for some clever acts of deception:

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Lessons Learnt

Three Habits That Underpin Entrepreneurial Success

Here are three powerful habits that will help you stay focused, define your entrepreneurial attitude and take your business from zero to hero.

Nicholas Bell

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business-man-success

Successful people and businesses don’t all share the same traits and commitments. Yes they all have managed to break barriers and achieve impressive goals. They’re the leaders, the movers, the shakers and the industry creators. However, not all entrepreneurs are created equal and their recipes for success can differ wildly.

Some swear by a three-hour run every morning followed by a nice salad and the bustle of busy work life. Others need an incredibly early start so they can spend time with their emails and focus on their business. Every entrepreneur has their  own secret tricks that keep them on the straight and successful narrow, but most share a few simple habits that are guaranteed to make a difference.

Here are three habits that will help you become better at business and at leading others towards long-term success:

1. Always be ready to change your assumptions

Many people are unable to change the assumptions they have about their business and its future as it evolves. No business model should be locked in cement and rigidly upheld, it will need to adapt and adjust as it grows and customer needs change. As an entrepreneur you need to understand this concept and be prepared to evolve and change in new directions and markets.

Related: Business Plan Format Guide

This also ties into failure. Do you understand why you failed at something? Are you aware that perhaps your business model is changing? Can you learn from these experiences? Can you adjust your business model, get better research, refine your ideas? If you are ready to take positive value out of these moments and experiences, then you are an agile and inspired entrepreneur.

2. There’s no off switch

Passion and commitment are absolutely key to the success of your business and your own personal growth. You can’t switch off or walk away or just take a sick day because you feel like it, not if you want to stand as an example to your employees or if you want to build a brilliant business.

It may sound trite and tired, but a work ethic is the single most important habit to have as an entrepreneur. You need to always hold yourself to the highest standards, commit to ethical practice and work harder than anyone else.

3. Take it personally

This doesn’t mean gentle sobs in your office when Susan from accounts ridicules your maths skills. If you take your business personally, then you are wrapping the skills learned in points 1 and 2 above into one cohesive whole – you are embedding your passion into every crevice of your company. Care about what you do, be passionate about what it stands for, and be prepared to fight for its life. The route from zero to billion-dollar business isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

Remember, the idea is only 1%. Sweat, work, commitment and focus are the other 99% of the success equation.

Related: 22 Defining Entrepreneur Characteristics

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Head Of Audi South Africa Shares His Top Lessons On Weathering The Storm In Turbulent Times

When the economy isn’t playing ball, it’s time to roll up your sleeves, face your challenges head-on, and get to work, says Head of Audi SA, Trevor Hill.

Nadine Todd

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trevor-hill-quote

Vital Stats

  • Player: Trevor Hill
  • Position: Head of Audi South Africa
  • Visit: www.audi.co.za 

“In everything we do, across the organisation, we ask this question: Is it the best? That’s our value proposition. Without it, we don’t have a clear direction for everyone to follow.”

Some of the biggest brands in the world are well-known for keeping things lean. Amazon is a prime example, where even Amazon-branded employee backpacks are reused. Many bloated organisations learnt the hard way in 2008 that if you aren’t efficient and focused on the bottom-line, you’ll struggle to survive in competitive and volatile environments. On the other hand, businesses that were already lean and flexible not only survived the recession — many of them actually thrived, mainly because they were far better equipped to handle new economic realities than their competitors.

According to research conducted by Bain & Co’s authors of The Founder’s Mentality, Chris Zook and James Lane Allen, 85% of the biggest growth challenges large-scale organisations face are internal. This doesn’t mean the economy and competitors don’t matter. But the way leaders and managers of those organisations react to economic and external stimuli does.

Trevor Hill, Head of Audi South Africa, is well-versed on the impact external stimuli can have on a brand — even an established premium brand like Audi South Africa. Economic and political conditions in South Africa have impacted consumer confidence, and the premium vehicle market has experienced year-on-year double digit declines over the past three years. “The premium market is almost half the size it was three years ago in South Africa,” he explains. “Consumer confidence, the high pricing of premium cars, and a general buying down trend have really impacted our market. Three years ago, we were selling close to 20 000 vehicles per year. Today we sell around 10 000 vehicles. You can’t ignore market conditions. You need to face them head on, and do what’s best for your employees, the brand and your consumers.”

Related: 10 Ways To Develop A Success-Oriented Mindset

Here are Trevor’s five lessons for weathering the storm so that your business and brand are well positioned when market recovery begins.

1. Have a clear value proposition that everyone understands and embraces

“We will never be the biggest in the South African market,” says Trevor. “Mercedes-Benz and BMW produce in South Africa and have an advantage over us in terms of export credits. If we can’t be the biggest though, we can focus on being the best. That is entirely within our control.

“Our ‘Best’ strategy says that we want to be the best organisation, have the best product, the best brand and the best customer service. Everything we do must be looked at through this lens – is it the best? If we host an event, have we chosen the best venue, event organisers and caterers? Does the look and feel match our standards? If we can’t be the best — we don’t do it.

“In everything we do, across the organisation, we ask this question: Is it the best? That’s our value proposition. Without it, we don’t have a clear direction for everyone to follow.”

2. Understand what’s in your control and then roll up your sleeves and get it done

The rate cut at the end of 2017 really helped the premium market towards the end of the year. The problem is that there are things you can control — such as running a lean organisation — and things you can’t control, such as whether or not there will be another rate cut. So how do you ensure a proactive culture rather than a defeatist mentality when times are tough?

“The spirit of Audi has always been to challenge boundaries, roll up our sleeves and forge our own future,” says Trevor. “It’s in our ‘Vorsprung’ DNA. This has never been more applicable than when we’re weathering a storm, but it has to be fostered when the waters are calm.”

The theory is straightforward. If an organisation isn’t used to challenging boundaries and being in control of its own destiny, it’s difficult to find those characteristics when they’re really needed. When something is woven into a brand’s DNA, it’s because it’s always there, and the organisation’s entire culture supports it.

Trevor can point to examples everywhere. For example, in the 1980s, Audi was the first car manufacturer to put a five-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive on a rally car, and cleaned up two years in a row as a result.

“The Audi spirit is that you can improve anything. You just need to be willing to put in the work.”

Faced with extremely tough local conditions, the South African team is now doing just that: Rolling up its sleeves and finding solutions.

“This is how we handle the business as a whole. We’ve been completely upfront with head office and our investors about current market conditions, but we aren’t complaining — we’re putting the facts on the table, showing them what we can control, and unpacking how we’re going to see the business rolling forward. Because of that attitude and transparency, we have everyone’s full support.”

3. Never throw money at a problem; smart solutions aren’t necessarily the most expensive

trevor-hill

“Spending a fortune on brand campaigns isn’t going to change the reality of the current market conditions,” says Trevor. “It’s easy to throw money at a problem, but then what? We’ve taken a different approach. We’ve selected a number of brand ambassadors whose values really align with our own. These include TBO Touch, Cameron van der Burgh, Wayde van Niekerk and Nomzamo Mbatha. Their followers know what they stand for, and associate Audi with those same values. It’s a much more targeted and niche way to gain awareness for our brand.”

For Trevor, not throwing money at a problem is a value that should be ingrained in an organisation. “We approached 2018 with this value top of mind. At the end of 2017 our management team went away for a strategy session. We collectively took a look at the entire business and asked what we needed to do to drive this business through the stormy waters of 2018.

“Each manager then got a target for their division that was aligned with the other divisions and organisation as a whole. They then conducted individual strategy sessions with their teams. The whole thing was a problem-solving mission: This is the budget we have, this is where our focus needs to be, now how do we go out and deliver the best? What’s our plan?

“These plans were then aligned with each other to ensure everyone was going in the same direction, and we measure everything. My KPIs filter down to the management team, and theirs filter down to their teams. It’s a very inclusive system; everyone can workshop the problem, and in that way we don’t only gather some out-the-box ideas, but we get everyone’s buy-in as well.”

Related: You Need This One Trait To Succeed In Reaching Your Goals

4. Encourage your team to try new things and communicate collaboratively

Very often, individual divisions communicate well together, but the message and camaraderie is lost across divisions, particularly between sales and marketing. “We’ve found two ways to encourage participation and camaraderie across the business,” says Trevor. “The first is that we always encourage new ideas. If something is tried and tested and doing well, especially in marketing, try to own that property. But if something isn’t giving you what you want, change it. We’re often too scared to change things that aren’t working or to try something new. We encourage participation and thinking differently. The bigger your pool of ideas, the more you have to work with.”

The company also has a number of monthly meetings that bring different divisions into the same room for workshop sessions. “We have a lot of field staff who aren’t often in the office. We need to keep communicating with them to pull them into the fold,” explains Trevor. “For example, once a month we have marketing and product meetings. The marketing, product and sales teams all attend. It gives everyone an opportunity to know what’s happening and hash out any questions or issues then and there. The communication between divisions — particularly marketing and sales — is much better as a result.”

5. Keep your core motivated

Like many industries, there’s a lot of employee movement in the consumer and premium brands segment. “People move. That’s the reality of job markets around the world,” says Trevor. But stability is important, and at Audi SA, that means identifying your core employees and keeping them happy.

“We have a very strong core. Within the organisation we’ve identified a core group of employees whom we absolutely need if we’re going to continue to run this business efficiently and successfully. Once you’ve identified your core, you need to keep them happy, and that’s about a lot more than their paycheque.

“Different people want different things — advancement, developing their careers, an opportunity to work abroad or perhaps spend more time with their families at home.”

The lesson? Figure out what’s important to each member of your core and try your best to give it to them. Success is a team sport — you need to keep that core team in your corner.


MAKING A SUCCESS OF NEW TERRITORIES

Trevor Hill began his career with Audi as an area manager in 1989. In 1997 he left South Africa to join Audi’s head office in Germany. Since then he has headed up divisions in Germany, Japan, China, Dubai and South Korea. One of the biggest lessons he’s learnt through his travels is that while there are certain business fundamentals that hold true everywhere, each culture has its own way of doing business, and you need to understand what that is on the ground if you’re going to make an impact and be successful.

“One of the biggest things I’ve had to communicate back to head office is that each territory operates slightly differently,” explains Trevor. “For example, in Germany, you have 100 days in any new job to prove yourself. If you don’t make something happen in those 100 days, you’re not seen to be successful. This is impossible in Asia, where business is all about relationships. You have to develop a relationship based on trust and honesty, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Until you have that trust though, your employees and customers won’t work with you. When you enter a new territory, take your time. The first year is all about understanding the lay of the land. In the second year you can implement your strategy, and in the third year you can start reaping rewards.”

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