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RocoMamas Founder Brian Altriche On Fabulous Failures And Visualising Success

RocoMamas founder Brian Altriche is no stranger to failure. His first franchise left him in debt, he lost almost his entire life’s savings on the stock market, he got squeezed out of one business and sued by Red Bull in another… the list goes on. And yet in each case he’s learnt and implemented vital lessons that have culminated in the runaway success of South Africa’s favourite smart casual phenomenon.

Nadine Todd

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RocoMamas Brian Altriche

Vital stats

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

Like many successful individuals, Brian Altriche experienced a life-changing event in his mid-20s. A car accident left him with a broken leg and a broken arm, stranded in hospital over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He’d also suffered a head injury, and while the time in hospital was making him re-evaluate his life path, the concussion had altered him in a subtle but significant way.

He became obsessed with visualisation: Visualising his life path, what a brand should look like, how customers would experience a particular offering — nothing happened until he visualised it down to the tiniest detail.

Twenty years later this fanatical relationship with the power of visualisation would lead directly to the launch of RocoMamas, arguably one of the most successful new brands in South Africa’s restaurant industry and the leader in fast casual dining.

Altriche has taken his concept from three stores to 49 in 18 months, and is spearheading South Africa’s renewed love affair with the burger.

Related: From the Frying Pan into the Fire: The Story of Ocean Basket

So how does a kid who attended 11 different schools, and has no education beyond matric, launch such a successful and universally loved brand?

The answer lies in the details, and in learning from what Altriche himself calls his ‘fabulous failures.’Altriche left South Africa after matric to airbrush Harleys and leather jackets on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The late 80s and early 90s were a time of change.

The Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was coming to an end. Altriche wanted to be a part of something, and returning home to a new South Africa seemed the most obvious choice.

He moved to Yeoville and started painting signage for restaurants. This soon grew into any and all branding that restaurants needed. 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. Two changes followed.

First, he decided to go into the restaurant game himself

rocomamas-owner

“It was the ideal business model. A small stock holding, because everything is perishable. No debtors. Once your customer is through the door you take the order, manufacture, distribute and charge for it, and get paid, all within an hour. The trick is to get the customer into your store.”

Second was the focus on visualisation

“After the accident my memory changed,” he says. “I need to see something to understand and remember it. Before we opened our first RocoMamas store I obsessively walked through the entire concept in my mind: what did the store look like, smell like, sound like? What did the food look like and taste like? What was the customer’s experience from the moment they walked through the door until they left? Every detail lived inside my head before we began.”

But Altriche also had almost two decades of experience under his belt, and a few hard-won lessons, thanks to failures that were essential to his overall success — starting with his very first foray into franchising.

“I opened a Longhorn Steakhouse in Pretoria. It was a lead balloon,” he says. “My gut told me the location wasn’t right, but I didn’t listen. On paper it looked great — a good suburban, high-LSM area. Once I opened, it quickly became apparent that there were no office parks in the area, which meant no lunch trade, and the residents were primarily retirees whose kids had left the house. This was not the right demographic for my steakhouse.”

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Through sheer grit and determination Altriche hung on for a year. And he paid his school fees

“I learnt how to run on a lean staff, about stock holdings, operations, and the make-or-break power of location.”

Finally, he gave up, accepted his losses and got out of his lease, thanks to the landlord reneging on a contract clause.

“Failure is part of the equation of success. I call them my fabulous failures. You can’t achieve greatness without failures and risk.”

Armed with a sizeable debt, Altriche took his equipment and approached Fats Lazarides, who at the time had opened five Ocean Baskets. Altriche would be his first franchisee.

“I opened in Southgate. The lessons I had learnt were valuable with the second business. Thanks to Ocean Basket I paid off my debt, had a nice living wage, and walked away with R240 000 in profit when I sold it in 1998.”

Altriche isn’t scared of working hard, and he’s always on the look-out for a new challenge

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During his tenure with Ocean Basket, he found a partner and launched Passionade, a pre-mixed passionfruit and lemonade soft-drink in a can. The partnership did not end well, with Altriche squeezed out of the business.

“I didn’t hold a grudge,” he says. “For them it was just business. It would have hurt me far more than them to hold on to anger and disappointment.”

Running two businesses had taken its toll. Altriche arrived at the office at 6.30am and worked until 10am, then he’d open the Ocean Basket, return to the office, go back to the restaurant for the lunch trade, back to the office, and finally close up the store.

Related: Grant Rushmere Is Going Bos With Iced Tea

One day a case of energy drinks arrived for him to sample for the store, and Altriche was hooked

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“I was exhausted, and those energy drinks really helped. I realised there was a definite market for that product.”

He found a chemist in the UK who could create a formula with Taurine as its active ingredient, secured a funding partner in South Africa, and called the energy drink Mad Bull. In 1998 he sold his Ocean Basket store to concentrate fully on the energy drink. It was a mistake. “I hadn’t taken into account that the Ocean Basket store gave me a great living wage that was suddenly absent when I started running a start-up. To this day I regret selling that store.”

But what’s done is done, and Altriche doesn’t believe in dwelling on things you can’t change. Instead, he threw himself into Mad Bull and GoGirl, a sugar-free version of the energy drink aimed at female consumers.

And then Red Bull sued over naming rights. Altriche and his partners lost, and Mad Bull was renamed Mad Buzz. It was the beginning of the end for the brand, not because of the name change, but due to corporate decisions made as a result of the court case and the money lost while fighting Red Bull.

Altriche, a gut-feel entrepreneur who relies on reading the market’s pulse and responding to consumer needs, did not see eye-to-eye with the MBA-educated marketing representative of the private equity majority owner of the brand.

To recoup losses, the decision was made to rebrand along with the name change. Altriche vehemently opposed the move.

“When you launch a brand, there’s a marketing curve,” he explains. “First you capture your outliers, your cult followers. They are critical to the success of your brand. They need to go the distance with you, even as you gain mass appeal. They’re influencers. With RocoMamas, they have been influential on social media. The same was true of Mad Bull, and then Mad Buzz. We had a fun, edgy marketing campaign for the name change, with street pole ads that said: ‘SA’s first Bull Fight’. Our early adopters loved it. They saw Red Bull as the bully.

“The shift in direction happened too soon. There’s a critical moment in every brand’s growth curve when you move from early adopters, to early mass market, to mainstream or general mass market. The key is not to lose your early customers. They need to feel appreciated and heard. They’re big influencers, particularly if you haven’t reached general mass market level yet.

“We shifted focus and lost them. We had a sizeable stake in the local market — about 15% — but not enough to lose our early adopters. I didn’t agree with the direction we were taking, and wasn’t adding anything to the new vision. I sold my share to my partners and moved on.”

Altriche sold Ocean Basket before he was 30, and a few short years later had his biggest failure to date. By that time he was in his early 30s, he’d lost two brands he’d created, he’d had a failed restaurant and he’d sold the one business that was doing really well. Worse still, the R240 000 he’d made from Ocean Basket and invested with a broker became R80 000 overnight after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Panicking, Altriche pulled his money out.

But, entrepreneurs are resilient, particularly if they accept the powerful role failure plays in eventual success. Altriche took stock of where he was, and visualised what he wanted his life to look like.

“I wanted a break. Through the natural way I visualise things, I realised I wanted to go back to running a restaurant, earning a decent wage, and being in control of my own business.”

brian-altriche

Altriche had identified Spur as the franchise he wanted to own. But joining one of the oldest franchises in South Africa was easier said than done. The franchisor was fiercely loyal to existing franchisees who got first dibs on any new locations or stores.

“First, I got a loan from FNB. Then I did my own negotiations with the landlord at Southgate and got a good installation deal. I tap danced to open that store. It took me 25 phone calls just to get a meeting with Spur. I cut my hair, donned a collared shirt, and got a testimonial from Fats. Before they would even consider my application, Spur asked all the franchisees in the area if they wanted Southgate? No one did.

“I wasn’t focused on ROI. I worked that business, growing it step by step. I paid off my loan and earned a decent salary. Today it’s a massive business and I still own it. One year later I opened a second Spur with a 50% partner. We opened in the Carlton Centre in December 2006. It was a big risk. No one knew what was going to happen in that area. We stuck it out and today it’s also a great business. Trust in Joburg’s CBD is growing. The equity partners that I’ve developed are gems.

“I’ve bought two more Spurs over the years. I sold one, and closed the other. We bought into the idea of the regeneration of town leading up to the World Cup. Maboneng and Braamfontein have been a success. Hillbrow hasn’t. The recession hit and everything ground to a halt. It’s now full of empty and highjacked buildings.”

By 2007 Altriche had regrouped and was ready for a new challenge. “Sushi bars were everywhere when I lived in California,” he says. “When I returned to South Africa in the early 90s our market wasn’t ready for them, but almost 20 years later I thought it was.”

Altriche let Spur know what he was doing, and the franchisor gave him its blessing. He opened a Yume in Clearwater Mall and Monte Casino before selling the brand.

He’d learnt another valuable lesson, this time not from a failure, but interestingly from the success of his brand. “I had a lot of fun with the branding and the overall look and feel of the Yume experience, but throughout building and launching the brand I realised I never, ever wanted to eat sushi again. I still don’t.”

Related: How Soccer Laduma Scores In More Than One Way

The lesson? Don’t launch something if it’s not going to hold your own attention. “Through my own reaction to sushi I began to doubt how long the market for sushi bars would last. I didn’t think I could build it into a large, vibrant brand with stores across the country. It was too niche and trendy.”

But this was the seed for RocoMamas. What wouldn’t get old and tired quickly? What dining and food experience would hold South Africa’s attention, across demographics, standing the test of time? “While that idea was percolating, I was grappling with the fact that my two teenage daughters considered fast food normal. I hadn’t grow up with that. In the US you get some fast food that’s still made like it was made in the 50s. It’s real food.”

The idea for RocoMamas was taking shape, becoming more real day by day, as Altriche started visualising what this dining experience would be like

brian-altriche-rocomamas

“Initially I was going more gourmet, but I’ve learnt to walk through my ideas; feel them out from every angle. I wanted to see how the concept should fit together and work. What is the full brand experience? What does it look, feel, smell and taste like?

“You need to be able to under-promise and over-deliver and so I asked myself what that looked like? I wanted the concept to be franchisable. Colour, branding and food — everything needed to be replicable, but still based on fresh cooking. That was important.”

By being completely obsessive, Altriche has achieved his goal. 90% of RocoMamas’ menu is freshly prepared and cooked. The only items each store needs to buy are frozen fries and baked rolls. “The meat we buy is fresh. We spent a lot of time getting that right. All of our meat is from the same butcher who is audited by Spur. He’s a passionate youngster, born and bred in butcheries. We march to the same beat.”

The idea behind the smashburger, which Altriche has trademarked in South Africa, also came from the US. “There was a burger place I loved. It was run by a husband and wife team, and he smashed the burgers. He used meatballs with no binding agents, and he’d place them on a hot skillet and smash them down. You lose no juices with that method. Everything squeezed out of the meatball is immediately sealed into the patty. The entire idea was based on memory and obsessively walking through the vision.”

A well-run business is much more complicated than the customer perceives. “That’s the point though,” says Altriche. “It should be simple for the consumer. There are so many parts to make this work seamlessly. We’re targeting a market that is generally loyal to the big brands. The right marketing gets them through the door, but the atmosphere keeps them here. We’ve created a comfortable environment for anyone, with delicious, fresh food that will always be a firm favourite. Burgers are sexy again, but they’ve always been a food that everyone loves.”

Related: Beauty And The Business: How The Diva Slimming And Aesthetics Centre Is Full Of Opportunities

As with Yume, Altriche presented the idea to Spur, and they gave him their blessing. “I opened two stores, and my brother-in-law became my first franchisee, bringing us up to three. Then Pierre van Tonder, CEO of Spur Group, told me Spur wanted to be involved. I’d designed the concept with franchising in mind, and I’d already had a lot of franchisee enquiries, so the partnership was an obvious next step. I had created the branding, marketing and look and feel of the brand, but Spur has the franchising know-how. The Spur Group is a master of systems, processes and training manuals, and these are a vital cog in a franchise’s success. We have taken this brand to incredible heights.”

RocoMamas has become an overnight household name, but longevity is going to come through slow, careful, sustainable growth, which is exactly what Altriche is doing.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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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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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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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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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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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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