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Derek Thomas from Letsema Holdings on Learning from your Mistakes

How applying actionable strategies learnt the hard way from one business to the next can accelerate your successful growth.

Catherine Bristow

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Vital Stats:

  • Player: Derek Thomas
  • Company: Letsema Holdings
  • What they do: Business starters, transformation consultancy and private equity.
  • Est: 1995
  • Visit: letsema.co.za

Running multiple businesses under an investment holding company hasn’t always been an easy ride for privately-owned Letsema Holdings, and CEO Derek Thomas is the first to admit that growing Letsema’s private equity portfolio has been a challenge at the best of times.

Despite these trials Thomas and his partner, chairman Isaac Shongwe, have grown and developed several successful businesses from the manufacturing of wax microspheres for the global cosmetics industry to base chemicals trading and industrial welding.

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Anatomy of… Derek Thomas

What’s the secret to multiple business growth?

An unconventional but effective strategy that involves conquering devils and hunting rock rabbits while avoiding the Frankensteins on the road to business success.

Face your devils

While growing and investing in multiple businesses it is inevitable that some will fail while others flourish along the way, and business failure is followed by consequences that business owners are often not prepared to face.

Ten years back Letsema Holdings invested in a greenfield investment when the market suddenly turned, leaving the business in a precarious financial state that could have led to bankruptcy. Instead of avoiding the inevitable, Thomas proactively set up a meeting with his company’s bank to discuss the situation.

“I had to say to the financial institution, ‘here I am, we owe you this money, and we can’t repay it.’” They were impressed, as tracing bad debt often took them up to three years to recover, and they would rack up expensive costs along the way. Some debtors would duck and dive instead of coming clean. Thomas and the bank discussed what they would be able to pay and the company was eventually able to make a settlement.

“You have to stare the devil in the face. Business is a collection of these inflection points and if you run away once from a difficult situation, you will always run away.”

Over-invest in your back office

When he joined his business partner, Isaac Shongwe in 1996, Thomas was given the task of managing the business’s administration. He registered it, ordered the accounting package and handed out the first laptop, but as the business grew he had to hand the function over, with dire consequences.

“A year or two later we owed tax when we thought we were doing well simply because we did not take the time to sort out the back office. This took many years to rectify and gave us invaluable insight – these days we over-invest in our back office and it’s now so effective that we use it as a shared service centre across all our businesses.”

Tiki Taka to build your team

One business under the umbrella of Letsema Holdings has successfully cracked the code for retaining staff without having to pay salary market premiums. The magic formula? Build confidence while developing competence.

“We developed a system that is similar to a soccer technique called ‘tiki taka’. Basically it’s a strategy of receiving the ball, and passing the ball so you can make yourself available to receive it again. Translated into business terms this is a process of receiving responsibility for a role in the business for one year, taking another year to master the role and a third year to hand it over to the next person.”

In a business that hires more graduates than professionals this has allowed for faster upskilling of employees. “It’s a system that allows us to build the confidence of our younger staff while increasing their competence. The output that we generate is incredible given the general inexperience within this team.

Respect the rock rabbit hunter

Your business growth is based on bringing in larger contracts and bigger client accounts, and businesses often celebrate the established staff that bring in the bigger deals. But Thomas has witnessed that this company culture can lead to an alienation of younger employees in the business who might not yet have established their networks or mastered the art of bringing in bigger clients.

Thomas recognises that it is important to respect the younger staff who he refers to as the ‘rock rabbit hunters.’ “If your culture is one of only celebrating the mammoth hunters in your tribe then you will have an unbalanced company. Your business will never succeed because the youngsters will feel alienated,” Thomas cautions.

“Today’s rock rabbit hunter is tomorrow’s woolly mammoth hunter. No employee starts out as a woolly mammoth hunter; rather you begin by bringing in the smaller accounts – hunting rock rabbits – slowly building up to the bigger prey.”

Don’t outsource your salvation

As Letsema Holdings continued to grow, a decision was made to bring in executive leaders with expertise to help take the business to the next level. It was a decision that they eventually regretted.

“We brought in a succession of people who were going to grow us into a much bigger company. One executive turned out to be a crook who defrauded us; another was all talk and no action.

“If you are going to outsource your salvation, and hire the great saviour while compromising on your values and ethics in pursuit of growth, you may end up creating a Frankenstein-type environment.”

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Before You Decide to Jump Into Entrepreneurship, Do These 4 Steps

The company found that its culture had substantially shifted, creating a divide between the non-performing executives and employees on the ground who were adding actual value to the business.

“We made decisions that we weren’t ready to make. Instead we should have continued to grow our company while building quality relationships instead of chasing after what we thought would be our business saviours.”

Catherine Bristow is the online editor and content marketing manager for Entrepreneur Magazine. She brings to the mix a BJourn from Rhodes University, Honours in Psychology as well as a certificate in Accounting and Commercial Law.

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Joel Stransky Shares His Insights On What Makes A Great Leader

Enter Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent.

Dirk Coetsee

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Posters displayed on companies’ walls representing the business’ Vision and value system are a common occurrence. A general value that numerous companies share is to be client centred and to provide excellent service. Yet, unfortunately a proportion of companies do not live according to their values as tools to actualize their collective Vision.

An observant individual would take only a few seconds to notice that the Leadership group at Pivotal has gone to great lengths to establish a definitive and value driven culture as well as a motivating climate for their team members. As I waited in the reception area I was met with smiles from several people passing by and there was generally no way to assess what their position was as they were all casually dressed, friendly and approachable.

Related: 5 Things Businesses Can Learn From Rugby

Enters Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent, is the use of Augmented Intelligence and data analytics within the “human capital space”.  The application of AI and data makes talent acquisition and career guidance much less of an enigma and challenge as opposed to the recent past where traditional talent acquisition and career guidance methods became less and less successful and more and more time consuming.

The “pivot” of the 1995 Victorious Springbok world cup team shared that he always starts off an employee-employer relationship with the assumption of mutual trust and respect. He believes that once you have put in the sincere effort to understand people better, bigger belief in them is a natural result.

“The greatest asset in business is people,” Joel passionately explained and added that it is possible for a brilliant product to fail in the long run when the wrong people are employed.

pivotal-group

“Hiring the right people that would not only help sustain the current culture but add more value to it is critical to any team or companies’ sustainable success,” Joel explained. The Millennial generation think differently and have different expectations from a working environment, therefore it is a critical factor for any manager and/or Leader to understand what drives the emerging generation and also how to manage the polarity of generational gaps.

Related: Servant Leadership – Will You Serve?

As a result of diversity and generational gaps Leadership and management has become a fascinating space to operate within South-Africa as not only cultural and language barriers might offer a challenging HR environment, the millennial generations unique behaviours amplify the need for useful adaptations within all spheres of work.

As a practical example, employee X is twenty-three years old. Some of the key questions that management needs to figure out, that is if they sincerely want the best for, and the best out of employee X, are:

  • Is X motivated by monetary rewards and/ or does she/he need a regular hug to feel part of and add to the company culture?
  • Does X need to interact with management socially for example be taken out do dinner?
  • What skills does X have or lack that impacts his/her performance?
  • It is impossible to motivate someone else. In what way can I create an environment for X wherein he/she can motivate himself/herself and excel?

How you satisfy Xs’ needs and manage all related factors to his or her needs has become critical success factors in how we as leader’s approach career development in general.

Reflecting on the development of his own sports and business career, as well as his family life Joel is adamant that whatever drives you in sport also drives you in business and within your family life. Whatever he has achieved within all aspects of his life came as a result of setting goals and making those goals a reality.

Both in sports and in the business world within South Africa there is a general tendency towards over structured management and coaching. Although a structure and daily management is an integral part of business and sports, a paradigm shift towards inspirational Leadership that empowers other leaders to succeed is key in terms of serving others and creating a motivating and sustainable environment within which all team members can thrive.

Reflecting on Joels’ observation: “Our countries’ value chain is broken” the moment has most certainly arrived within which more and more value driven and ethical Leaders, emerging from all generations must arise and collectively work towards an improved future.

Critical to the actualisation of a collective future vision is the development of Leadership skills therefore one of the keen interests of the author is to recognise and learn from other Leaders’ character traits. Joel’s’ highly effective communication skills underpinned by the core people skill of active listening quickly came to the fore as he could quote part of my question and comments in each of the very insightful answers that he provided. His keen willingness to innovate and to create inspiring working environments makes his enthusiasm and skill as a Leader tangible.

Let us all challenge ourselves to learn from prime Leadership examples offered by individuals such as  Joel Stransky and leave more and more Leaders behind for only in such a way can an inspiring future be built.

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Nhlanhla Dlamini Not Only Has Guts, But Grit – In Spades

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla Dlamini did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

Wits Business School

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It takes guts to venture into entrepreneurship. And when you’re in a ‘cushy’ job with a top global auditing firm who are grooming you for partnership, it takes even more guts.

Nhlanhla Dlamini not only has guts, but grit – in spades.

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

“I started thinking, ‘what is the best thing I can do with my life?’”, recalls Nhlanhla. “I always felt a pressing need to get involved in lowering the unemployment rate in South Africa.  It’s a notoriously difficult space, but entrepreneurship is the real engine of job creation and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.”

When he left his job at McKinsey in March 2015, Nhlanhla decided to explore the agricultural sector – having no idea what product or what part of the value chain he would end up in. He spent until December that year exploring the agri-food sector, gaining as much understanding as he could about the entire industry by talking to famers, co-ops, agricultural associations and various other stakeholders.

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

“I wanted to export products to the US and I looked at tree nuts, blueberries, dairy products or meat. Because of stringent FDA regulations, meat wasn’t an option – but a friend of mine from WBS days suggested meat in the form of pet food.”

And so Maneli Pets was born, and Nhlanhla moved his fledgling business into a factory, which he re-purposed for meat processing, in October 2016. By June 2017, he had started operations with 30 employees on board, and by September he had 50 employees.

Maneli Pets

What makes Maneli different from other US-bound pet food products in an already saturated market? The answer is high protein meat from animals that are unique to South Africa.

“I discovered a market for the off-cuts of meat  from specialist butcheries – so crocodile, warthog, ostrich etc,” Nhlanhla explains. “The result is a very high quality, high protein pet snack with a difference – and US pet owners are willing to pay for the best they can get.”

Under the brand name ‘Roam’, Maneli Pets products are exported to a pet food wholesaler in Boston, US, owned by the family of Nhlanhla’s former WBS classmate, who had planted the seed of the idea in the first place.  Nhlanhla is now preparing to launch the products under another brand name for distribution in South Africa and export to the EU.

But pet food is only the start. Maneli Pets is an offshoot of the Maneli Group, a diversified food company which is looking ooking to build further businesses in the green energy sector, while boosting black entrepreneurship.

According to a City Press report, South Africa has relatively few black-owned food production businesses, which is why government is actively promoting agro-processing and the manufacturing sector in general to spur economic growth.

Nhlanhla has worked tirelessly to secure government funding, and was thrilled to obtain R26 million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Just last month, he received the news that Maneli Pets had been awarded grant funding of R12.5 million from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Black Industrialists Scheme (BIS).

Nhlanhla, who was also a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, considers his PDM at WBS a “superb” way of preparing a student for the real world of work. “The group dynamics was an essential learning experience in terms of delivering on a mandate with a group with entirely different skill sets.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Describing himself as a “passionate and active WBS alumnus”, Nlhanhla still stays in regular contact with a core group from his PDM class, proving that one of the enduring benefits of a PDM (and an MBA) is the opportunity to connect and network with like-minded people and form life-long friendships.

Apart from what he learnt in the Entrepreneurship Management module of the PDM, such as the pillars of entrepreneurship, macro trend support and financing an idea, Nhlanhla considers the keys to success are threefold: Recognising the value of a social network, tenacity – and just a little luck!

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See Will.i.am And Malcolm Gladwell Live In South Africa

The BCX Disrupt Summit has gathered some of the world’s most innovative and disruptive thinkers to guide you and your business into the future.

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See Will.i.am And Malcolm Gladwell Live In South Africa

As one of the largest technology players in South Africa, BCX embraces disruption. As an organisation, one of its primary focuses is to move its customers into the future, not just with products and services, but a shift in mindset as well.

What tools and ideas do we need to embrace today to be ahead of the curve tomorrow? With this in mind, BCX has partnered with BrainFarm to launch the inaugural BCX Disrupt Summit.

“The BCXDisrupt Summit is a platform for South African innovators and businesses to learn from and be inspired by some of the greatest examples of possibility in the world,” says Dean Carlson, founder and CEO of BrainFarm, the event organisers.

A gathering of minds

The BCXDisrupt Summit is bringing some of the world’s greatest minds together under one roof for two days. The speaker line-up includes will.i.am, Malcolm Gladwell, Rapelang Rabana and Nick Goldman and topics covered will range from where technology is heading, to how playing games can extend your life expectancy by up to ten years.

will.i.am

will.i.am

Seven-time Grammy award winning hip hop artist will.i.am is also a significant player in the tech and entrepreneurial space, as well as a philanthropist. He was a partner in Beats Electronics, which was sold to Apple for $3 billion in 2014. “When will.i.am was 16 years old, music was where it was at,” says Dean.

“And so, he focused on building a music career, and creating products for that industry. Today he’s learning to code, because that’s where it’s at. He’s got an unparalleled handle on where the world is moving to, and so many insights to share.”

Dean has built BrainFarm on a portfolio of incredible local and international speakers, each of whom he’s seen live. “I regularly attend international conferences to get a sense of which speakers and idea-shapers I’d like to bring to South Africa,” he explains.

“will.i.am is one of those global shapers whose ideas take everything to the next level. To get maximum value from him for our delegates, we’ve chosen an interview set-up instead of a key-note talk. Local tech expert Aki Anastasiou will be interviewing him, and the audience will be able to ask questions as well. This will give us an opportunity to localise will.i.am’s knowledge and ideas.”

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

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Author of five New York Times bestsellers, including David and Goliath and Outliers Gladwell is well known for introducing the concept of the 10 000-hour rule, which states anyone can become an expert in anything given enough time and practice. Dean first brought Malcolm Gladwell to South Africa in 2009.

“When I dropped him off at the airport, Malcolm signed his book for me with the words ‘Please invite me back,” says Dean.

“We’ve tried to bring him out a few times since then, but the timing hasn’t worked out. This was the ideal summit for Malcolm’s ideas, and this time, the timing worked.”

Having seen Malcolm in action many times over the years, Dean knows that he’s a speaker that always leaves his audiences wanting more. And so, the BrainFarm team thought about the best way give their delegates exactly that.

“Malcolm has developed a masterclass for the second day of the Summit that will focus on what makes a person successful, both in life and business. He’ll be unpacking tools our delegates can use to personally drive success.”

Nick Goldman

Nick Goldman

Nick is that rare breed of academic who is also an engaging and entertaining speaker. A UK-based mathematician and genome scientist, Nick is passionate about how we can store and preserve digital data.

“If you want to feed your brain, Nick is the person who will do that for you. His team recently coded five documents of historical significance onto a strand of DNA,” says Dean.

Each day, what we thought was possible changes. What does the future look like, and are you ready for it?

Related: 10 Inspirational African Entrepreneurs

Marieme Jamme

Marieme Jamme

Born in Senegal and sold into sex slavery, Marieme Jamme refused to accept the lot life had given her, and instead taught herself to code. It was a skill that enabled her to change her conditions and life. Today, through her latest venture, iamtheCODE, she has one giant, global goal: To teach one million women and girls to code by 2013.

“Marieme has a consultancy that helps tech companies get a foothold into Africa, the Middle east, Latin America and Asia, and she’s also focused on her mission to help other women and girls escape their fates by learning to code,” says Dean. “She’s one of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve ever come accross.”

Sipho Maseko

Sipho Maseko

Heralded as the controversial CEO and saviour of Telkom, Sipho has helped the company rack up gains of 150%, making Telkom one of the best performing companies on the JSE. “A major focus of Telkom is getting businesses across Africa ready for tomorrow’s customers,” says Dean.

“To be ready for tomorrow’s customers though, you need to know who they are, and have a sense of what the future will bring.”

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal

A game designer, Futurist and New York Times best-selling author, Jane’s TED Talk, The Game That Can Give You Ten Extra Years of Life, has over six million views to date.

Related: The 10 Strangest Secrets About Millionaires

Rapelang Rabana

Rapelang Rabana

Local tech-star Rapelang Rabana is the CEO and founder of Rekindle Learning, a company she has positioned at the crest of a rapidly rising online community across Africa.

Her mission: To deliver learning in bite-sized chunks across the continent.

Ian Russel

Ian Russel

CEO of BCX. BCX has invested millions in computer programming education so that young people from all social and economic backgrounds have the opportunity to become programmers at no cost to them.

Lars Silberbauer

Lars Silberbauer

When Lars joined LEGO as Senior Global Director of Social Media and Video, the company didn’t even have a Facebook page.

“Today LEGO has well over 12 million followers on Facebook and more than three million on YouTube where they’ve just knocked up five billion lifetime views,” says Dean.

“The big idea behind their social media campaigns is to leave the thinking to their fans. Lars understands the creative power of the crowd, and what harnessing that power can do for your business.”

Related: 8 Things Exceptional Thinkers Do Every Day

Bringing it all together

Dean Carlson

Dean Carlson

“We focus on projects that excite us, and that will change the perceptions and world views of our delegates,” says Dean. “We’ve partnered with BCX to put together an incredible event that will leave you inspired, amazed and driven to change your life and organisation – with the tools to do so.”

To find out more about the BCX Disrupt Summit or to book a seat, visit https://www.bcxdisrupt.com/

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