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Pasco Risk Management: George Nicholls

George Nicholls started Pasco Risk Management with R1 000 capital, working out of his dining room as an independent consultant. Today he runs an international company worth
R60 million.

Juliet Pitman



George Nicholls

Recognised as the leader in risk management services in South Africa, Pasco has been commissioned by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the South African Witness Protection Programme and the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, amongst other international corporate organisations.

What’s interesting is that Nicholls never imagined he’d be where he is today. In fact, when he started out, his vision didn’t extend beyond the humble desire to be self-employed, make a good living and do interesting work. This unplanned success might make it all the more remarkable but it would also be disingenuous to suggest that it happened by accident. Rather, his is a story of organic growth, of taking the right opportunities when they came his way and, as Nicholls insists, of having a measure of luck.

Starting small

In the early 2000s the global risk company that had been sub-contracting Nicholls to provide local knowledge and expertise, decided to exit South Africa and approached him to look after its clients. It was the first step into the realm of running a small company. “I hired one employee and then, as a result of the work we’d been doing in the security industry, we were
approached by the NPA to provide them with security, advisory and training services. It was a long-term project so we employed a couple more people and this took the staff complement to five,” Nicholls explains.

This was typical of the company’s growth in the early years, with new staff being employed as new projects created a greater demand. “Unsurprisingly for someone who runs a risk management company, I’m fairly risk-averse so I was content for things to grow slowly and in line with the work that we were getting,” says Nicholls.

Changing direction

In June 2004, Pasco won a tender to provide skills development and training services to the South African Witness Protection Programme. “At the time we were still operating from my dining room, using the  local News Café as our ‘boardroom’,” Nicholls recalls. But the project and the company’s growing expertise brought Pasco to the attention of the United Nations International Criminal Court, which contracted the company to provide similar services to the Criminal Tribunal dealing with the Rwandan genocide.

It was a tipping point for Pasco, allowing the company to rent its first offices and providing it with a taste of non-government work. “On the back of that project, we took a strategic decision to transition from government services to commercial work, and that’s where we’ve been ever since.”

A door into Africa

More importantly however, the project provided a door into Africa, “At the time, international risk management companies wanting to do work on the continent had one of two options. They could parachute their own people in, or they could sub-contract us. The result was that we started gaining lots of experience in Africa,” Nicholls explains.

Over time, Pasco developed an extensive network of African contacts, which allowed it to gain access to information that international companies struggled to obtain. “We realised that having a presence in London would allow us to speak directly to clients and obtain African-related work for ourselves, instead of being sub-contracted. It would allow us to compete head-to-head with London-based competitors,” he adds.

Going global

After establishing a holding company in South Africa and a London-based company in the UK, Nicholls spent 18 months getting Reserve Bank approval to invest money offshore, and in 2007, the company invested R8 million in the establishment of the London office. “I’d never done anything like it before and it was pretty daunting. It took a long time but we just took baby steps, building up a store of capital from our London work to fund the growth of the operation,” he explains. In 2008, using the same model, Pasco opened an office in the United States. More recently, their presence in Dubai has helped the company develop successful relationships and clients in the Middle East. Having established the company as an expert in Africa, Nicholls recognised the differentiating potential inherent in emerging markets. “Because the risk management market is sophisticated and mature in developed economies, it’s highly competitive and margins are slim. But the same is not true of emerging markets and I realised that our growth potential lay here,” he says.

But emerging markets are far more complex and opaque. International risk management companies are faced with the challenge of how to gain access to reliable information and, in some cases, to the countries themselves. “Our extensive network of contacts and correspondents, as well as the passports our employees hold, allow us easy access to these markets, often quicker than our international competitors,” Nicholls explains.

Today the company has a presence in London, Los Angeles and Dubai and its sights are set on Latin America. Wholly-owned subsidiaries that are independently run according to a decentralised structure, these offices are able to move quickly when opportunities present themselves, and have allowed the company to grow in each of its markets.

The future

Recently Pasco has turned its attention to growth through the development of specialised safety and risk management products in two new divisions. TravelSafe provides security advice, protection and crisis response for companies sending personnel into high-risk environments, and has been used by royal households, African heads of state, CEOs and the England football team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. ReVu, launched in 2010, is a secure feature-rich electronic discovery system for law firms and corporates, allowing them to dramatically reduce the time and effort required for document discovery and review. These new divisions have given the company an appetite to explore similar growth areas. “It’s an exciting growth period for the company,” says Nicholls.

Funding the operation

Pasco has been entirely self-funded from the outset. “Very early on I decided to run the finances of the company as an independent shareholder, which meant leaving capital in the company to build it up, instead of taking out all the profit,” says Nicholls, who frequently went without a salary in the early start-up days. “There were many end-of-the-month Salticrax moments,” he jokes.

And although Nicholls is proud of the fact that the company has never had to borrow a cent, he also admits that it wasn’t easy. “One of our biggest challenges was getting clients to pay us. I spent a lot of time, particularly on the government projects, trying to extract payment so that we could manage cash flow,” he says.

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Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

Keep your finger on the pulse of the start-up space by using our comprehensive list of SA small business to watch.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship in South Africa is at an all-time high. According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), total early-stage entrepreneurial activity has increased by 4.1% to 11% in 2017/2018. This means numerous new, exciting and promising small businesses are launching and growing.

To ensure you know who the innovative trailblazers are in the start-up and small business space, here are 50 of South Africa’s top establishing companies to watch, in no particular order:

  1. Livestock Wealth
  2. The Lazy Makoti
  3. Aerobuddies
  4. Mimi Women
  5. i-Pay
  6. AfriTorch Digital
  7. Akili Labs
  8. Native Décor
  9. Aerobotics
  10. Quality Solutions
  11. EM Guidance
  12. Kahvé Road
  13. HSE Matters
  14. VA Virtual Assistant
  15. Famram Solutions and Famram Foundation
  16. BioTech Africa
  17. Brand LAIKI
  18. Plus Fab
  19. LifeQ
  20. Organico
  21. 10dot
  22. Lenoma Legal
  23. Nkukhu-Box
  24. Benji + Moon
  25. Beonics
  26. Brett Naicker Wines
  27. Khalala
  28. Legal Legends
  29. The Power Woman Project
  30. Aviro Health
  31. AnaStellar Brands
  32. Data Innovator
  33. Fo-Sho
  34. Oolala Collection Club
  35. Recomed
  36. VoiceMap
  37. ClockWork
  38. Empty Trips
  39. Vula Mobile
  40. SwiitchBeauty
  41. Pineapple
  42. The Katy Valentine Collection
  43. OfferZen
  44. KHULA
  45. Incitech
  46. Pimp my Book
  47. ART Technologies and ART Call Management
  48. Prosperiprop
  49. WAXIT
  50. The Sun Exchange
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How 28-Year Old Entrepreneur Adam Fine Is Leveraging The Global Phenomenon Of Five-A-Side Football

Adam Fine of Fives Futbol discusses how he leverage a global phenomenon and the value of strategic partnerships in business.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

Nothing about Adam Fine is by-the-book. The 28-year-old entrepreneur describes himself as a slightly big child. He’s the CEO of one of the most exciting start-ups in South Africa, having leveraged the global phenomenon of five-a-side football to start a business that has grown almost as fast as the game itself. Not bad for a venture that was launched with the princely sum of R85 000 — Fine’s life savings at the time.

He started it in 2011, with a strong focus on corporate social investment and making a positive social impact. It was by forming strategic partnerships that Adam really managed to grow Fives Futbol. He’s opened pitches in prime locations that serve both the school and corporate markets, while still being accessible for social impact interventions in local communities.

Related: 3 Local Entrepreneurs Share Their Business Challenges And How They Overcame Them

Pivoting at the right time is key to growth

The challenge:

In the last 18 months, Fives Futbol has trebled in size, and achieved some amazing milestones — it now employs 50 full-time staff, and 80 part-timers. It’s one of the factors that drives Adam, as many of his employees support up to eight family members. It’s now also represented in four provinces and 15 locations around the country. By September, there will be 18.

Quick growth means you have to be able to pivot quickly when things do not go according to plan, and mostly they don’t, Adam says. “If things are not working you should be able to ‘pivot’, to shift your focus. And do it fast. It’s not a sign that things have gone wrong by any means, on the contrary, it means you have the insight to recognise that there is a problem with the assumptions on which you have built your business model. The decision to pivot is a big one, and not something to be taken lightly. It requires you to take a hard look at your reallocation of resources, and to do it with an open mind.”

The solution:

In Adam’s case, construction delays, councils taking their time to approve, or having to put money into rolling out sites as opposed to marketing, means the promotion of a new site will slow down, for example, because the business does not yet have a large marketing budget.

“When we run behind on the construction of a new site, R40 000 can suddenly become R100 000 — but here’s the thing: If a deal comes along that will probably harm your business in the short-term but enable significant long-term growth, sometimes you have to juggle what you have so you can make it work.”

The Lesson: Choose your investors carefully

Fine says he’s lucky to have a solid group of investors that he has cultivated over six years. “Their input is invaluable. They’ll say, ‘slow down’ or ‘have you thought of this?’, ‘have you factored in that?’ The ability to develop a good relationship with our investors has had a significant impact on the success of the company. Over and above money, they provide wisdom, guidance and connections.”

His relationship with his investors is key. While many entrepreneurs make it just about the money, Adam understood something else — he has a pretty cool brand with a great cause behind it. So, while investors are asked for money all the time, he was able to offer something more than just a business idea — alignment. He generated enthusiasm for the ‘why,’ behind the business. Like most of us, it makes investors happy to know that they are helping to make a positive difference.

And while it’s easy to bandy about the word ‘partnership’, Adam has worked hard to make that a reality. He set out to find like-minded people who are passionate about the business and the cause, which is why they are able to serve as great resources for advice and insight.

Related: Richard Branson’s ABCs Of Business

“The best way to ensure that you and your investors have a valuable and lengthy partnership is to make sure that everyone is aligned on the vision.”

This includes Adam’s team. The internal culture of an organisation is vital to its strength and growth. “Without our team we don’t have a business for investors to support — our people are critical to our success. They’re the executors of the vision at the end of the day.”

The Lesson:  The value of strategic partnerships

Much of the growth of Fives Futbol has been fuelled by finding the right sponsorship partners in key industries. To overcome the challenge of a limited marketing budget, Adam has secured sponsorships with big brands like Adidas, Total Sports, Debonairs, and Klipdrift, allowing Fives Futbol to use their access to communities as a marketing platform to derive income as well as scale. And it works both ways.

“Because we have a national footprint and a team of people, we run activations for our partners, which also provides us with an ancillary revenue stream,” he says. “Knowing how to join forces with other businesses has been a key factor in making the business successful. Our strategic partners have enabled the business to leverage their brand to give us more exposure. When it works well, a strategic partnership can be just what you need to speed up the growth of your business.”

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Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

The advent and advancement of the online marketplace has led these entrepreneurs to successfully build and grow their ecommerce empires.

Diana Albertyn



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South Africa’s ecommerce market is worth R10 billion per year. By 2021, the number of online shoppers is expected to have reached 24.79 million.

“Our recent research on SA shows people are browsing three hours or more on their mobile phones and 25% shop online. They trust local brands,” says Geraldine Mitchley, Visa senior director for digital solutions in sub-Sahara Africa.

These entrepreneurs have cashed in on ecommerce and launched successful online stores that have either established their dominance in the market, or are taking the e-tailing world by storm.

Here’s how these 15 ecommerce capitalists are making money using the Internet:

  1. Aisha Pandor
  2. Andrew Higgins
  3. Kerryn Tremearne
  4. David Davies
  5. Andrew Smith, Paul Galatsis and Shane Dryden
  6. Trevor Gosling
  7. Nicholas Haralambous
  8. Justin Drennan
  9. Neo Lekgabo
  10. Ryan Bacher
  11. Tracy Kruger
  12. Luke Jedeikin
  13. Tarryn Abrahams
  14. Sascha Breuss
  15. Antonio Bruni
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