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Special Effects: Rafi Leigh

Staff development, knowledge sharing and a bold share option programme allows one entrepreneur to take his business to the next level of growth.

Juliet Pitman



Rafi Leigh of Special Effects

Like many entrepreneurs, Rafi Leigh, founder and MD of Special Effects, knows that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. But he’s also discovering that there are different types of growth – and that not all of them involve chasing prospective clients. Recently he’s learned that an investment in the growth of employees can provide just the kind of tipping point the business needs to take it to the next stage.

Reaching a growth ceiling

As its name suggests, Special Effects started out servicing the film industry doing in-camera special effects. “Initially we serviced this industry almost exclusively and developed a reputation as the ‘go-to’ company in our field,”

says Leigh. But while this had obvious positive spin-offs for the business, the market pool was small and Leigh realised that the business needed to diversify into other markets if it was to grow. “We branched out into doing special effects, digital graphics and specialised devices for brand activation and point-of-sale, particularly for below-the-line campaigns servicing the advertising industry,” Leigh explains.

The shift proved successful and today this work accounts for the lion’s share of Special Effects’ market. The company boasts an impressive client list that includes the likes of Nike SA, SAB Miller and Outsurance, to name but a few.

But in spite of the additional new business opportunities that his diversification strategy afforded the company, Leigh quickly realised that there was a limit to the growth it could deliver. “It would allow us to grow organically, a little bit every year, but I really wanted to see the business ramp up in a big way,” he says.

Learning the value of letting go

In trying to find a way to make that happen, Leigh found himself tackling one of the most common challenges facing entrepreneurs – how to find the tipping point that will move the business into a whole new profit zone.

“When you talk about growing a business, most of us immediately look outwards to the market and start considering how we can get more of it,” Leigh says. But in the end, his answer came from inside the company. “I realised what I suppose many entrepreneurs come to realise – that if you want to grow a business, you need to start by growing the people inside it, because doing so allows them to take ownership of more, and leaves you to focus your energy on the future direction and expansion of the company,” he says.

All well and good, but handing over significant parts of their business is something most entrepreneurs battle with, and Leigh is no exception. “It didn’t come naturally. I’m a control freak and handing over that control to other people is obviously scary, but I realised if I didn’t do it, we’d continue with the status quo. And that wouldn’t get us anywhere,” he says.

Handing over

In what Leigh describes as the most exciting and rewarding period of his career, he embarked on a programme to hand over first knowledge and then shares to staff.

“Fortunately I have always played ‘open cards’ with the people in the organisation, so they’ve been party to things like what our costings, margins and profits were, and of course they were already responsible for the output and the work we produced.

“I simply tried to share additional knowledge about costing mechanisms, business management and client relationship management,” Leigh explains. This ensured that staff were able to manage both the client and project management side of their accounts. Leigh’s second step was to change the business from a CC to a Pty (Ltd) in order to be able to offer staff the opportunity to buy different classes of shares. “I strongly believe that it’s important for staff to actually own a vested interest in the business in order for them to feel a true sense of ownership, one that inspires and motivates them to take decisions that are best not just for the job at hand, but for the future of the company as well,” he says of his decision.

The next step

But while these are big changes for the company, Leigh is quick to point out that they are not a precursor to him making an exit. “I’m still 100% involved – I’ll just be free to focus on taking the business where I want it to go, which is into a new realm of growth,” he says.

Company: Special Effects

Player: Rafi Leigh

Est. 1996

Contact: +27 11 493 9666

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.


27 Of The Richest People In South Africa

Here are 27 of South Africa’s richest people, but how did they achieve this level of wealth? Find out here.

Nicole Crampton



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Learn the secrets of SA’s most successful business people, here is the list of the 27 richest people in South Africa:

In a world with growing entrepreneurship success stories, victory is often measured in terms of money. The feat of achieving a place on this list is, however, years of hard work, determination and persistence. “One has to set high standards… I can never be happy with mediocre performance,” advises Patrice Motsepe.

From the individuals that made the 27 of the richest people in South Africa list, actual entrepreneurs and self-made business people dominate the list; while those who inherited their fortunes have gone on to do even bigger and better things with their wealth. Over the years, some have slipped off the list, while others continue to climb higher and higher each year.

  1. Elisabeth Bradley
  2. Sharon Wapnick
  3. Bridgette Radebe
  4. Irene Charnley
  5. Wendy Ackerman
  6. Paul Harris
  7. Wendy Appelbaum
  8. Mark Shuttleworth
  9. Desmond Sacco
  10. Giovanni Ravazzotti
  11. Markus Jooste
  12. Gus Attridge
  13. Gerrit Thomas Ferreira
  14. Cyril Ramaphosa
  15. Adrian Gore
  16. Raymond Ackerman
  17. Michiel Le Roux
  18. Lauritz Dippenaar
  19. Jannie Mouton
  20. Stephen Saad
  21. Patrice Motsepe
  22. Allan Gray
  23. Koos Bekker
  24. Ivan Glasenberg
  25. Christoffel Wiese
  26. Johann Rupert
  27. Nicky Oppenheimer
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Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

South Africa needs more entrepreneurs to build businesses that can make a positive impact on the economy. These up-and-coming black entrepreneurs are showing how it can be done.

Nicole Crampton



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Early-stage South African entrepreneurial activity is at an all-time high of 11%, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, and entrepreneurial intentions have also increased to 11.7%. With both activity and intentions growing significantly year-on-year, there are more businesses opening up around South Africa than ever before.

The increase in entrepreneurship has seen the rise of more black entrepreneurs across numerous sectors. From beauty brands to legal services and even tech start-ups, these are 50 top black entrepreneurs to watch:

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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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