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How Jacqui van der Riet Went From Receptionist To Co-Owning A R230 Million Business

Jacqui van der Riet might own an equal share of UDM International, a R230 million business that she’s been instrumental in building from the ground up, with the Chairman, but she started out as just another salaried employee. Not satisfied with answering phones, Jacqui started cold-calling potential customers, writing scripts and reporting conversion rates to clients. Her passion and perseverance helped land UDM its biggest client, and the business just grown from there. Here’s how a young mother with no qualifications got her degree while working and helped build a world-class business, brick by brick.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Jacqui van der Riet
  • Company: UDM International
  • Employees: 350
  • Launched: 1994
  • Turnover: R230 million
  • Visit: www.udm.co.za

When the founders of a recently-launched direct marketing company walked into the offices of UDM in 2000, all that greeted them was the anticipation of success.

Jacqui van der Riet exuded confidence and energy. She knew that they were the company to help this dynamic group of people to launch and grow its sales. She’d done her research, written scripts and had her team prepped. They were selling educational policies for children and everyone was excited.

That first day, sitting with her new potential clients in the one small meeting room UDM had, Jacqui instructed her team to walk in and make a mark on the whiteboard each time they closed a deal. Within an hour they’d already come in seven times. The previous call centre that the life insurance company had approached had concluded that this sales campaign was not viable. The relationship kicked off the moment UDM proved otherwise.

Jacqui and her partner knew that this was their chance to build a brilliant business relationship and she put her head down, worked hard and figured it out as she went along. This was UDM’s chance. 20 years later, UDM’s turnover is R230 million.

Here’s how the woman who was hired as a receptionist and general admin person for a small call centre start-up went from earning an average monthly salary to owning 50% of the direct marketing machine she and her business partner have built from the ground up.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

From PA to prodigy

Jacqui’s interview at Universal Database Marketing was far from usual. She met her boss-to-be at a lunch-time interview at his office in Randburg. Her goal was to negotiate a higher salary than she currently earned. She’d been told he’d already interviewed many women without finding the right person, so she felt she had negotiating power. She was 25, had two small children, was studying a BCom degree through Unisa, and hated her job at a legal firm, where she was constantly reminded of the pecking order, but didn’t see real room for growth.

She left the law firm for a job that paid almost double what she had been earning, but had no clue what UDM did, or what would be required of her. The company was a small start-up, direct marketing call centre. Its monthly turnover was low, like any new start up, and Jacqui was justifiably concerned that if that didn’t increase — and quickly — she wouldn’t have a job for long.

Her job description was personal assistant to the owner. Aside from the owner there was one other employee — a telemarketer who worked from 9am to 12 noon calling an insurer’s clients whose policies had lapsed and trying to reinstate them. Within days, Jacqui decided to start making sales calls as well.

“At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it,” she says. “I’d never even been exposed to a call centre before, and I saw it as a challenge, a way to learn new skills, and maybe even a way to make sales and boost the business.

“I soon realised that I didn’t only want to make calls, but I wanted to report back to our client on how we were doing, so I kept a record of how many dials we made, the number of contacts, and how many contacts were converted into sales. It was a very manual process — we kept records with paper and pen, and had little tape recorders that we needed to remember to take off pause to record each call. But the client loved the feedback. They were impressed with us.”

And then the founder of the company relocated to London, and sold the business to his brother, Jacqui’s partner and 50% co-owner of UDM today. “He asked me if I thought we could really make a go of it. I’d been learning a lot simply by doing the work — I was writing and tweaking scripts, tracking everything, and starting to learn the industry. I definitely wanted to give it a go.”

Like his brother, Jacqui’s new boss had connections in the financial world, and slowly they started signing clients, but always for small sections of each institution’s portfolio.

“We couldn’t take on permanent staff, but we needed people on the phones, so we turned to students,” says Jacqui. “We paid R20 per hour, and each student had to work 20 hours a week. I wrote the scripts and trained them, loaded the sales, created reports, and slowly figured out how to set targets and even discipline them. Remember, these were students, and we had nothing to do with their chosen careers. They were just there for the money. It was a big learning curve for me. I remember the first time I had to tell them that I was employing them to work, so could they please do what I was paying them to do. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“I was learning everything on the fly. My financial management coursework helped me to develop targets, but there’s no degree for sales. If a script didn’t work I changed it. I made sure I still spent time on the phones so that I could see what worked, and what needed to be adjusted. I made sure that I was learning something new each and every day. I also tapped into my network — I called former employers and told them what I was doing and if they thought it would work. I was never afraid of asking ‘dumb’ questions. If I wanted to know something, I asked. It’s the only way to learn.”

With her hands firmly on UDM’s tiller, Jacqui believes the business got off to a slow, but sensible start. “Everything we did was with the mindset that it could be done,” says Jacqui. “I think that’s incredibly important. We never allowed ourselves to think that something couldn’t be done. We looked for solutions instead, and changed anything that wasn’t working, or wasn’t performing as well as we wanted it to.”

UDM’s big break came when a new life company called us in. Jacqui and her partner knew they had one shot to impress them, and she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers.

Be like Federer

udm-internationalOnce they signed with UDM, the life company requested exclusivity. They wanted Jacqui and her team to focus exclusively on their products. UDM agreed. They would work out their current contracts, but they wouldn’t renew them, or take on new clients.

Putting all of your eggs in one basket is always a risk, but Jacqui also saw the opportunity. “Nothing is ever iron-clad, and there are always risks, but we were getting in on the ground floor with each other. Our success would rise or fall together. I believed it was a worthwhile risk and I still do. We understand each other, we speak the same language, and our values align. At the time we are the life company’s sale’s arm — we just happen to be independently owned. We both think this keeps us focused”

While the partnership has been fruitful for both businesses, there have been exciting challenges, most notably with the structure of UDM’s sales force.

“When we launched we were selling the life company’s difficult campaigns. From there, we started relatively easier and more profitable sales campaigns. Because they were more profitable, we were paid a higher fee for them. The result was that I promoted my best sales people onto the easier campaigns — our client paid us more, we paid our top sales people more, and the client benefited as their profits increased. It was win-win-win — until we started noticing the flaw in the entire system.

“We were moving our most talented sales people away from the difficult sales campaigns. The easier sales campaigns were flying, however, the more difficult campaigns were the crux of the business. Our client realised that if we didn’t change our process soon, we would continue to see a dwindling business.

“The realisation was one thing — we couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen the problem earlier, but at least now it was a challenge that we and our client could discuss. That was just step one though. Because we’d moved many of our best people off the vital, yet difficult sales campaigns, we were continually recruiting and training new potential sales stars to replace them. We had set ourselves up for a difficult, sustainable business model.

Companies always get nervous when they change anything associated with top earners, and this was no exception. We knew that if we didn’t do something, we would face a much bigger problem down the line. There was a solution — we just needed to find it.”

Related: Watch List: 20 SA Tech Entrepreneurs Making It Big In The Industry

Jacqui knew she needed to solve three key issues. First, she had to find a way to convince her top sales people — all of whom were now accustomed to the ‘easier’ sales campaign to move back to the vital and difficult sales campaigns. Second, she had to ensure their high earnings remained the same or even improved, and finally, she needed to ensure that the ‘easier’ sales quantities didn’t decrease because her top sales people were not focused on them.

“I spent a lot of weekend hours figuring it all out,” she says. “I had to work out an incentive structure that ensured the company didn’t lose, our client didn’t pay more, but our staff were positively positioned. In discussions with our client, the first piece of the puzzle was put in place. The fee structure could be aligned with the new sales model. The incentives on the easier sales campaigns was where magic had been happening for 13 years — but there’d be no magic if the number of sales on the difficult sales campaigns diminished.

“Next, I turned my attention to our top sales people. I needed to make it amazing for them. What do people really care about? What would I want in their position? People love titles, recognition, and real perks. And so, we created an Elite floor. There are 28 positions open in Elite, and it’s never full. There are very specific criteria to qualify for Elite, and if you don’t cut it you’re out. You need to be like Roger Federer — you’re only as good as your last game, or in this case, your last months’ targets.

“If you’re in Elite however, you get the title, your own parking space, a weekly massage, food orders from a menu every day, snacks, and access to the Elite Shop when you’ve hit target three months in a row. The shop offers everything from tumble dryers and washing machines, to pool tables. Our Elite team also earn in excess of R100 000 per month if their targets are met.”

Once Jacqui had worked out the offer, she gathered her 20 top sales agents into a room and pitched the vision to them. “When they walked in, many of them had been crying. They’d heard rumours about what was happening, and they were not happy being forced back to the more difficult sales campaigns, so I approached the change from a different angle.

“I unpacked the whole picture: Why the change was necessary, what we would do, what the future would look like if we did nothing, what we could achieve if we made this change, and the structure, benefits and earning potential of the Elite floor. I then asked for four volunteers — the idea was to pilot it and prove it worked. All 20 put up their hands. We were in this together, as a team. We launched two years ago, and we haven’t looked back. Our difficult sales campaigns achieved a 30% growth in our first year, and more importantly, our client’s valuable ‘easier’ sales campaigns remained steady. In fact, the sales to conversion rates increased.

“We now move our most promising trainees onto easier campaigns in their latter weeks of training which has increased our permanent placements. Creating Elite was a risk for everyone, but one worth taking.”

Learning to fly

udm-international-jacqui

From taking up one floor in 2000, UDM now occupies two buildings, one with the insurance team, and the other focused on cosmetic sales.

“We’re always excited by new challenges, and our revenue from cosmetics has grown from nothing in 2010 to nearly R50 million, but we had a lot of lessons to learn to get to where we are today. I thought a customer service approach was the right move for a cosmetics brand, but we soon learnt you need sales people. We then moved some of our top insurance sales people over, but it’s a very different product, and that didn’t work either. I needed to move onto the floor, and get onto the phones myself to really understand what this side of the business needed, and from there we could start building the right sales team, structures and incentives.”

This wasn’t the first or last time Jacqui immersed herself in a section of the business. She is always moving between divisions, and regularly gets back onto the phones to test UDM’s scripts and experience the entire process from start to finish.

“When I come in from an outsider’s perspective, I can see if things flow smoothly. We often get used to processes, even if they’re a bit clumsy. The only way to make the right adjustments is if I experience everything myself, first hand.”

Integral to Jacqui’s approach is looking at each individual hub and evaluating how it can become a revenue generator. “We even look at our client services division and evaluate how we can get salaries paid more efficiently. Are we robust enough to pay bonuses immediately, and how do we simplify our systems to make them as flexible as possible? Nothing at UDM happens slowly. I want everything done today.”

Related: Watch List: 11 Teen Entrepreneurs Who Have Launched Successful Businesses

In fact, everyone who works at UDM knows that anything can be done in a short period of time if you have a motivated and flexible team.

“There’s no such thing as requisition forms that get sent to one floor, then signed and sent to another inbox for a few days. Things happen immediately — that’s the precedent I set.”

Jacqui knows that to achieve this, she needs to be accessible at all times. “When your staff can see that someone is listening, and that they have power to implement changes, they respond positively. The culture becomes one of action, but they also speak up, and that’s how an organisation keeps moving forward.”

Another key to UDM’s success is incentives; everyone, from cleaners to supervisors, managers and sales people, is incentivised. “We’re very transparent with our base salaries, and the available earnings if targets are met. For cleaners, this means that set bonuses are paid for grocery stock control, the bathrooms being spotless within an hour after tea break and so on. Supervisors and managers have similar incentive structures, but their targets are related to their job scopes.”

According to Jacqui, the process works because of complete transparency. “Each of us knows what we are on and what our targets are. We know exactly what we’re aiming for, and what we need to do to achieve it. The sales agents know what they need to do, every hour of every day.”

Everything in UDM is tracked — Jacqui is copied in on all daily sales tracking reports. “I know what every team has done, each and every day. They have to explain to me why that day’s target wasn’t met, and what they’re going to do to make it up. If we’re 2% behind where we have to be this month for example, we need a plan of action to get 5% ahead — everything is tight and well calculated.”

Jacqui is the first to admit that it’s a tough and fast-paced work environment — but employees who can handle the mental and physical demands of their jobs are well-compensated and experience growth and development in their professional lives.

“I like churn. I’d rather lose the people who won’t cut it early on. This is a tough environment, so we’ve put a lot of measures in place to weed out anyone who won’t make it. We don’t want to waste their time or ours.”

One of those measures is the training academy. Thirty new recruits start a 12-week programme each Monday, but only the best stay on as permanent staff. UDM’s biggest churn is in the first year, but that’s fine. “I don’t want anyone sitting here who doesn’t want to be here and can’t do the job,” says Jacqui.

“I know the job is achievable, but you have to have the right mindset, work ethic and love for the job. I pay attention to the smaller details, for example, how people walk — based on this one small detail, I know if they’re going to excel with us.”

Jacqui is a firm believer that if people are paid well and receive recognition for their achievements, they stay. “It’s a massive learning curve for anyone coming into this business, but once they get it, there’s no way you don’t know where you are, or what you need to do to achieve your goals.

“Some managers make the mistake of expecting and accepting the mediocre. We don’t. Anything is achievable, I know that, and people often just need a leader who can break it down and show how exciting it is to achieve excellence. We’ve learnt that high achievers thrive on structure, under fair discipline and with great recognition. I think we have all of that here. In the first year the reality of the job sets in, and it’s tough. If you’re not making target here it’s quite a difficult place to be. We have high standards, and I’m proud of them. Everyone here has a high standard of living. 63% of our staff have been with us for over two years, and we have 30 employees who have been with us for over a decade. If you fit our culture, you stay — and we help you fly. That’s our ethos, and it’s worked for us.”

Related: 5 Steps To A Multi-million Dollar Business Before 30


Psychology of success

1. Believe in your positive contribution

I wanted to become a partner in the business I was helping to build. When the opportunity arose for me to own equity in the business, I grabbed the opportunity and worked hard to ensure it paid off.

2. The first step of success is to show up and learn

Seize the moment. Be authentic. If you don’t understand something ask the dumb questions — you’re no dumber than anyone else. I’ve learnt that most people are just winging it. You need to learn, so don’t let the fear of looking like you don’t know something hold you back.

3. Figure out what your business needs

Most of what we’ve built started out with logic. I didn’t know anything about telemarketing, but because I got on the phones and started writing scripts, I figured it out. Put your head down and start — the more you do, the more you’ll learn.

4. Look for a way for everyone to win

I aim to please: Clients, the business and the people working for me should all benefit from what we do. This is a big thing for me. I look for win, win, win in every situation — and believe me, solutions that work for everyone can be found if you’re transparent, understand what everyone needs, and explain the business and personal logic of your decisions.

5. I have an innate drive

When I was born I came out checking the competition. This passion to do everything well has really pushed me in life. I always want to deliver better. You need that drive if you want to build something great.

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

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Designing Her Destiny

Oh Yay! owner, Emmerentia van den Hoven does business her way.

QuickBooks SA

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In 2011, Emmerentia van den Hoven took a leap of faith when she decided to leave her graphic design job at an agency and pursue her real passion – and it has paid off tenfold. Here’s her story.

“When I started planning my own wedding eight years ago, I fell in love with wedding design and wanted to do that for the rest of my life. Designing for brands had become a set of rules rather than being creative, and I’d always wanted to work for myself. So, in September 2011, I turned my seven-month-old side gig into a fully-fledged business and launched Oh Yay!

I have to hustle every month to get new clients because every client will use my services maximum twice – first for the wedding invitations and then for the stationery on the day – so I don’t normally have returning clients.

Because my main business is seasonal and usually once-off per customer, I have branched out into branding for small businesses in the beauty and lifestyle industry. I also earn a passive income through the Oh Yay! online shop where I sell wedding décor items.  Oh Yay Kids – my other online store – is my passion project. I launched it just before my second child was born, adding items to the store that I made for my two boys when I saw a need for it. I then expanded into prints for nurseries and kids’ party stationery.

I work for myself and have no employees, so the fact that QuickBooks lets me load all my services, products and prices in one place makes running my business so much easier. Being an entrepreneur is difficult because you don’t know if you’ll be successful or not. But if you believe in and love what you’re doing, it reflects in your work and the service you give.”

Less admin, more of what you love

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When Oh Yay! was launched, along with her dream of being an entrepreneur, came the nightmare of other administrative tasks. But that changed in 2018 when Emmerentia started using QuickBooks.

“When I was using spreadsheets to balance my books, I was spending 80% of my time on admin, which left very little time to tend to customers’ orders. I now spend no more than 25% of my time on admin, which is important, especially when it comes to the speed at which I send quotes. You don’t get any work if you don’t send out quotes and it’s tough to juggle the admin with your actual job of running the business.

Numbers were never really my strong point, so having a professional quote done in record time not only projects professionalism, but the format also changes the way new clients see me. In my industry, the quicker you can send a quote out, the likelier you’ll get the clients’ business. It gives legitimacy to my business. The QuickBooks system operates so seamlessly that clients communicate with me differently, like I have my own accounting department, when in fact, I’m a one-woman-show.

I used to dread doing admin, but now it’s so easy and quick. I’m not just saying this – QuickBooks changed my life.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.

Diana Albertyn

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Owner Of Nouwens Carpets Shares Success Lessons From Running A 50 Year Old Family Business

Embrace technology every chance you get.

Nadine Todd

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A company that’s been active for more than five decades in an industry that’s hundreds of years old doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation — and yet that’s exactly what Luci Nouwens, owner of Nouwens Carpets, is focused on.

The modern carpet has a history that goes back thousands of years. And despite the hipster trend of reclaimed and hard wood flooring, the carpet still remains a popular choice for consumers.

In South Africa, a name that’s synonymous with quality carpeting is Nouwens. When Cornelis Nouwens arrived in the country in the 1950s, bringing the skills of a trade which he had mastered alongside his father in Tilburg, the hub of the Netherlands’ wool textile industry, he passed on the skills and the love of the craft to his family and to workers in the Harrismith region in KwaZulu Natal.

More than 50 years after her father started it in 1962, the company remains family owned, and is headed by Luci Nouwens, who has been with the business for 48 years.

“We have maintained our reputation for premium quality all this time by paying meticulous attention to crafting standards and selecting only the finest raw materials,” says Luci. “Equally important is that we have innovated at every opportunity, embracing technology without ever compromising the traditional craftsman’s spirit.”

Innovation drives growth

Businesses that innovate are able to grow and hire more employees. As a result, they grab a bigger share of the market. That’s true regardless of the size of your business: If you innovate, you can scale up.

In 1968 Nouwens launched a pure karakul wool carpet that was extremely hard wearing and took the company into the commercial carpet market. Luci recalls the manufacturing of the carpet as “a major feat of unique textile engineering.” Another innovation in 2005 was the introduction of a totally new style of flat weave wool carpet, a very clean, minimalist and natural look requiring much less wool without compromising on wearability.

“These innovations are just two of many that have allowed the business to boost its market share over the years,” says Luci. “But beyond that, innovation has enabled Nouwens Carpets to form the backbone of economic activity and upliftment in the local community around Harrismith. This has allowed us to make substantial investment in providing education and skills development for the local population, to ensure that the craft is preserved for generations to come.”

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

Innovation enables sustainability

Innovation in technologies and how they are applied is key to enabling a manufacturer like Nouwens to create new business value, while also protecting the planet.

“We have used technology to enable sustainable manufacturing, for the benefit of the business, the community, and our customers.”

Nouwens selects equipment, materials and manufacturing methods based on their degree of sustainability and protection of the environment. The company is also a member of the Green Building Council of South Africa and submits its products for VOC testing to ensure that harmful emissions are significantly reduced.

“Ultimately, we are driven by a passion for textiles and the ability to constantly find better ways to produce beautiful products. After the downturn in the economy, we started to produce more cost-effective commercial nylon yarns, and in 2017, we became the new kid on the block for synthetic grass. The bottom line is that a true entrepreneur does what has to be done when the time comes.” — Monique Verduyn

The role of disruption in creating value

A disruptive business is a business that challenges and potentially changes the status quo. From a mindset point of view, a culture that questions ‘why’ can help foster organisational and market disruption. But disruption for the sake of disruption is self-defeating, it needs to be on the back of making things better and based on commercial principles, i.e. people or market players actually wanting to be disrupted.

The starting point is this: Does someone, or a market, value what you’re producing? If the answer is yes, you have a commercially viable disruption. Disruption that is valued by its target market has the best chance of resulting in success.

Get that right and you’ll have a customer base, you’ll gain traction and you’ll attract investors, provided you’re also making a meaningful and sustainable difference to your target market or community. — Ian Lessem, CEO, HAVAIC Investment and Advisory Firm

Collaboration

Team up with customers and competitors.

There’s more power in collaboration than competition. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart. When it comes to working with competitors, consider this: They may have something that you don’t, or vice versa, and 50% of something is always more than 100% of nothing. You’re then positioned to add value before you add an invoice, so your clients benefit from your relationships, and the market wins. From there, you become your client’s go-to-person, because you’re putting them first.

Customers are also a great source of knowledge: They might just have the answers you’re looking for, but are you asking them the right questions? They often know more about an entrepreneur’s business than they know themselves, because they’re on the receiving end of your offering. One way to collaborate with customers is to ask them more questions about yourselves, themselves and their clients. Harness their perspective and develop yourself to give them what they want, not what you think they want. — Wes Boshoff, founder, Imagine Thinking

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch

PR

Know what your audiences are interested in

As a brand, there are many ways to ensure your audience is paying attention to you, but you can’t expect them to find you unless you’re sharing content that captures their interest. If you send out press releases, don’t be too rigid or plain. Audiences want to be engaged, and not to have to deal with long, cumbersome information. An infographic, along with a video or pictures will make your release easier to ingest and more memorable. People don’t want boring figures, they want relatable stories.

One way to be relatable is by tapping into influencer marketing. This doesn’t mean you need celebrities with the highest followings to endorse you. Micro-influencers are proving to have just as much clout as those with larger followings. Evidence shows that micro-influencers have a more established and deeper connection with their audience, which translates to loyalty and a readiness to follow their advice. The trick is to find the micro-influencers who are speaking to the audience you want to reach.

Big data plays a key role in painting a picture of who is ‘out there’. With the right information, you can tailor your content to a specific audience. Big data can show you what topics and problems are trending in your industry, so that you can get the jump on them. Use big data to deliver your own insights on current topics, shaping and leading the conversation, converting your audience’s attention into action. — Madelain Roscher, founder and managing director, PR Worx and Status Reputation Management

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