The co-founder of Business Connexion, a company he started with his late twin brother Benjamin at age 23, is soft spoken and humble natured.
The Afropolitan spent some time with him as he shared how it all began, his opinion on BEE and what he believes is the key to success as a young entrepreneur in today’s South Africa.
To begin with, tell us your story, how did Business Connexion begin?
Business Connexion was launched in 1996. Until then, Ben worked for KPMG, and I was with Connect Group. I guess it was just one of those progressions that occurred after 1994 when vast opportunities in black business opened up. We were fortunate enough to secure R4million from Connect Group to start the business, a loan we subsequently repaid. The business has evolved over the past few years - it’s been quite a journey of mergers and acquisitions! While we are now part of the Telkom Group we have always remained active in the business.
What made you decide to get into IT?
When Ben and I were at Christian Brothers’ College in Kimberley, they had BBC computers available for us to use. We caught on early; I think it was our first love. Being part of that computer club at school was the start of us loving IT.
It must have been quite difficult to step up as CEO after Ben passed away - what was the process that brought that about?
When I returned to the office, the board held their own discussions about the way forward and thereafter the chairman approached me about taking over as CEO. The consideration lay with whether I was emotionally able to take on the role especially after having gone through such a trauma. But it felt like the right thing for the business. The last year of my life has been rather intense, with Ben passing on during the Telkom deal, becoming CEO and everything in between. But having said that, despite the challenges I’m having fun and I am getting used to no longer having a confidante or business partner.
I believe that the company has not yet reached its true potential. Business Connexion offers a sense of hope in a context where people need role models and our presence has relevance in building a new South Africa - a concept we continue to speak about 20 years later, but it is what it is.
Undoubtedly in 1996 it must have been difficult to start your own company, particularly in the IT sector. Did you have mentors?
We received a combination of mentorship and people who gave us a chance. To get to this stage there are so many individuals to whom we owe so much for the opportunities they provided us, the leadership they showed, the advise they gave us and the leeway in allowing us to make mistakes. In any business it is difficult to have staying power. There were times when we couldn't pay salaries but the key was to keep moving forward. A fundamental necessity is having the right governance in place, as it is this that keeps the company together and morale high during the tough times. The fact is you cannot run a picture-perfect business. Mistakes are inevitable; but the key is to learn from them.
What are your thoughts on mentorship in the black business community, how does it differ to when you started?
I don't differentiate according to race - I believe that a lot of successful entrepreneurs are gratuitous with their time, resources and expertise. At Business Connexion we take coaching and mentorship very seriously. We assign coaches and mentors to people in order to help them achieve the best they can. Countrywide, it seems to be happening more now than ever before. Having said that, there are those who succeed in their pursuits without mentorship, but I believe having it would have helped them make fewer mistakes in less time and achieve more.
BEE’s initial intention to ensure participation in the community by black people - do you believe that it has been successful?
As a country I believe we will always have this debate - it is who we are! There has been a level of success, however passive shareholding does not equate to meaningful participation. At Business Connexion, we have endeavored to travel the long and hard road - you don’t become rich overnight. Team leadership and participation in really driving one’s business is required in order for BEE to be considered a more successful model.
When people don’t see meaningful change, they presume nothing is changing and that policies are failing so it is vital that the policies implemented ensure active participation in the economy. When more and more businesses get involved in inciting active participation we will see the demographics change.
Do you think that BEE benefits young people entering the workplace today?
Certainly and a business like ours is a prime example. We have created opportunities for many young people to be able to participate in the economy. On reflection, I would certainly like to expand the company and be able to allow 14 000 employees to participate in this economy. A great positive for Business Connexion Business Connexion is being able to create employment opportunities, as well as to change the perception of how young people view the IT industry.
What would you say is the recipe for success as an entrepreneur today?
Any entrepreneur will tell you that the main ingredients are hard work, perseverance and focusing your efforts. But over and above that, we as a company believe in maintaining the highest level of ethics and surrounding ourselves with those with experience because they are the ones who will offer guidance. Keep doing what you’re doing!
What most inspires you?
Witnessing those around me succeed. Seeing people rise above their circumstances. Watching the development of their self-belief. I am so inspired by a man who grasps the opportunity he has been given and acknowledges that it is not a right, but a privilege. It’s something I don’t take for granted. Where I am, someone else could be.
What to you is your greatest achievement in life thus far?
I have had so many! In my personal life it would be getting married and starting a family. In terms of work, the satisfaction of looking back on what we created and the road we have walked in making it something better. That has certainly been satisfying, however, the hard work is the achievement.
To be honest when I look at it, it has been beyond my wildest dreams! But we have stuck to that which we know, invested in our business and our people, forged strong relationships with our customers and our technology vendors. As a business we have never lost money and the key to that is we have continued and not faltered through the good and the tough times, and hopefully it continues in the same vein for the next while. I have the same energy going into the office now as when we first started.
If you could give one piece of advice to young entrepreneurs who are trying to start their own story, what would it be?
Forget the noise around you and believe in your cause. That’s the most important part - stick to your knitting! Whatever the business idea is, never quit trying. Failure is not the end of the world, it is a just a catalyst for future success.
I see entrepreneurs every day who share the same struggle. Those who stick to and have self-belief are the ones who succeed.