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South African Entrepreneurs From Humble Beginnings

by on 30/01/13 at 1:30 pm
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It’s easy to examine successful entrepreneurs in their lofty positions and forget to consider their humble beginnings. Here are two South African success stories that every entrepreneur should know:

South African entrepreneurs' humble beginnings Raymond Ackerman: Trainee manager to founder of the Pick ‘n Pay Group

Raymond Ackerman is a household name in South Africa, and a giant in the business world at large. According to Forbes, Ackerman’s estimated net worth is $545 million.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, Raymond Ackerman was given work as a trainee manager for the Ackermans division of the Greaterman Group. Granted, Greatermans was founded by Raymond’s father, but most would agree that a trainee manager is a humble start. The chairman of Greatermans started Checkers in the early 1950s, and Ackerman was given the reigns to navigate this new venture. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Raymond Ackerman worked hard to uphold the principles of customer sovereignty, and by the age of 35 he was the managing director of 85 Checkers outlets. At this peak in his career, Ackerman was fired.

It’s interesting to note that the man who lost his job at Greatermans for “being too difficult” is the same man who created a retail empire. On the topic of his dismissal, Ackerman says, “It was then that I learnt one of my greatest lessons, and it came in the form of advice from an American who said to me: ‘You need 90% guts and 10% capital.’ It was this piece of advice that prompted me to start my business.” He took the money from his severance pay together with a bank loan and bought four Pick ‘n Pay outlets in Cape Town.

Raymond Ackerman’s story highlights the following entrepreneurial success factors:

  • If you have passion, you’re well equipped, even if you lack some of the finances.
  • Stick to the values you believe in. Ackerman believed in the consumer sovereignty principle, even to the point that he was fired for being “difficult”.
  • You do not always need lots of cash to start a business, but you do need dedication and drive. Ackerman had to use what he had at his disposal – his severance pay and a bank loan.
  • If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Raymond admits that if he didn’t decide to take a leap of faith, he’d just be another big corporate guy, a cog.

Patrice Motsepe: Worker in his father’s spaza shop to mining magnate

Patrice Motsepe was nurtured in an entrepreneurial playground, albeit a humble one. His father owned a spaza shop that was primarily frequented by mine workers. It’s easy to connect the dots and say that this exposure gave Motsepe an introduction to the world of business and mining at an early age.

Despite his budding skills as a young, behind-the-counter salesman, Motsepe decided to study mining and business law. On completion of his studies, he joined a law firm as a partner. It was some time later that he saw an opportunity and bought negligible gold mines from AngloGold, which eventually led to him buying the operating mines that made him his fortune. African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) was the first black-owned mining business in the country. Patrice also has shares in Absa Group and Sanlam, and he continues to expand his business empire.

Motsepe did not have money at the time of trying to secure the $8.2 million assets, and banks were not interested in financing him because of his race and also due to the known unprofitability of the mines in question. Motsepe secured the interest of Bobby Godsell, Chief Executive of Anglo’s gold and uranium division at the time, who helped him finance the purchase based on Motsepe’s drive and single-mindedness. Within three years, he was able to repay the loan due to his lean, mean, hands-on management style that saw him make the mines profitable again.

Even though Motsepe’s net worth is an estimated $2.7 billion, he continues to live a relatively “modest” lifestyle, owning only one home in the affluent suburb of Bryanston in Johannesburg. His only indulgence was the acquisition of Mamelodi Sundown’s footfall club – not planes, yachts, holiday homes and the like.

Patrice Motsepe’s story highlights the following entrepreneurial success factors:

  • Take what you can from every experience. Wherever Patrice found himself, he tried to acquire new knowledge and experience that he could apply to later business ventures.
  • Always be on the lookout for opportunities. Motsepe saw an opportunity where no one else did.
  • Share your ideas and passions with others. Some people have a vision, and others are looking to support someone’s vision. Bobby Godsell is a case in point.
  • Be hands on. If it’s your endeavour, you should do everything in your power to ensure its success. Motsepe chose to work from a place where he could watch over his staff.
  • Live modestly. Your financial situation isn’t fixed; it can change. Motsepe continues to live below his means to this day.

Aim high

Some business principles are more easily learnt when examining the stories of those that have gone before us. With hard work, drive and determination, humble beginnings can have lofty outcomes.

Amy Johnson is a member of the academic department of GetSmarter, a specialist online training firm. Equip yourself with the skills needed to make your business a success with a short course from online education company, GetSmarter. Choose from business-related topics such as small business management, financial management, marketing, social media and more. Visit for more information. View more articles by Amy Johnson.

Tags: South African Entrepreneurs

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