Herman Mashaba’s story is a real rags to riches one. It all starts in an underprivileged small village of GaRamotse in Hammanskraal, where Herman had to work his way up to becoming one of South Africa’s influential and wealthiest businessman. He was not one to let his surroundings determine what kind of future he was going to have. He knew there was a better and richer world waiting out there for him and he was determined to find it. Here is his story told in his words through an interview he had with KICKSTART’s News Correspondence Nombuso Mahlangu:
Nombuso: Who is Herman Mashaba?
Herman: Herman Mashaba is a 53 year old man or young man brought up in a small village 30 kilometers out of Pretoria called GaRamotse, born and brought up there, went to school in the region, went to university in 1979 for one and a half years. Started a working career in 1980.
Nombuso: Can we talk a little bit about your formative years in Hammanskraal. By the way, I am from there. In fact the whole production team is from there. I understand that your grandfather called you ‘Highman,’ did I say it correct?
Herman: Yes, if you go back to GaRamotse now and ask the older people they still call me Highman. I decided to change this name later on when I started to understand what was happening around me because I felt a bit uncomfortable with the name. I believe the day I was born my grandfather was extremely proud of my arrival. And that’s probably what changed my upbringing because I have always really been the apple of his eye.
Nombuso: Apart from the vision that your grandfather had for your life, did you ever think that, growing up as a child in Hammi-Town as we call it now, that you’d reach you would one day reach the level of success that you’ve reached now?
Herman: I still have a lot to achieve; I always refuse when people try to classify me as a successful person because I don’t understand what success is from their interpretation. Because my own interpretation of success is something much bigger than what I have achieved up to now, I don’t really believe I’ll be able to achieve that in my life. But I’m working towards it and I hope I can leave something for the next generation so that future generations will be able to say look, “Mr. Mashaba left something for us.” That for me is an achievement because driving a fancy car and living in a nice house today is not success because those things you can easily loose them but sustainability, I think for me is how I measure success.
Nombuso: Can you paint us a picture of the circumstances you grew up under because it is kind of difficult now to believe that you were anything but poor at one stage?
Herman: Being poor in my community was something that was really common. But at the same time I needed money because I have always seen myself as a capitalist. That’s the one thing I encourage South Africans to have; this capitalist kind of mentality. So I’ve always declared my economic tendencies as a capitalist. I managed to pass my Matric in 1978 and went to the University of the North.
I was fortunate enough that I got a half bursary and the other half of the funding came through my brother-in-law who worked at the one of the banks. I thought I was going to study law and discovered during the first week of orientation that I was not allowed to study law because of my poor Afrikaans mark. I fell in love with my studies and thought I was going to be a political scientist and study to become a Professor and maybe to one day leave the country to go work somewhere as a political scientist. Unfortunately, the second year of my studies the university was cut short. We were given six hours to leave the institution and that was the end of my political dream. I had to go back now to the townships with no work experience, and no education.
My first job was at Spar Pretoria, I worked for them for seven months as a dispatch clerk and at the time I was one of the few lucky blacks who can read and write. I got paid about R220 or so a month. I worked for Spar for seven months, it was a very hostile environment, but in the process managed to find employment with Motani Industries furniture manufacturers. I worked for them for almost two years.
A few months into Motani I realised that leaving the country was not going to turn into a reality. So, I really had to ask myself; ‘Herman how are you really going to attain that independence that you always aspired for yourself?’ and that’s when I decided that opening my own business was the way to achieving this.
Back then I had no car and no business experience, but I decided to do it regardless. Buying a car with the kind of background that we were brought up under; weekends partying, shebeens and bad friends all around us, that’s just how it was. If you had a car these guys would think that it’s transport to go from one shebeen to the next.
Nombuso: So, you said that, you decided you are going to do business regardless. What is it that you think made you succeed against the odds?
Herman: I don’t know… I have always been determined to succeed, and really do things for myself. Actually one thing that I really treasure in my life is my independence and my realisation that my survival is totally dependent on me. That’s when I felt that with or without this legislative framework preventing us as black people from going into business, I’m going to do it anyway. I was selling products on a commission basis for different organisations; linen, crockery, fire detection systems and in the process I sold hair care products, too. It was while I was selling for this company that I realised the huge opportunity where black men and women in this country, and Africa for that matter, wanted to be permed. That’s when I then put a plan together to start Black Like Me. I conceived the idea in 1984.
Nombuso: During your days as a sales executive at SuperKurl, you saw that they were raking in the sales and decided you want a piece of that pie. From reading your book, starting a business sounded so easy for you, you saw a gap and went for it and subsequently became rich, yet that’s not the experience of many aspiring entrepreneurs who have tried and failed, why do you think you succeeded while others tried and continued to fail?
Herman: For me I have never really given up in life and one trait that I have is the realisation that I really have to work hard, be smart and take charge of our own destiny and not allow someone else to determine it on my behalf. Unfortunately, in South Africa we have a culture of thought that someone owes us something. My belief in life is that nobody owes me anything, including my parents, and I don’t owe anyone anything either. I know that if I have to really survive in this world I have to work. And that’s really how I approach life.
I think if I look back at my days as a sales person on a commission basis, I made the decision to buy a car and two months later resign from the company I was working for. It was a very expensive car, and at the age of twenty two, it was quite unheard of in the black community to have a brand new car. I paid R3000 deposit and paid the R180 a month over a period of 36 months. I had a commitment to ensure that things would work out. I was reasonably successful from the beginning, but I put in a lot of work, and a lot of sacrifices in the process. It’s not something that just happened by accident, nothing in my life happened by accident.
Nombuso: So, where does Black like me stand today and what part do you play in it’s future?
Herman: Black Like Me started manufacturing in 1985. We managed to be extremely successful from day one. We built a factory right in the township in Mabopane using my own capital without any borrowed funding. 17 November 1993 however, someone decided torch it. I nearly lost everything.
At around the same time, the New South Africa was beginning to emerge and just a few weeks later managed to buy a factory in Midrand. It was a difficult period in my life rebuilding this business using my own funds.
In 1997 I sold 75 percent of Black Like Me to Colgate. It was an exciting moment in my life. I thought this was my ticket to global success. Eighteen months down the line, and after nearly giving up, I bought the business back from Colgate.
In 2005 I had an opportunity to sell 50 percent of Black Like Me to some friends of mine, competitors called Amka in Pretoria. Now, since 2005, all Black Like Me products are manufactured and distributed by Amka. I still sit on the board as a non-executive. The business is running smoothly.
Nombuso: You opened a business at a time when there were no small business development agencies such as SEDA and IDC for black entrepreneurs, and you succeeded but today this kind of support does exist for new entrepreneurs, yet they fail, why do you think that is?
Herman: I think it is this victim mentality. I think we are creating a situation in our country where the political leadership is giving our people an impression that someone owes them something and then that they are going to do it for them.
Because business is not really for sissies it really needs the kind of mind set and understanding that you’ve got to work hard to succeed. You’ve got to wake up every morning, sometimes you’ve got to work 7 days a week. Sometimes, you’ve got to work generations before you can really see the fruits of your labours.
It is unfortunate that people nowadays want short cuts, and want the glory yesterday without putting in the effort. It’s important for us to start laying the ground work for change in SA. Education is actually one of the key principles that we really need to adopt, this will help change that mentality.
Nombuso: You find that a lot of young entrepreneurs have the passion for what they do, yet they lack the selling skills, does that spell disaster for somebody like you who has been there, done it and come out on top?
Herman: You know, if you don’t really have the skills for anything whether you are someone making us tea or sweeping the floor, a painter or a carpenter, you are not going to make it. And selling cannot really be an exception. I have got the passion, but passion alone is not good enough. Yes, you gotta have it for what you do, but then you’ve got to make sure that you get the necessary skills. And that can only come from education.
If you don’t really have education, and serious education, your chances of making it in life are very slim.
Once you have the mentality that your failure has got nothing to do with you but rather someone else, how are you going to find the solutions? So those are some of the challenges that I believe that as a race and as a people, as South Africans, we really need to address to be able to move forward and leave a legacy for future generations.
Nombuso: In his book Think & Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill listed unwavering courage as a major attribute of leadership, which other attribute of leadership can you add and why?
Herman: These are textbook type of things that successful people all over the world have. Studies have been done many times over to show this; you’ll always find its hard work, read and have the passion and the courage for what you do. Of course the big one is to take risks. You know, all these things are there but at the end of the day it is you as an individual, what are you going to do with all these attributes? I think that’s what entrepreneurs really need to understand.
Also very important, don’t rely on someone else. Don’t ever believe that the next person is going to do anything for you. Yes, I’ve always believed in partnerships from the time I’ve started my business, I’ve always worked with people but at the end of the day, you know what, I always take responsibility for my own situation.
Partners can complement my weaknesses, because as a human being I cannot have all the qualities. I am a good salesman, I am whatever, but at the end of the day, you need other disciplines in business. Someone to handle your finances, you need someone to handle this category and so forth. That’s when you really bring those skills to come and complement you. I don’t really believe that you can be taught what to do, you can be taught the attributes of a really successful person and you can read them and learn about them and become a professor, but what it comes down to you do with them to really turn yourself into something. That’s an individual trait that I don’t really believe can be repeated from one person to the next.
Nombuso: What do you think causes failure in youth-owned enterprises because you started quite young yourself?
Herman: Yes, I started my business career at the age of 22. I think I can only give examples of my own life because what has made me successful might not necessarily make the next person successful. I realised that I needed stability in my life. That’s why I decided to get married because my wife has really played a key role in stabilising my life. If I just bought a car and joined friends and thought that life was good I would have failed. So, the first thing that I realized was to create structure in my life. Also, I knew that I really needed to work hard to succeed.
I was also not really prepared to do what everybody else does. I really wanted to do something quite unique. Because that’s what really creates excitement in business. You know, you look at what is it that people actually need, find a way to service that need, and then you can really succeed in business.
Today it seems people would rather copy because if one is successful in selling apples, everyone wants to sell apples. Eventually everybody collapses. There is a culture of not being prepared to stretch our minds, to seeing to it that we satisfy the needs the people have. That’s really how I’ve run my businesses for the last 30 years; trying to satisfy the need that is always there within people.
The rest of the story will be told in the 2nd Issue where KICKSTART will be delving deeper into job creation, government’s expectations of entrepreneurs and Mr. Mashaba’s response to that controversial question. Furthermore, you can look forward to hearing about the life lessons that he learned the hard way and is ready to share with you as well his comments on whether or not the business plan is still relevant.
Should you lose the business the plan or keep it?
That’s the question.