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A flavour of genius
Great genius is a rarity, yet there is so much of it.
In South Africa, we are the descendants of truly ingenious men and women, who created the world we know and love today. They are the aging and often forgotten masterminds behind the brands that we cannot fathom living without, and that dominate our economy in a modern world. In the first of our new series, Now & Then, DanielladuPlessis discovers that the same blue-eyed man who founded Ouma Rusks, also began the company that still roars with flavour: the proudly South African Simba chips.
Like all rich histories, there is just so much to tell.
Lets begin with the rough figure of 1948 the year that Leon Greyvensteyn noticed the clear superiority of his mothers rusks. With their growing popularity and his laterally thinking business mind, he decided to take them further than the local church bazaar or tea party, and build a factory in which the rusks could be made en masse. The family farm in Molteno, eastern Cape seemed like the perfect place, and there, among the snow and the howling winds, Ouma Rusks was born. But like all new businesses, to expand he needed a loan, which was duly granted by the-then newly-formed Industrial Development Corporation (IDC,) and its man, Derek Keyes, our former minister of finance.
The loan was, in fact, the very first that the IDC had ever granted, and so the business was already one giant leap ahead. However, as with everything in Greyvensteyns life, this was not enough. Constantly in search of new excitements, challenges and lines, he took an extended trip to America, where he was to look for something new to do with the business. There he found, what he called, People doing very interesting things with a potato, and in an untidily scribbled notebook labelled My 1956 trip to America, he brought back what he believed to be the best processes of making chips that hed encountered. Some of these encounters were with Herman Lay, of Lays chips.
The new, unknown and odd-looking potato brand first went to a rented factory in Eloff street extension, Johannesburg, and then to a far and distant place, which seemed like miles and miles from anywhere. Here he built, from scratch, the factory that would produce what were to become the very first potato chips South Africa had ever seen. In the heart of what is today Isando, the original factory that Greyvensteyn designed still stands, with its pointed arches, built on the advice of his five-year-old daughter, who thought they made the design look far more intriguing. But of course, the brand needed a name. Bringing the concept home one night to his wife and three children, Greyvensteyn offered five pounds to the first person who could come up with a name for the new company. Referring to a comic he was reading at the time, eldest son Armand suggested Simba. Why Greyvensteyn finally went with this name is not clear, but the correlation between his name, Leon, and lion, and the similarity to the payoff line, King of snacks, probably had something to do with it. (Armand no doubt received his five pounds.)
Always very particular about his chips, Greyvensteyn was continually in search of the perfect potato crisp. Constantly testing, designing, redesigning and bringing home tubs of dip to his family at night, he would make the family dip a chip into each tub and advise him as to which flavour they preferred. This, they say, was what would help determine the next flavour introduced by Simba.
In those early days, the plain, salted potato chip was cooked to perfection complete with air bubble on the surface. Initially these were found to be the top sellers, but things have changed somewhat. According to the current marketing director at Simba, Ted Linehan, the most modern design is the ridged cut which holds the flavour for longer, which is why most chips are made this way. One has to wonder if Greyvensteyn and his eye for perfection wouldve agreed!
Passionate about the business, Leon quickly built the brand into a highly successful, national operation. He developed a spicy mayonnaise product called Salannaise, and added Peanuts as well as further chip flavours to the product line-up. Sadly, his success was also to become the reason for his leaving the company at its peak. Under pressure from his father and his younger brother, Andre, who were determined to gain control, Leon finally sold out.
Thankfully, however, Simba is in good hands today. It has not been family-owned since the 70s, and now belongs to Frito-Lay (a division of Pepsico), which, in December 1999, bought out the remaining 50% of the company from Foodcorp. According to Linehan, Simba is still the companys biggest brand by far, and proved this by boasting an impressive figure of more than R1 billion in turnover in 2002 its best result to date.
Linehan says, Simbas success lies in the fact that it goes across all races and ages, etc. It is truly loved by everybody. He continues to explain what most of us already know, that in the townships and across the country, the word for chip is not chip, its Simba. When a buyer asks for a packet of Simba at a shop, he could be handed another brand altogether, but to him its called a Simba. Thats the legend that Greyvensteyn has left behind.
Simba has grown by 40% in the past two years, and we are still the category dominator, by far, says Linehan. In fact, according to AC Nielsen, Simba boasts 63% market share, with its strongest competitor being Willards, with just 20%.
To his credit, Linehan is excited about Simba, its success, its prospects and its past. In essence, Simba has evolved over the years, but has, in fact, stayed the same. Were very aware of keeping our heritage top of mind, and were proud of it. Were extremely conscious of the hard work that generations of people before us have done, and we like to keep some remnants of the early days the crown on top of the i in Simba, for instance, he says.
Leon Greyvensteyn passed away in 1999 at the age of 84. Some could say that the passing of such a massive contributor to our economy, and South African experience marks the end of an era. An era when everything was new, undiscovered and waiting to be invented, introduced and snapped up. But if that was so, then more people wouldve done it. They didnt, and thats what makes people such as Leon Greyvensteyn so ingenious. They saw a gap and they filled it. That doesnt happen often today, and when it does, we take notice. But weve forgotten the great men that did it first. Men like Greyvensteyn. Despite the disappointing end to his involvement in Simba in the 60s, Greyvensteyn kept a close and beady eye on its doings at all times. If only he couldve met the enthusiastic Linehan, heard of the R1 billion plus turnover, 40% growth and 63% market share. Says his family: His blue eyes wouldve twinkled and he wouldve smiled a teasing smile: Thats good. But if theyd use the chip with the bubble in the middle, theyd do even better, hed chuckle.
1940 Loan obtained from the IDC for 1500; double-decker oven bought
1940s Ouma Rusks started
1956 First Simba factory opens in Johannesburg
1957 Character of Simba the lion developed by Dennis Purchase
1958 Manufacture of Simba peanuts, mayonnaise and Salannaise begins
1964 Isando factory opened
1972 First R1 million profit recorded for the year. Niknaks is launched
1974 Simba Quix Ltd listed on the JSE
1977 Simba bought by Fedfood (Taken over by Melbak in 1991)
1988 The ouma of Ouma Rusks, Elizabeth Anne Greyvensteyn, passes away at the age of 97
1992 A merger between Kanhym and Fedfood forms Foodcorp
1995 Frito-Lay (part of Pepsico) buys out 50% of the company
1999 Frito-Lay buys out the remaining 50%
1999 Leon Greyvensteyn passes away at the age of 84
2002 More than R1 billion in turnover recorded for the first time in Simbas history
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