Entrepreneurs are South Africas square pegs in the round holes, and the exceptional individuals that see the world not for what it is, but what it could be. It is often asked whether entrepreneurs are a special breed, born with entrepreneurial traits and a drive to succeed, or whether these characteristics are created by education and sector experience.
Gerrie van Biljon, executive director at Business Partners Limited says that it is in fact a bit of both that contributes towards a successful entrepreneur. He points to Business Partners client, Ferose Oaten, who is also one of the successful South African entrepreneurs featured in their recently launched square peg movement campaign.
If one of the trademarks of an entrepreneur is to do things differently, you could say that Oaten exhibited early signs of it. She decided at a young age to not go into business with her father, a formidable entrepreneur who started as a fruit seller and built up the multi-million rand Chilwan's bus company in Cape Town, and her six brothers, who all joined the family business. She instead chose to rather become a librarian.
The entrepreneurial qualities she possessed could however not help but emerge, and today she runs the pioneering vehicle-testing business AVTS Roadworthy Stations, with seven branches and a staff complement of 78. She is also the co-CEO of the South African branch of the German multinational testing, inspection and certification company, TÜV SÜD. In addition to these responsibilities Oaten is a prominent member of both the Businesswomen's Association and the Retail Motor Industry, has previously served on two Government boards and has received various accolades, such as the Most Influential Woman in Business and Government in the Services Sector.
Her unusual journey has taught her an important truth: no matter what you do, no matter how menial the job, the insights gained will help you in your own business one day. Even if it may bore you, it will stand you in good stead. These are all stepping stones, she says.
Oaten had a taste of menial tasks while working at Koeberg power station, her first job, where she spent the first three months filing aperture cards that contained information about the different systems of the power station. As mundane as the filing project was, it allowed her to become familiar with aspects of the plant which assisted her greatly in the subsequent roles she held. Following this she worked for the next 13 years worked in documentation and records management, human resources, management services and quality process management.
She believes that this experience was the best possible training ground for an entrepreneur in the vehicle-testing business, which requires strict control systems over processes, the maintenance of standards, and compliance to regulations. A vehicle-testing station cannot be allowed to be run informally, as so many start-up businesses do.
For a long time, vehicle roadworthy testing stations were run only by Government departments, but in 1989, this function was privatised. Oaten's brothers saw the business opportunity, designed and built a testing station and persuaded her to run it on behalf of the family business. It was only when the family transport business stopped trading that the entrepreneur in Oaten fully emerged and she decided to buy AVTS and build it as her own business, opening a new station almost every year since the purchase.
Oaten says just like the entrepreneurs whom Business Partners celebrates, in the world of entrepreneurial finance and support, the company itself is a square peg in a round hole. The financier takes calculated risks on the potential of entrepreneurs rather than on the balance sheet of a business. Business Partners not only financed the property on which her business testing station was built, but also assisted with financing various new projects.
Oaten says that she has joined the Business Partners square peg movement as it encourages South Africans to defy standard categories, to think and act differently, especially when it comes to solving problems. When you look at the businesses that are thriving, they were started by people who create their own space. These individuals swim upstream when others swim downstream, she says.
Van Biljon says that the square peg movement aims to celebrate entrepreneurs, such as Oaten, who see the opportunity where others see an obstacle. While many individuals may not be born with entrepreneurial qualities, there are opportunities available for individuals to flourish in their chosen sector with the right support and financial backing, concludes van Biljon.
About Business Partners Limited:
Business Partners Limited is a specialist risk finance company for formal small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Africa, and selected African countries. The company actively supports entrepreneurial growth by providing financing, specialist sectoral knowledge and added-value services for viable small and medium businesses. Visit www.businesspartners.co.za for more information.