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How The Dis-Chem Founders Went From $1,000 To Over A Billion

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“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb is the glue that binds the Saltzman family. It has ushered in fame, fortune and happiness for Lynette and Ivan Saltzman.

This husband and wife duo founded Dis-Chem, one of South Africa’s fastest growing pharmacies. It is a specialist in beauty, health food, sport supplements and health and wellbeing. The company reported an impressive R17.4 billion ($1.46 billion) turnover in its full financial year results for the year ending February 2017, giving it a R30.43 billion ($2.56 billion) market capitalization.

It is big money.

As we meet, it is a clear summer’s day in Greenside, Johannesburg. Clarity has played a big part of Lynette and Ivan’s life. On this day, they feel the warmth of success born of a strong family bond.

“You know Ivan used to stay upstairs when he first moved to Johannesburg to study,” says Lynette as the pair walk into the studio.

Inside, the fan moves sluggishly through the stifling air as the power couple sit for a rare interview.

“I had an inclination towards retail from early age and I’m happy we now employ 15,000 people,” says Ivan with utmost humility.

It is an empire built through passion and love. Four decades later, you can still see it in their eyes whenever they look at each other.

Lynette Saltzman (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

It all started in a pharmacy class in 1972.

“We were doing a science experiment and he lent me an eraser or something like that and that’s basically how we met. We started dating quite soon thereafter and we got engaged in our final year,” says Lynette.

Once married and working as pharmacists, Ivan says he was frustrated about how things were done at his workplace in Mondeor, south of Johannesburg. He had many ideas of how to make the business more profitable so he made an offer to buy out the owner.

It worked. Lynette left her job to join Ivan in the business. It was time to put their innovative ideas to test.

“We were just anxious to start putting all these new things that weren’t in the shop before. People started coming into this tiny neighborhood shop and they wanted to see what we had. We were always looking for new things, like putting earrings into the shop. The day we unpacked the earrings we had queues of people,” she says.

It marked a breakthrough. According to the Saltzmans, the shop started making profit almost immediately.

Growth was inevitable. Six years later, an opportunity to open another pharmacy in the northern suburbs knocked.

“A lot of people turned down the opportunity to open shops at the newly build centre in Randpark Ridge because of high rentals. We thought this is our opportunity, let’s take it and let’s make it work, which is exactly what we did,” says Ivan.

The answer was discounts on medicine. It was a case of volume over gross profit. It may have been an old theory but it worked. From there they improved their supply chain which gave them reasonable pricing, which they’ve kept to this day.

“We would go to other stores and check drug prices and then take our prices down. Our customers knew that we were always cheaper. We made sure we had plenty of stock and the concept of a discount pharmacy was born,” says Lynette.

“There was a time when we couldn’t advertise discounts, so the Dis-Chem could be dispensary chemist or discount chemist, but most people took it as a discount chemist,” says Ivan.

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To keep expanding, they advertised the business on mass media and continued to innovate.

“When people needed medicine and came to our store, we could sell other things too. We were unique and our stores were always larger than any other pharmacy. And we had the variety in that space. We discounted heavily on medicines and we were competitive on the rest,” he says.

The discounts paid off. The second store expanded about four times within the mall; but not without challenges.

“It was unusual for a retail operation to have a wholesale operation at the same time, so that was a challenge to get wholesale prices,” says Ivan.

There were also unkind comments from people. In those days, most women stayed at home with the children. Lynette says she faced some negativity for being a working mom.

“I used to get comments from people, and a few of them that hurt at that time came from family members. I tried to juggle my time. In the earlier days, I used to try and get home in the afternoons, where I used to do homework or take kids to wherever they had to go to and work at night. Our marriage has come out stronger and our children are closer to us, we are more a family than some of the people that were making the comments about how I should spend my time with my family,” says Lynette.

Ivan Saltzman (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Although some couples may find working together a problem, the Saltzmans made it work.

“Sure you have disagreements, on how to do things and how not to do things, but a strong factor is that we do different things in the business and we were not in the same office. Ivan has the foresight on most things. He can see the possibilities into the future and once the idea grabs me, I can then take it into implementation,” she says.

Ivan says they always move together and Lynette is an innovator in her own right. For example, being the only woman in the family, she built the business’ cosmetics and beauty category.

Lynette says she found that in the early days, although she would have been in charge, people would want to go to Ivan when it was time to sign agreements.

“There is a time when we were in the pharmacy, and I was dispensing and one of the customers said to me, ‘just because you are married to a pharmacist doesn’t make you a pharmacist’. But now everybody accepts it,” she says.

“In the business side there are assumptions that I’m the boss, but we are both bosses,” says Ivan.

Teamwork has earned them 135 stores and 15,000 employees. It’s a remarkable story considering they started with one store and one employee. They will open 21 stores this year alone.

The company also has stores in Namibia and will be getting into Botswana this year.

“Namibia is different but [also] very similar to South Africa. The consumers are very similar, the supply chain is different, there are different laws and regulations, but it is very busy and competing very well with the South African stores,” says Ivan.

The Saltzmans currently own just over 50% of the group. Dis-Chem has become a major retailer of health products, with annual sales of more than R15 billion ($1.26 billion). In 2016 they listed the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Its shares opened at R18.50 ($1.50). At the time of going to press, Dis-Chem shares were R35.39 ($2.97).

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Being on the JSE may have posed some questions when it was found that other listed companies were cooking books.

“We are not worried about our own company, but it is just sad to see, that some companies have misrepresented their assets. I think it taints the country,” says Ivan.

Although they say they haven’t made major mistakes in the business, Ivan says they were, and still are, cautious. He wishes they had expanded faster and earlier. On the other hand, Lynette feels they grew as they were comfortable.

“We expanded as we felt we could cope. We could handle everything properly, do it properly and get it right. So it’s taking us a bit longer to get more stores; it’s a great business. I feel that we’ve done it the right way,” she says.

The business has had its share of struggles. Lynette remembers some bad days. One of them is an employee strike eight years ago. The striking crowd threw a gas cylinder into one of their shops in Pretoria. The second is when an electrical fault caused a raging inferno in their store in Roodepoort.

“That was absolutely terrible. The whole roof came down. The whole shop was destroyed and it took us a year before we could reopen the store,” says Lynette.

Ivan says those were disasters that happened when the business was strong. They were able to pick up business in surrounding stores.

With all this success, they don’t hesitate to offer advice to young people.

“The basic thing is that, whatever fields anybody wants to go into, they have to have a passion for it, they have to want to do it. If it’s just a job, it’s not going to succeed,” says Lynette.

One of Dis-Chem’s warehouses in South Africa (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Ivan says the next boom is artificial intelligence and information technology.

To ensure smooth processes, the company already makes use of technology. A few days after our meeting, we visited the Saltzmans at their head office in Midrand to see the technology at work.

As we walk up the stairs of the 40,000m2 building, many awards hang on the wall. We meet Saul Saltzman, one of Lynette and Ivan’s three sons who takes us on a tour.

The warehouse is semi-automated. Processes are still run by humans with the help of robotic technology.

“It will be impossible to run ourselves without some sort of robotics. I don’t believe that robots have replaced jobs, it has probably, in our case, created jobs because it enables us to do far bigger volumes and there are always people involved,” says Ivan.

READ MORE: The Reluctant Pharmacist

The group has three other warehouses around the country. Most of the business comes from Johannesburg, with Cape Town accounting for 25%.

“We have the ethical, beauty and retail departments and the warehouse doesn’t shut down. We work 24 hours a day and seven days a week and there are 2,500 employees in this warehouse. We are always busy and the technology we use helps us with efficiencies,” says Dis-Chem’s Logistics Manager, Brian Sher.

There are machines which wrap 500 pallets in plastic per day and some that help sort 4,000 boxes per hour.

“Because we deal with sensitive things like medicine, we always have pharmacists available and have controls in place to make sure things are done properly. For example, you can find medicines that need to be kept under certain conditions and we also use these technologies to track orders and progress within the warehouse,” says Saul.

Giving back also forms a big part of Dis-Chem’s DNA. In 2006, Lynette founded the Dis-Chem Foundation to help South Africa’s impoverished communities.

“We started a loyalty card program to give back to the customer and the community. We then started the foundation which works closely with registered NGOs who work with orphanages, rehab centers, abandoned babies and old age homes. We also have two mobile clinics in the Western Cape,” says Lynette.

Dis-Chem Foundation’s food garden in South Africa feeds 10,000 people a month (Photo supplied)

She also saw a need for nutrition and in 2013, the foundation decided to use two hectors of vacant land in front of their offices for farming. As we walk through the garden, we pass all types of vegetables, from onions to carrots to spinach. Lynette introduces us to farm manager Lebo Malinga.

“We have 13 farmers working here to make sure we feed 10,000 underprivileged people per month. Now we even have students interested in agriculture visiting us to learn. We even get students studying agriculture in college coming in to test the soil, look into irrigation systems and water catchments,” says Malinga.

As we leave the garden, the sun blazes down from a cloudless azure sky and the heat bounces off the streets creating a mirage of wavering images but Dis-Chem’s future cannot be clearer – brighter than ever.

How we made it:

  1. Convenience – We made sure to create a shop that offers many things so that it’s convenient for our customers. They can come into our store to get their make-up done or buy medicine or buy healthy food items.
  2. Hiring the right people – Our employees know who we are and we are not inaccessible to anybody. We are still very much a family business. I think our employees feel this loyalty. They see our passion and and they feel the passion and they go all out to help run stores. So having passionate, well-qualified and well-trained staff has helped us.
  3. More for less – Being a discount pharmacy helped because we were always affordable compared to our competitors.
  4. Passion – When you love what you do it becomes easy to grow the business. You have to love your job.

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Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing

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As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed. 

Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.

 Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.

 Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.

 A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.

 We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.

 As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”

 With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.

 Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.

 In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.

For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.

 Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.

– Unathi Shologu

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

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 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

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But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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