Connie Ferguson’s success on the small screen has won her millions of fans. She is now looking for billions in the business world.
Eight summers ago, in a studio in the Northcliff neighborhood of Johannesburg, South African singer and actor Dineo Moeketsi was a bundle of nerves, auditioning for a role in the TV drama series, Rockville.
Judging the audition was actor, entrepreneur and the co-founder of Ferguson Films, Connie Ferguson.
The star, Moeketsi recalls, helped calm her nerves and erase the tension in the air.
“It’s rare to find a woman of her stature, it’s rare to find a woman of her grace, it’s rare to find a woman of her tenacity and prowess,” gushes Moeketsi.
She got the part and her only wish from then on was to spend more time with Ferguson learning her craft.
Moeketsi has since gone on to become one of Ferguson’s protégés and a popular actor herself. She now calls her mentor, ‘mom’.
Ferguson, a mother of two and proud grandmother, is one of South Africa’s most-loved TV personalities. Beyond the grease paint and the glaring lights of the TV studios, Ferguson is also a businesswoman.
On August 10, a day after Women’s Day – honoring the rocky resilience of the apartheid-era heroines of South Africa – we set up time to meet with Ferguson in a small studio in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg.
The studio is on a road that is an airy strip of eateries, cafes, shisha parlors and salons.
Ferguson arrives driving a cobalt blue BMW and looking relaxed, in unpretentious floral pants and a casual jacket, profusely apologizing for her lateness.
The first thing you establish as Ferguson walks in is she has no starry airs, warmly greeting everyone in the cold studio.
Nomsa Madida, the makeup artist who has worked with Ferguson for over a decade and regards the star as her ‘idol’, is already present with her elaborate beauty kit open in front of her.
It’s a daily ritual for Ferguson – getting made up to face the cameras.
She speaks animatedly about work, life and her three-year-old grandson Ronewa, who she calls Roro.
And then, as Madida works her brows, Ferguson fondly tells her: “Do you know what I like about your work? I look at myself and I don’t want to be photo-shopped.”
The 48-year-old TV star smiles as she harks back to her beginnings in Botswana, and the move to Johannesburg to pursue her career, and stay the course.
She has come a long way.
Ferguson was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, as the third of seven children.
“Not having much when we grew up and just the pressure of wanting to do well so that you are able to empower the family; seeing your parents work so hard and you wish you could just grow up and work and relieve them of all that hard work; that was always something I wanted to do,” says Ferguson.
She moved to Botswana with her family when she was six years old, growing up there and then relocating again to South Africa in her late teens.
Everything she did subsequently, she continues to do today, be it modeling, acting, producing, and entrepreneurship.
Along the way, came success, recognition and fame.
“One of the questions I get asked a lot is ‘how have you managed to stay relevant for so long’? And I think the simple answer is this has always been my profession, my career, [it’s] not a get-rich-quick scheme or a get-famous-quick scheme. Fame is just a side-effect of what I do. It’s not something that defines who I am as a person or as a business person,” says Ferguson.
With 28 years in the television industry, she stole the hearts of South Africans as Karabo Moroka, one of the main protagonists in the soap opera Generations on SABC1. Even now, people call her Karabo.
“The name stuck but I think I have been very lucky because I have always been able to draw the line between myself as a real person and the characters I play on TV. It’s very important for me to remain real and live realistically in a realistic world because I think the pressure can be overwhelming because the characters that we play on TV…especially the characters that I’ve played…are all these powerful women I admire – very monied, very rich, it almost looks like things come too easy and that’s not what I want to teach my children, that things come too easy. I want them to know that they need to work for everything they have. They need to earn it.”
Generations first hit TV screens in 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy, going on to become the longest-running locally-produced soap on the national broadcaster.
It airs even now, as Generations: The Legacy, every week night.
Ferguson started as a model and actor doing advertisements and short projects. Once she got on to Generations, she was lucky to have a secure acting job because the television industry was unstable.
“It’s not easy for an actor in this country. I think it’s better now because there are a lot more opportunities than there were back then. But living from contract to contract is not as glamorous as it looks. But that said, if people use this opportunity well, it’s a great opportunity,” she says.
She was voted one of South Africa’s 10 Most Beautiful Women by Cosmopolitan magazine in 1993. Other recognition: the South African Foundation for Excellence and Achievement Award in 1988, the Duku Duku Awards, and the You Spectacular Award in 2017 for Favorite Actress.
For six years from 2008, she represented Garnier’s facial product Even & Matte, but in between, decided to launch her own brand of bodycare products.
“The bigger picture was then to eventually venture into everything, including facial products, and there was going to be a conflict of interest so I had to make that decision that ‘you know what, yes it’s a sacrifice, but I need to go it alone for now’,” she says.
What was the difference?
“Ownership is a big difference. It’s nice to be the face of a brand and you get a fee for representing the brand but at the end of the day, your name is, yes, it’s attached to the brand and yes, it’s great to be associated with it, but there’s no ownership, it’s not really yours,” she says.
Ferguson was ready to carve her own path in business.
She launched Koni Multinational Brands in 2013. It won the Upcoming Supplier Award in 2015 from the Shoprite supermarket group for her range of body lotions.
“The bigger picture and plan is to build a multibillion-rand business. Absolutely! I mean it has been done by multinationals and those products are doing very well in South Africa, so why can’t a South African brand do the same?”
With the launch of Connie Body Care, the actor donned a more serious role as entrepreneur. She released three body lotions at five Shoprite stores on a trial basis and passed the test. She personally developed each product with a chemist deciding on the scent and texture. She rolled it out in more Shoprite stores. As time went on, she also retailed at other stores including Clicks, Game and Choppies.
As a startup, there were challenges, but she is grateful Shoprite took her in when no one knew her brand.
“People knew Connie as a personality, as a TV brand, but not so much as a bodycare brand,” she says.
Ferguson wanted to get people to believe in local products, and her products for the quality and not just because it had her name.
“So trying to break that mould and make people believe was hard because I didn’t just want to ride on my name because you may buy the product initially because it’s Connie’s product but if the product is not good, you are not going to go back and buy it again…For me, it was very important that the product was able to sell itself,” she says.
In 2015, her range consisting of three variants had seen a year-on-year growth of more than 460% in Shoprite Checkers alone.
Ferguson also launched a men’s range.
But in early 2018, news reports surfaced that bodycare giant NIVEA was suing Koni Multinational Brands over alleged intellectual property violations. As per the reports, the action for “passing-off” was filed by NIVEA’s owners Beiersdorf AG on the allegations that the men’s shower gel had packaging similar to one of their products.
When quizzed about it, Ferguson tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA: “We have our legal team dealing with their legal team so it’s not something I can openly talk about. But I think I can just say that it’s not anything that I’m worried about.”
When the reports surfaced, fans quickly rose to her defence on social media.
Ferguson says she has a brand people love.
“It has spoken for itself because…you buy the product, you go back and you ask for the same product. So it is not a novelty thing anymore just because it’s Connie’s face on the product. Now you are buying it because you love the actual product. And that was what was important for us.”
She says she is at a point where the brand is “now growing steadily” and “starting to see returns”.
African media mogul?
For the photoshoot for this feature, Ferguson changes into a bold red satiny blouse and white pants. Her makeup is light and her hair slicked back. She poses effortlessly in front of the camera.
“Lights, Camera, Action!” has been Ferguson’s reality for over two decades, and she has been extensively featured in the media.
Many admire her professionalism and dedication to the craft.
Her brand manager Thato Matuka from Brand Arc SA, who has worked with many prominent South African celebrities, says of Ferguson: “We all see where Ferguson Films is going. I mean every time you flip a channel, it’s a Ferguson Films product… I just see her conquering Africa, in terms of media and television…I just see her as an African media mogul,” he says.
Ferguson admits it has taken a lot of hard work to get there.
In the early days, before she dove into business, she would take on multiple jobs, anything that came her way, from acting to presenting to emceeing events.
“There would be times when I slept for like three hours because I was working the whole time and that takes a toll on the body,” she says.
“You need to know when to say ‘ok, enough’, when to say ‘ok, it’s not even worth the money’, and when to decide what is more important for you and I think that’s when you are able to find a good balance.”
It meant saying no to some of the opportunities such as events and appearances.
She left Generations in 2010 to focus on her production company and beauty business. The news sent shockwaves through South Africa’s TV industry.
Fans were devastated.
After being with the show 16 years, Ferguson left not knowing what lay ahead.
She took over as the producer and director of a new show, the 13-part drama series, Rockville, under her own film company, Ferguson Films, which she established with her husband Shona Ferguson.
The pair also acted in Rockville, which aired on Mzansi Magic.
To finance Ferguson Films, the couple took out a bond, and then a second bond on that bond.
“We had a vision and we knew that because we didn’t want to run a spaza shop, we wanted to run a business. We had to put money in to be able to get something out. We wanted to be taken seriously as business people. So we took a second bond on our house. We set up offices in Northcliff…,” says Ferguson.
Shona left his full-time job to focus on the business while Ferguson went back to acting to be able to make enough money to support it. “Those are the kind of sacrifices that one has to make. At the same time, they have to be calculated. Because I mean we thought about it. I could have left work as well at the time. But then what? We have kids, we have a bond and we have just taken out a second one. So there are risks involved. But you know, I think if you have a solid plan in place, you know that there are risks worth taking,” says the seasoned star.
In 2014, Ferguson was back on the TV screens as Generations was re-launched as Generations: The Legacy.
Ferguson Films needed more finance to keep the business running.
With both husband and wife being first-time producers, securing funding from investors was not easy.
“But if you don’t have necessarily a business record, how do you say to someone you are a business person? How do say to someone ‘give me your money and let me make you a show and let me make you money’? How do you make them buy into what you are selling?” says Ferguson.
In 2016, fans of Generations: The Legacy saw the departure of the star once again, this time for good, to focus on her production company.
After experiencing the entrepreneurial life, Ferguson never looked back. The company currently produces a show called The Queen, which both Ferguson and Shona act in, as well as a drama show called The Throne.
They see a growth of 30% this year, says Ferguson.
Ferguson Films has received the BET A-List Game Changers 2016 Award and the Naspers Order of Tafelberg Award in 2017.
The Queen has garnered many viewers who actively voice their opinions on social media.
Behind-the-scenes videos of the show reveal a hard-working team under Ferguson’s leadership.
They endearingly call her ‘Sis Coni’ or ‘Mama Connie’.
“My team is very naughty, jolly and playful. We work hard but we also play hard from time to time…,” says Ferguson.
She says she leads with honesty and openness.
“But when you speak from the heart, they can sense it as well and then they can take responsibility for whatever it is.”
Ferguson’s leadership style?
“I’m the kind of leader that is very happy to play when it’s play time but when it’s time to work, it’s down to the grind, we work,” she says.
“I never ever want to be a leader that’s feared because I feel then that your people don’t give you their best because they are scared of you so they are always like tip-toeing around you. I don’t want to be that person. I’m very approachable, I’m very warm but when I need to put my foot down, I can do that as well.”
TV production in South Africa is male-dominated and Ferguson was among the few women who opened up the industry to more women.
Ever since the push for 90% local content on TV screens, the industry has grown significantly.
Ferguson remains one of the most experienced and one of the few women to have played the most number of leading roles on South African television.
From auditioning for the formidable female lead in Generations, to now offering a chance to aspiring young actors in her own productions, she is building the next generation of actors, role models and possibly, entrepreneurs.
‘Mom’s A Team Player’
Connie Ferguson’s elder daughter, Lesedi Matsunyane-Ferguson, is a casting coordinator and production manager at Ferguson Films.
Literally growing up on her mother’s sets, she has seen her professionalism up close.
The 25-year-old Lesedi, who has studied drama and acting, says her mother has a quirky sense of humor and calls her a “simple, low-key person” with “a rare and incredible work ethic”.
“She’s the type of person that even if she was not feeling well she would come to work and give her all and you would not even know that she is sick until we wrap up or say ‘cut’. She is always a team player and she always lifts everyone else’s spirits on the set.” What qualities does she look up to in her?
“The amount of time and investment she has put into not only her craft but her businesses and it is helping everything flourish. And always being involved with everything she has ever done like with the perfume, with the glasses, with the lotions, she is there testing out all the products making sure that they smell good, making sure that they work for different types of skin tones. She is extremely passionate about anything she touches.”