A sixty-five-year-old Cape Town antique furniture maker, Pierre Cronje, guarded his business and worked his guts out for three decades, but he now lives to convince his children to take over when he retires.
At his time of life, most of his fellow entrepreneurs are taking it easy. Cronje still wakes up in the early hours to open his 4,000-square-meter workshop of about 200 workers. FORBES AFRICA went to see Cronje in the workshop, nestled in the heart of the crime-ridden suburb of Lansdowne, on the outskirts of Cape Town.
We found grey-haired Cronje, in a short sleeve shirt and khaki chinos, perambulating amid his men in blue overalls, working on expensive furniture. It is a noisy workshop with heavy machinery. Just before the tea-bell rang at 10AM, Cronje ushered us to his corner office a floor above the business he has loved since he was a boy.
“I loved woodwork at school, which was an unusual thing in those days, so throughout school I studied woodwork. I waited for the whole week for the double lesson. But I had to study at university, so I went to study for civil engineering but I was so fixed up to furniture, especially Cape furniture. While studying I restored old furniture for people, it paid for my fees,” says Cronje.
Cronje qualified as an engineer in the 70s, but he lasted only four years. Woodwork beckoned. He said he could not spend the rest of his life without making furniture. Soon after meeting his wife, Frances, they both worked briefly for the same company in Johannesburg. The Cronjes returned to Cape Town to establish a furniture restoration business in the snooker room of his Victorian house. Ten workers helped him with stripping and collecting antique furniture for restoration.
“We started as a restoration company because I knew restoring, I knew the trade and the dealers and could get as much work as I wanted. But slowly, about six years, we moved from restoration to manufacturing. So, we have a big base of reproducing antique furniture because I know Cape furniture and antique furniture very well, we do some European or English antique reproduction. We stopped restoring 20 years ago.”
From the humble backroom, Cronje has moved his expanding business a few times until he bought the land where he built the workshop a decade ago. He employs 140 artisans and 40 administrators.
“Restoring is very difficult; you cannot easily teach people what you can teach them to manufacture. To restore you must have the love for antiques. If a client brings a 200-year-old table with patina on top and someone who doesn’t know would sand it off and your client will get very, very angry,” says Cronje.
“I am now 65 years and I should retire. But on my 60th birthday I promised the floor I won’t retire for 10 years. So, I still spend a lot of time on the floor looking for mistakes. Just like you saw me, they have a little job sheet, they showed me where they are going to cut, I said to them that’s perfect. I look for mistakes, I say that won’t work, the color isn’t nice or the finish isn’t nice, whatever. I spend a lot of the time on the floor and in the drawing office because I am teaching them my 30 years of design,” he says.
Every piece of furniture that leaves Cronje’s workshop goes to either a client or the two showrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has to bear the famous signature of the founder himself. He says that is the way to maintain the high standard.
But the business has not always been afloat.
“We had cash flow problems for most our life. There are times which are easy where there’s money at the bank but most of our lives cash has been tight. It’s not a highly lucrative business, a lot of people see the furniture, see what we’re charging for it, see a brand name and they think he’s very wealthy and he has a holiday house in the Seychelles. We’ve got nothing, we’ve only got our main house,” Cronje says.
Despite the humble life of Cronje, he has made some extravagant pieces. The company manufactured a R1-million ($74,000) table for Brett Kebble, the controversial mining magnate who was murdered in Johannesburg in 2005. He says it was the most expensive piece of furniture they manufactured.
“Now, we are doing a lot of floors that cost R1 million but furniture doesn’t come close to that. The most expensive furniture is probably R150,000 ($11,000) for a really nice cabinet. There’s one on Wolfe Street in Wynberg,” he says.
Family has always been at the heart of his business.
“I was lucky in two things, my father had a bit of money I could borrow when I was about to go bankrupt when I started. I had to phone him in Joburg and ask for R100,000 ($7485.71) to pay wages. And he did help me many times. My other luck was that when I was studying I was a keen collector of Cape furniture. Every time I really needed money I would sell things. I sold nearly all the Cape furniture,” he says.
His father, Frans, who was the chairman of South African Breweries and Nedbank, wanted his four sons to follow him in business.
“He had aspirations for us. He also wanted us to play golf but none of us did. When he got used to what I was doing, he loved it. At the beginning he thought ‘he has a degree in engineering but he loved working with his hands fixing furniture’. But we started getting a name in making good furniture. He saw that I was passionate, I could see he accepted it fully,” he says.
All these years his wife Frances has been the low-profile partner who looked after the two family furniture shops.
“Our clients want to be fashionable; they don’t want something that was popular 20 years ago. I discuss with Frances what comes next. We made a lot of prototypes together, borrowing from her ideas what is trending or not,” says Cronje.
Now his children are his problem.
Cronje says he never ran Pierre Cronje furniture as a business, but he saw it as a hobby. Of his three children, only his firstborn son, Taillefer, has so far been convinced to work in the family business. On the day of our visit, Taillefer couldn’t come speak to us as he had a string of meetings with clients in his tiny corner office.
“Although Taillefer is not interested in furniture itself, he loves running the business. He’s actually the person who introduced the staff complement. He said ‘you have too many staff for the amount of work. You just hire as you please’. He’s so strict with the staff and timekeeping. He brought a very good HR team. He wants to carry on with the business but I think he needs an artistic person to work with,” he says.
Now Cronje has to convince his daughter. Unlike his own father, who initially disapproved of his furniture restoration penchant over engineering, Cronje says he will stop at nothing to convince Antonia. He says her background in arts is needed by the company.
“Just like Taillefer, she refused to come work for the family. Taillefer also said he was not going IDB (into daddy’s business), he wanted to start his own business. But he saw how hard it is. Anyway, he joined us and he’s enjoying it. It might take me another five years to convince her, but I always win,” he says.
Without his children, Cronje wonders who else can match his passion for working with wood.
“It is very difficult to find people who are passionate about wood, but it’s not impossible. I think he can find somebody. There are a number of people in the organization that are learning well. But a problem is when they are not family, they can leave easily,” he says.
Cronje laments that training people, who are not family, doesn’t guarantee loyalty for the business. But he says he doesn’t see that as betrayal as he himself would also encourage his own children to start on their own rather than spending many years working for other families.
For now, Cronje will keep getting up at dawn and dreaming of a win: all three of his children working at his side.