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No More Penny-Pinching For Penny

When Zimbabwe-born Penny Streeter landed up in a London shelter for the homeless, pregnant and with two children, she knew she had to change her life.

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If it weren’t true, it would sound too far-fetched to make up. The life of Penny Streeter, chief executive of healthcare staffing conglomerate A24 Group, is the archetypal rags-to-riches story of a woman who was left with nothing, didn’t give up, started small and made it big. She revolutionized the recruitment sector by turning it from a 9-to-5 business into a round-the-clock operation that dispatches temporary health professionals at as little as an hour’s notice.

Born in Zimbabwe to British parents and educated in South Africa, Streeter, who dropped out of school at the age of 16, ended up in recruitment by chance. After moving to London as a young adult, she trained as a beauty therapist but was soon looking for something more fulfilling.

“I decided this wasn’t going anywhere. I walked into an employment agency and told them I was looking for a job. They said, ‘Fantastic, we got one for you here’. That’s how I got into recruitment,” she says.

A go-getter by nature, Streeter was quickly promoted to branch manager. When the firm opened a second outlet, she hired her mother, Marion, to run it.

“We used to compete with each other about bringing in the most sales,” Streeter remembers. But one day, both mother and daughter were fired—they cost the firm too much in commission. They had worked themselves out of a job.

Irked by the limits of being an employee, Streeter decided to go it alone. She got a £30,000 ($46,611) bank loan. Her mother borrowed another £10,000 ($15,537). But their timing was bad. Within months of opening office recruitment company Elite Personnel in 1989, the United Kingdom (UK) went into a major recession. Demand for her services dried up almost overnight.

“It was a complete and utter disaster. The one day it was going well, the next day we had queues of people looking for jobs. We carried on and on, borrowing money, trying to dig ourselves out of this hole and eventually went bust,” she says.

By 1992, Streeter had lost every penny and was spiraling into debt. The furniture and cars belonging to her luxury offices in a posh part of London had been repossessed. But it wasn’t only bad timing that caused the firm’s failure. It was also “total lack of business experience”, Streeter admits. She had gone in, guns blazing and overspent.

To make matters worse, Streeter’s personal life suffered a tremendous setback. She went through a divorce which left her with nothing and—pregnant with her third child—was forced to move into a homeless shelter in a part of London her brother thought too dangerous to park his car. She had hit rock bottom.

Out of worry for the welfare of her children—“I thought, ‘How the hell do I ever bring up my kids in this environment? They are going to be drug dealers!’”—Streeter decided to give the recruitment industry another try in 1995, this time with only one asset: her determination. A value, she says, her parents instilled in her.

“At home, there was no such thing as can’t. I am lucky to be a confident person, so I had a strong belief that I could do it on my own. I knew I had to,” she says.

She started another venture, Ambition 24hours. This time, she took a different approach. Instead of getting a loan to kit out opulent offices, she rented a rickety desk in a corner of the office of a car parts dealership.

“I learnt everything from what happened [with Elite Personnel]. We didn’t buy anything. Every penny we earned we put back into the business,” she explains.

Streeter and her mother took turns working and minding the children. On weekends, they organized children’s discos to make cash.

“That’s how we raised income. We would literally earn some money to pay for a newspaper advert to recruit staff to our books and pay our phone bill. We knew we had to make instant money,” she remembers.

Ambition 24hours first recruited for the financial services industry, but Streeter’s big break came when she spotted a market gap in 24/7 medical staffing services.

“All the established agencies opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m., including all weekend. But healthcare requires shifts around the clock, and you don’t know in advance that someone is going to fall sick,” she says.

Even though entering a market saturated by successful recruiters was a risk, her groundbreaking model took off fast, supplying round-the-clock services across England.

It was the business that within a few years would turn her into one of the most influential entrepreneurs of our time. Today, it has expanded into an umbrella group, the A24 Group, which houses a range of independently run staffing agencies, makes a turnover of £70 million ($109 million) and is said to have generated £5.5 million ($8.5 million) in 2011 alone. Streeter, who doesn’t like to discuss her net worth, and her mother Marion, are A24’s only shareholders.

Whoever imagines Streeter as a tough, aloof businesswoman in a tailor-made suit couldn’t be more wrong. The passion and love for life that drove the 45-year-old, back in the 1990s, radiates from her as she sits, dressed in a casual cotton top, a plastic pink watch studded with fake diamonds on her wrist, in her office in Cape Town, South Africa, where her business is now headquartered.

“It doesn’t feel any different, really I never set out to make millions and millions of pounds. I just wanted to provide for my family, run my business and do it successfully,” she says.

Despite making more profit in a year than most firms do in a lifetime, Streeter has stuck to her hard-earned motto of keeping it basic. A24’s offices are simple: functional carpets, plain beige walls, plywood tables and worn-out chairs. As pop music blasts through wall-mounted speakers, customer service staff outside Streeter’s unpretentious cubicle wear headphones in front of computer screens in an unadorned open-plan office, focused on attracting new business.

“I still live in the mindset of that first business. What happened then, could happen again. We’re going through a global downturn again. The same principles of don’t borrow, have crappy furniture, are still true in my business. We still have no borrowings at all,” she says laughing, “and we still have crappy furniture.”

Simplicity has become her philosophy.

“Think big, start small and keep things very, very plain,” is Streeter’s advice to young entrepreneurs. An original idea, a good business plan and hard work are far more important than large amounts of finance to get a business started. After all, she points out: “The majority of very successful entrepreneurs have started with virtually no money. The biggest driver has got to be you. People always look for others to motivate them. But at the end of the day, when you’re in business, you’ve got to be able to motivate yourself. And that’s hard.”

Needless to say, Streeter—who was named Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Entrepreneur of the Year in 2003 and received Britain’s highest decoration, an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for ‘services to enterprise’ three years later—drives the A24 Group with a keen eye for cost control.

“I have to make sure we’re not waking up tomorrow, the market has changed and we’re all out of work. It’s not just me now, it’s everyone I employ,” she says.

She likes to hold the reins tightly, so she’s set up a flat management structure, with herself as chief executive, a finance director and the management of the group’s agencies straight below.

“Flat management makes it easy to get to the heart of the business, without having to go through masses of chains of people. I want to be able to communicate directly with the person who can make the maximum impact and change on that business immediately,” she explains.

One of her most important decisions, she says, was to move the company’s headquarters to South Africa in 2004. With an £11 million ($17.1 million) investment plan, she set up sales and back-office resources on the tip of the African continent to supplement her UK facilities.

“My finance manager thought I had lost my marbles,” she laughs. But the move was much more than a romantic whim after a beautiful holiday to the country Streeter spent her teens in.

Although A24 was extremely successful in the UK—it was Britain’s fastest-growing private enterprise in 2002—the group had been suffering major staffing problems. Numerous employees had started to break away to set up their own agencies or join the competition, taking clients and databases with them.

“We were taking them to court to get injunctions. It was a very negative point for us. It cost hundreds of thousands of pounds,” says Streeter.

At the same time, Streeter struggled to find well-trained consultants, the group’s key asset.

“I realized that by moving operations to South Africa, I could protect the business from theft and regain with South African staff what I needed in terms of service. If we had remained in the UK, it would have been slowly eating away at us,” she believes.

Initially, it didn’t look like the smartest move. The business took a dip and two years to recover. But then, Streeter made her next move and acquired Nursing Services of South Africa, the country’s largest temporary staffing firm, adding another star to her shiny belt of agencies.

“When we came to South Africa, it was like going back in time. We found existing nursing agencies were arrogant, not flexible enough and had no service orientation,” Streeter recalls. Twenty-four-hour staffing also took off in South Africa.

Today, A24 is run from three centralized recruitment hubs in South Africa and the UK, plus smaller branches throughout both countries with 450 permanent employees and about 13,500 temporary personnel on its books.

But even someone as successful as Streeter makes a wrong call from time to time.

“I’m not immune to making wrong decisions. As CEO, you have to be able to make decisions really fast, right or wrong, and then you have to live with them,” she says, admitting that failing remains her biggest fear.

“If I’m wrong, I correct decisions quickly and hold my hands up to them. It’s better to make a wrong decision than no decision at all.”

That’s what happened in 2006, when Streeter decided to expand into recruiting services to the oil, gas, construction and engineering sectors, having set her eye on major emerging markets like the Arab Emirates. For almost two years, A24 invested heavily to prepare the launch of this new business arm. But when the 2008 global economic crisis began to unfold, Streeter knew she had to cut her losses: “We pulled out of the market immediately. Places like Dubai were starting to collapse. We could see we were going to run into huge payment issues. It was about knowing to get out at the right time.”

It was a hard decision to make, she says, but one that was once again based on the lessons she learnt from the failure of her first company in 1989, when she kept pouring money into a venture that had no chance of succeeding.

“You’re giving up business that is still there, which in a lot of ways seems ridiculous, but it’s about weighing the risks,” she says. She also shelved plans to expand operations into the United States.

Instead, Streeter decided to expand again on home ground. In 2010, she bought another competitor, the British Nursing Association, at one point the giant of the UK nursing industry, and its associated nursing agency brands Grosvenor Nursing and Mayfair Nurses, owned by Pinnacle Staffing, for a mere £2.75 million ($4.15 million).

“We’ve got that sick giant now, and hopefully we’ll get it back to where it was,” she says, without illusions about the complexity of rebuilding a struggling business.

“When you grow your own business, it’s your baby, you know it inside out. When you adopt other people’s children, they don’t do things the same way. It’s quite a learning curve and completely draining.”

Streeter clearly thrives on challenges, with acquisitions being her core expansion strategy. That’s not a new business strategy, but Streeter adds a twist: instead of fully merging the new acquisitions into her existing operations, she runs them in competition to each other. Each A24 agency operates independently, has different business strategies, different pricing structures and service models.

“I like starting new businesses and understanding their dynamics. I wanted to make sure we’re a bit like the soap powders in the supermarket: you have all those different brands but you end up buying the same one. I wanted the same effect for our agencies. The choice would always be one of our brands,” she explains. “I’m effectively trying to dominate and drive out competition.”

It’s also a way of keeping herself on her toes. Although she calls herself risk-averse, Streeter has a keen eye for new market trends and isn’t afraid of branching out. When she heard IT experts talk about the advent of another global tech bubble, she decided to invest in information and communication technology (ICT). She set up an IT development department to design tailor-made software for the group, giving it an advantage in speed and accuracy in the registration, management and booking of temporary staff.

Then, she took it a step further. A24 is developing management services software, which will be launched next year as a stand-alone operation within the group.

“In everyone’s business, technology is the driver now. If your technology isn’t right at the cutting edge you’ll be dead and buried,” Streeter believes. “Business is a real thing where what worked yesterday isn’t necessarily working tomorrow. I continually have to keep reinventing.”

Unsurprisingly, she has no intention of resting or retiring. Her business is like her fifth child, says Streeter, who has re-married and now has four children.

“The children see the business as their other sibling. When I told one of my daughters I was thinking about selling Ambition, she laughed at me and said, ‘You would sell me first’.”

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Agriculture

Green-Sky Thinking

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In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.


Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

READ MORE| Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

READ MORE| Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Entrepreneurs

The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya

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He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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