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’.”
From The Arab World To Africa
In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.
Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.
She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.
In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.
As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.
The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.
In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.
She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.
In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes.
Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty
In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.
The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.
Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing.
“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”
The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”
Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.
Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.
“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”
Covid-19: Restaurants, Beauty Salons, Cinemas Among Businesses That Will Operate Again In South Africa As Ramaphosa Announces Eased Lockdown Restrictions
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation announcing that the government will further ease the country’s lockdown restrictions.
Restaurants, beauty salons, cinemas are among the businesses that will be allowed to operate again in South Africa.
The country is still on lockdown ‘Level 3’ of the government’s “risk adjusted strategy”.
President Ramaphosa also spoke on the gender based violence in the country.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and the girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country. The killing of women and children by the men of our country. As a man, as a husband, and as a father to daughters, I am appalled at what is no less than a war that is being waged against the women and the children of our country,” says Ramaphosa.
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