For entrepreneur, Oresti Patricios, it was a long and tiring climb to the top from the very bottom. He knew struggle. His father went bust when he was 16.
“My dad had a laundry business and when he went insolvent, I remember him trying to give his clients their clothes when the shop was being locked up by the authorities. Seeing the love he had for his customers and the pain he was going through because he couldn’t service them made me swear I would never be in that situation,” recalls Patricios.
It was so bad his mother had to go to work as a seamstress to put food on the table. Patricios even applied for a study loan just to make ends meet.
“My father taught me how to work hard and I learned a lot about business sitting around the dinner table with my Jewish friends and speaking about business,” he says.
It was 1978. While still at university, Patricios waited tables in his hometown of Johannesburg, and juggled odd jobs for extra money. His great-grandparents had moved to South Africa from Greece. Life didn’t promise to be the immigrants’ dream, until one day, a piece of good luck came along.
“My friend’s cousin had a camera he had bought for leisure. The three of us started using it for a wedding video business. As jobs and money came in, we started investing some money back into the business. Eventually we bought a top of the range camera and we tried to keep up with our competitors.”
They named the business Ornico – a mix of their names – and it grew to make corporate videos, where the big money was.
“Your network is your net worth. We used our network and began to have more and more clients,” says Patricios.
The other two partners left Ornico for new ventures. Patricios roped in his brother.
“At this time, the camera we were using broke. My dad cashed in his life insurance policy to pay for fixing the camera and to buy a new one. A friend got us a gig to freelance edit videos for another company. When we got there, I asked the managing director if we could also edit our videos there. He agreed and that month we made more money than we had ever made because we didn’t have to rent edit suites anymore.”
It meant the years between 1984 and 1988 were boom time. Patricios says they took their competitor’s clients rapidly. They also saw the hunger for information. Ornico grew into a media monitoring business and expanded into five divisions.
“The company was doing well. We had property, advertising, production, TV commercials and web development divisions in the Ornico Group.”
Money was pouring in. But, it didn’t last. A few years later, Patricios and Ornico hit rock bottom. He was thrown in that dark hole he swore he would never see. The same hole his father suffered in. He didn’t know it yet, but his past had returned to haunt him. It meant the worst day of his life. It sprang from his company’s books.
“I had hired my friend from university as an accountant. After a while of him managing my books, I had a gut feeling as the numbers were not feeling right. I found out he wasn’t giving me the right reports. He was giving me creative accounting. From a group perspective, it looked like we were doing well when in actual fact he was shifting expenses across the businesses. Some businesses were not doing as well as others but the books didn’t show that,” says Patricios.
The fear of running his business into the ground made him panic.
“I felt very frustrated with myself as I should have picked it up sooner but also felt I should have been a lot closer to the numbers. I panicked, as we were not sure how we would handle it. How do we provide funds to stabilize the business? Which business do we close? Which ones will be able to trade out of the mess?”
He politely asked the accountant to leave, who took a third of the staff with him.
“We had to close some of the businesses and retrench people. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. The most painful thing is that it wasn’t their error but mine,” he says.
It bruised his ego. In 1997, he sold Ornico and worked for the company that bought him out. It was four painful years.
“That was definitely the worst time of my life. Even my family life suffered as I was really very unhappy. My wife’s positivity could not pull me through some of those dark days. I did not believe that the company was moving in the right direction strategically, the reporting lines were blurred and as an entrepreneur I did not have the autonomy I needed. I felt I was powerless to make a difference, I felt hamstrung, frustrated and demotivated,” says Patricios.
Being an employee frustrated him. He had to get his company back.
“I needed autonomy and freedom. It was not the money that drove me. The best day was when we bought [the company] back at a lower price than I sold it into the listed organization. It showed that they had no clue about the business but now I could start again in a business I was very passionate about,” he says.
Today, from his sunny office in Sandton, the richest square mile of Africa, Patricios runs Ornico, the business he bought back. The media, advertising and brand intelligence company has departments in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. He employs 200 people. Capitec Bank, Hollard Insurance, Old Mutual, Revlon, South African Breweries and Wimpy are among his customers.
After two decades, he hasn’t forgotten his worst day. He might have fallen into a hole but he climbed out fitter, stronger and wiser.