It is hard to imagine that the regal-looking, Zimbabwe-born Margaret Hirsch, dressed in a power suit and elegantly going about her business, was a shorthand typist 40 years ago.
“I knew when I got fired for being pregnant, I would never work for another boss again and I never have. I had only two assets to my name: my brain and my hands,” says Hirsch.
At about the same time, her husband Allan, who was a refrigeration mechanic, saw an opportunity in selling discounted appliances, and together they started Hirsch’s. Thus began their home appliance empire in South Africa.
Today, this multiple award-winner is the Chief Operations Executive and co-founder, with her husband, of Hirsch’s, the appliance, electronic and airconditioning retail giant – from where many a South African has purchased his first fridge or oven.
There are 12 Hirsch’s branches in the country’s KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape provinces, and five concept stores. Hirsch also runs international businesses and charities like the Johannesburg School for the Blind and three nursery schools in Durban for underprivileged children.
Hirsch says Hirsch’s was built on a philosophy rather than a strategy. Helping others, by giving them the opportunity to be the best they can be and becoming self-sufficient, has paid off as Hirsch has exceeded their R1 billion ($92 million) target in 2012 after starting the business with only R900 ($354).
“It is the people of Hirsch’s that has made my journey worthwhile. Every staff member of Hirsch’s has a story. To see how each one of them has developed, and become the person they are destined to be is one of the most gratifying rewards in my life,” she says, in her Meadowdale store in Johannesburg.
The reins of the company are now in the hands of Hirsch’s son, Richard, who is Managing Director. Hirsch counts it as the highlight of her career when her son and daughter Luci joined the business.
This gives Hirsch more time to spend with her four grandsons in Durban, who she visits every week. It is really important to her that her entire family is involved in the business.
Hirsch, who has been married 43 years, says that in order to stay happily married for so long, you must be sure you really love. And she says it has not been difficult working with her husband as they both have clearly-defined roles.
“Allan is responsible for the buying and marketing and I am responsible for the sales and the staff. We very rarely disagree, and we give each other our required space.”
Hirsch is still integrally involved with all aspects of the business despite her busy schedule. A regular speaker at events, she is best-known for women’s empowerment drives and community upliftment projects.
Her drive to empower women stems from her early childhood memories after her father’s death, when she was witness to her mother’s struggles and experienced being poor. She knew then that one day she would have everything she wanted; she dreamed and envisioned herself being wealthy and empowered.
The Girls With Dignity project that’s close to her heart came about when Hirsch investigated why girls were not attending school. Hirsch and her team realized school girls were absent during their menstrual cycle. Lack of money to buy sanitary pads made it impossible for these girls to attend school when they had their periods.
“Sue Barnes of Durban developed a re-usable sanitary pad and along with various others, I am distributing these to girls throughout Africa. School attendance has improved vastly, as have the marks and pass rates of these girls,” says Hirsch.
Early in her career, despite the struggle to make ends meet in the business and the challenges, she never gave up. Her resolve just grew stronger with each obstacle. The couple once lost R5 million (about $2 million) in one afternoon after being done in by a businessman, but this could not deter them. The few ventures that did not do as well as expected were shut down and they moved on.
The tipping point for Hirsch’s came with the introduction of microwave ovens, and her training at Panasonic in Japan. This led to the setting up of the first independent microwave cooking school in South Africa by Hirsch; and its effect on the business was enormous.
Hirsch is now working on a television show Look up! that aims to give South Africans hope. She realized early in life that as a person’s self-esteem lifted, his or her ability to earn increased too, and that is what she offers her employees.
She has authored many books, including a recipe book for vegetarians and a compilation cookbook from the cooking school days.
She holidays in Zanzibar to relax, enjoys a good lentil lasagne and cherishes time with her family. She also enjoys photography, especially on their family farm in KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. But retire she never will.
“I love what I do. For me, it’s not work, it’s a way of life. I really enjoy helping staff to improve their lives and customers to choose the right appliances and furniture for their homes and am always available to help any time of the day or night,” she says.
Hirsch’s life did not start as a fairytale, but she is proof you can have a fairytale ending if you are passionate about what you do, do it better than everyone else, give more than is expected and be the change you want to see in the world.