An SME fairytale
Humble beginnings lead to business success
Cynthia Gcuwa, Pick n Pay franchisee.Not so long ago, a girl stood outside Upington's airport. The security guards would not let her onto the premises but all the young Cynthia Gcuwa wanted to do was to look at the airline hostesses.
She believed that she too would one day travel in the iron birds, making passengers feel welcome and comfortable.
Only half of Gcuwa's dream came true when she boarded a plane many years later. She was not a stewardess but a passenger on the way to one of the most important meetings of her life.
"It was everything I imagined," the Pick n Pay franchisee says.
Humble beginningsThe humble entrepreneur explains that all she wanted out of life was to be an airline stewardess.
In a matter of fact tone she adds that her mother, working as a domestic worker, could simply not afford to fund her daughter's studies.
During the transformation years, Gcuwa – now 15 – decided to leave Upington as riots had forced her school to close.
After school, she worked as a train ticket controller in Cape Town. She heard of a new Pick n Pay opening up nearby and decided to chance her luck.
She became a till packer and impressed her boss enough to become a cashier. Some time later, the customer services manager position became available and Gcuwa decided to apply.
To her astonishment, she got the job: "I always wanted to be involved in a position where I interact with people".
Opportunity awaitsGcuwa says it was during this time that she heard of a franchisee development scheme. She applied and was flown to Johannesburg for the interview.
Success was inevitable and the bursary scheme allowed her to study at the University of Johannesburg while receiving in store training.
"In 2008 they told me there was a site in Kimberley… I came to look at the site, loved it and decided to open the store."
The store is situated in the Galeshewe township about 10 kilometres outside of Kimberley and Gcuwa and her business partner, Obakeng Motlhodiemang, have never looked back.
The new shopping centre their store is based in is a first of its kind in the township. Gcuwa says given the local market conditions, she expected the operation to flourish from day one.
The reality of entrepreneurial life soon dawned on the partners however when their projections turned out to be spreadsheet-based fiction.
A new struggleGcuwa explains that the centre has an upmarket finish and provides an easy and convenient shopping experience to locals.
Her store also presents an alternative to the only other grocery store in the township which is about seven kilometres away.
She adds that the competitor mostly serves the lower end of the market. Galeshewe has residents from all LSMs, of which about 15% falls in the higher categories. Gcuwa and her partner wanted to target all market segments.
"It was tough in the first year and I thought we had made a mistake. In the fifth month our turnover was barely R2 million. We decided to go out there and find out what the problem was.
"Through our surveys we found that people thought that we were too expensive and that we were out of their range because of the ambiance (the centre creates)."
Gcuwa now knew why the middle and lower end of the market where not shopping at her store and decided to change the consumers' perceptions.
The partners organised a taxi to bring elderly people to the store and helped them to shop.
"The few who came were impressed with this service and started to spread the word. They realised it was a beautiful store but not an expensive one.
"Elderly people spread the word for us… they have convinced their children and grandchildren to come and shop with us."
The upper end of the market is a different kettle of fish, as these patrons tend to shop at upmarket stores in town.
Gcuwa explains that these consumers want specific products such as olive oil for example. But, because they do not frequent the store, there is no incentive to stock these items. This in turn means that the goods are not available and that affluent consumers do not frequent the store, creating a vicious cycle.
"It is a tough market to convince but we are not giving up on them and will persuade them to come and shop here," she says.
The fight withinThe jump from employee to employers was a difficult one for Gcuwa and she says that a mind shift was needed to overcome the hurdle.
Unfortunately, she immediately faced another obstacle because a black, female boss is a new experience for many of her male employees.
"Black men don't take kindly to women in a power position. Just because I wear a skirt does not mean that I do not have brains."
She explains that simply firing difficult subordinates was not the answer, as she is not fighting a person but a widespread stereotype.
"I need employees to be on my side 100% and it takes a lot of sitting down and discussing the matter. It takes a lot of effort – you need to talk and talk and talk and explain yourself all the time. I need them to understand why I want things done my way.
"I have the experience and I am trying to build all of us as well as a business. I need to be patient with them because I need to prove a point. I only fire people if they steal."
The entrepreneurial jumpGcuwa says that despite all her training and practical experience, she was not ready to be an entrepreneur.
"It never crossed my mind that I would own a business… I thought that the money would just come in and everything would fall in place. Nothing in business comes easy," she explains.
"I learnt that being an entrepreneur means going out there and making things happen – I wasn't born one but I have learnt to be one."
She adds that she has had to learn to delegate and to trust her six managers. At the same time she also learnt the grim reality of cash flow management: "The first 12 months were horrible because we kept on having to ask the bank for overdraft after overdraft. I never understood (cash flow management) until it was happening to me… It meant us pulling up our socks and getting into the market."