It is hard to imagine a more difficult time start to a business than that of Mario Roos’s experience with his lighting and energy company LighTec, a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition.
The initial spark was a massive fall-out that Mario had with his employer. He was general manager of a similar company that maintains the lighting in retail stores across Southern Africa. He spent years growing the company under difficult circumstances. The passive owner often took large amounts of cash out of the business, leaving Mario to explain to suppliers why they could not be paid in full.
The final straw was when the owner reneged on an agreement to give Mario some equity in the company, or at least improve his pay, after he had won a R3 million contract with a large retail chain for the company.
In the ensuing argument, Mario announced his resignation, but instead of allowing for a notice period and refusing to pay him the leave owed to him, the boss told Mario to leave immediately. And so he found himself on the evening of 17 August 2017 with his wife Hayley, who wasn’t working at the time, sitting at their dining room table of their rented house in Cape Town without any income or savings.
What he did have was a firm belief in the potential of the industry that he joined a few years before as “a guy who climbed the ladder to change the light bulbs”. One of his frustrations with the company is that was just about all they offered – changing light bulbs. As he rose through the ranks and later became general manager (GM), he saw lucrative opportunities to add electrical, engineering and power-consumption solutions to the service.
Now, he was determined to do it in a business of his own. Hayley decided to find a part-time job to tide them over, and Mario, who had built strong contacts among retail chains with his hands-on approach as GM, convinced Exclusive Books to give his new company, called LighTec, a chance. Not only that, but they agreed to pay LighTec every seven days for the first few months. Once again, Mario found himself as the hands-on light-bulb changer as he traveled the country with a bakkie and one helper.
Then came a further blow – Mario’s former boss sued to enforce a vague restraint-of-trade that Mario had agreed to when he was appointed GM. With the help of a lawyer friend, Mario negotiated them down from a restraint of two years to six months only, and he was allowed to keep Exclusive Books as a client.
Constitutionally, restraints-of-trade are difficult to enforce, but even so his former boss would perhaps have negotiated harder had he known what LighTec was about to become. Today, Exclusive Books is still a client and in just four years Mario has grown the company to where it services 1200 retail stores throughout South Africa, employs a total of 24 staff members in its Johannesburg head office and Cape Town branch and is projecting a turnover of R18 million this year.
Mario describes a difficult organic growth path for his business, starting with servicing the Exclusive Books contract himself, then appointing subcontractors for the next contracts he landed, and later employing those subcontractors as employees. Hayley soon joined the company and today heads up its administration.
Remarkably, Mario has been able to build the company with virtually no outside finance, apart from a recent COVID-19 emergency loan. His aversion to debt stems from his first business, a property development firm which he started as a young accountant just before it was wiped out in the financial crash of 2008. He lost everything, but gained valuable lessons, says Mario, not least of which is how to start over from scratch. It was that setback that brought him into the lighting industry as a lowly worker, and since then he has never stopped learning the ropes of the industry which he has grown to love.
One milestone for Mario was to be honoured as a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®. From a marketing perspective, the competition put the company on a different level, says Mario. Just the video on the company that was produced for the competition has helped enormously as a marketing tool.
LighTec’s services go far beyond the simple maintenance of lighting and the changing of light bulbs. It employs highly qualified electricians and has electrical engineers on retainer so that it can offer maintenance of refrigeration, power generation and air-flow systems. Most recently, LighTec finds itself on the forefront of the fledgling certification industry for the energy-efficiency of buildings.
Mario’s horizon as an entrepreneur has also broadened. He is setting up a venture capital fund for investments in small technical companies such as LighTec, and he is involved in a project with the University of Stellenbosch that will bring sustainable electrification to twenty poor schools, and light to the lives of the children who learn there.