How a bright idea sparked success

Winner of the Entrepreneur of the Year® award 2011

From being dubbed ‘Marc the Spark’ as a child to naming his multi-million rand business Spark ATM Systems, founder and managing director Marc Sternberg walked away with the overall coveted title of 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year® – which not only earned him the R100 000 grand prize but also the recognition he deserved.

Marc SternbergLike every good story, it has to begin somewhere and for Marc Sternberg, it all began in the land down under – Sydney, Australia, where Marc lived with his wife Tanya. “We were on a visit to Cape Town in 2005, when I was at a restaurant with my family and could not find an ATM nearby to draw cash,” says Marc. “At the time, I was employed as general manager for Vodafone Retail and my wife Tanya and I decided to return to South Africa, but were contemplating what to do business-wise when we returned.”

Marc, who was keen on starting his own business, was aware how sparse access to cash and banking services were in South Africa, and how big convenience ATMs are in developed countries such as Australia and the USA. “I set about researching the convenience ATM market and then proceeded to travel the world; speaking to ATM deployers, researching hardware suppliers, systems, switches, banks, and all aspects related to setting up a convenience ATM network in South Africa,” he explains.

The two most important business partners that Marc secured for the company were Chungho Comnet Co Ltd in Korea as the hardware supplier, and Capitec Bank as the banking partner. Back then, it was still early days for Capitec who have only just grown to be a force to be reckoned with in the South African banking world – just as Spark has grown in the merchant-filled ATM market.

“I persuaded investment banker Russel Berman to come on board as sales director, and we started trading. Spark grew fast as customers and potential customers soon realised what an important gap in the market our ATMs were filling, and the benefits the product and concept offered merchants,” Marc shares. “Soon after Spark’s inception, we employed technical manager, Dalton Jacobs, and systems manager, Buks Hanekom; both of whom are still with the company today. Technical, financial, sales and support staff followed and Spark grew very quickly over the last five years into the company it is today – employing around 80 staff across South Africa, and with a footprint of 1 500 merchant-filled ATMs countrywide.”

Local industry

According to Marc, passion, integrity and excellence are company values that drive the business. The product, service and solution offering available from Spark is certainly unique and fills a gap in the local ATM market. “Giving access to cash and banking services to South Africans, often where banks do not, while at the same time benefiting the merchants who host the ATMs, makes all of us at Spark feel great about what we do,” Marc comments. “Another big factor for us is the exceptional customer service we offer. It has become something we are renowned for.”

Spark is the premier independent ATM deployer in South Africa – selling, installing and maintaining world-leading ATMs into the local market. Convenience ATMs have taken the world by storm and today are found just about anywhere; and Spark is proud to be at the forefront of revolutionising the South African ATM industry. “Make sure you start or run a business based on something you are passionate about. And never forget to put your customers first,” Marc offers.

On a personal note

“I am blessed to have Tanya who has been a big part of my journey, and has helped me grow the business to the great company it is today,” says Marc, who holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Cape Town, followed by a Post Graduate Diploma in Accounting and the SAICA Audit Qualifying Examinations. “Without my wife’s support, I would not be where I am today.” Marc’s family is also blessed with two children, Zoe, who is two-and-a-half, and Aaron, who is just over a year old.

His family and home life are exceptionally important to him, and Marc believes in the importance of having the correct work/home life balance. “Spending quality time with the family and watching my children grow up is a big part of my life, and setting aside that time is vitally important. It can be tricky to find the balance when one is running a thriving company but I have worked hard to maintain the balance that has been part of my success.”

Marc also cites his parents, Michael and Leora, as being very important people in his life, and for offering incredible support and inspiration. He is also very close to his sister, Lauren, and her family as well as Tanya’s family.

Marc is deeply honoured to have won the overall Entrepreneur of the Year® Award and believes that entrepreneurs should be celebrated, and entrepreneurship developed and nurtured in South Africa. “I am passionate about the work entrepreneurs are doing to further the economic and social goals of South Africa. The Entrepreneur of the Year® Award does not only belong to me. It also belongs to my partner and good friend, Russel, and to our wonderful staff who make up the Spark family, as well as our customers, business partners and suppliers. You all make Spark ATM Systems the incredible company it is today,” he concludes.