Past winner catch-up: where are they now?

2018 marks our 30th year in honouring entrepreneurs and the contributions they make toward growing the South African economy. We’re celebrating by catching up with some of the past winners of the competition.

Catching up with: Elian Wiener

Winning year: Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year® and Innovator of the Year – 2011

Winning business: Epic Communications (now MSL) is an award-winning integrated communications and public relations agency with offices in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. The company specialises in helping businesses build and protect their brands and reputations.

It’s been 7 years since you won the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year® and Innovator of the Year titles in 2011, how has business been since then?

There have been significant developments for myself and the business since 2011. In the subsequent years, we have continued on our rapid expansion path as we continue to lead the evolution of the communications industry in Africa. Most notably, Epic Communications, which has rebranded as MSL, was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2014. Publicis Groupe is one of the world’s largest advertising and communications companies in the world. This acquisition has enabled us to bring global best practices to bear for our clients as well as offer a more integrated marketing solution in collaboration with our Publicis owned sister agencies in Africa.

Have you made any new developments in your business since winning?

We have always placed innovation at the forefront of what we do, which has been key in an industry that is rapidly changing. Over the last five years, we have evolved from a traditional public relations agency to an integrated communications agency that seeks to guide our clients through this ever changing marketing landscape. To do this we have completely restructured our business into full service integrated marketing teams and added new offerings in the digital, social media, influencer, reputation management, training and reporting spaces.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your stint in the EOY competition?

I learned the importance of maintaining a competitive advantage. As a business grows, it naturally loses its start-up advantages – which need to be replaced with others to remain competitive. For us this means constantly reviewing our vision, structure, skill sets, service offering and market positioning. Winning multiple awards at the EOY competition in 2011 also helped to boost our profile and introduce us to a strong network of companies, many of which have gone on to be clients of ours.   

What would your top piece of advice be for anyone looking to enter this year’s competition?

Spend time and effort on your entry. It is crucial to really think about what makes your company special – its vision and the value it adds to all stakeholders.

Entering awards best promotional tool available to SA’s entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs in South Africa often struggle to generate a credible reputation in a turbulent sea of competition, which often consists of large market players. Local entrepreneurs are also generally financially limited and unable to utilise traditional promotional tactics and national-scale advertising campaigns.

Through entering competitions and awards, entrepreneurs are often able to overcome these challenges as these platforms are not only cost-effective, but if successful, can have a significant effect on the brand reputation and bottom line of a new company.

This is according to Nimo Naidoo of the Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® awards, who believes that South African entrepreneurs need to utilise every available business resource and opportunity that presents itself.

“In our country’s rapidly growing and highly competitive SME market, entrepreneurs are already facing a wide variety of challenges, while having to compete with the big market players of their respective industries. Entrepreneurs also face financial restrictions in attempting to promote their business and diversify themselves in a usually over-crowded market space,” says Naidoo.

“The benefits gained, as a finalist in the Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of The Year ® competition, have been absolutely invaluable,” says Elian Wiener, the founder and MD of national strategic communications and PR agency, Epic Communications, and winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 and Innovator of the Year 2011 titles last year.

“My participation in the competition has been instrumental in fuelling new business growth for Epic Communications. As a direct result of the contacts made and the exposure gained from the competition, we have secured new business worth more than R1 million per year in revenue.”

These sentiments are echoed by Marc Sternberg, MD of independent ATM deployer Spark ATM Systems, who says he has recorded improved business performance since winning the 2011 Overall Entrepreneur of the Year® award. “The acknowledgement that winning the award gave us has undoubtedly allowed us to accelerate our continued growth path through various new and exciting business opportunities. Our growth rate has actually accelerated this year to over 60% year-on-year in our core areas of ATM deployment and transaction fee income.”

Naidoo firmly believes that industry awards, such as the Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® awards, are one of the easiest and most inexpensive ways for entrepreneurs to stand out from their competitors. “Entering competitions also allows entrepreneurs the opportunity to earn a credible corporate reputation or image, which can potentially be magnified by mass media exposure.

“Intangible assets, such as an excellent corporate reputation, can be used as a valuable promotional tool by entrepreneurs and, since it cannot be replicated by competitors, provides them with a sustainable competitive advantage over their competitors, which then translates into superior financial returns in the long run.”

The Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® competition is widely considered to be the pre-eminent competition of its kind in South Africa and has served as a springboard for past finalists and winners. Besides the chance to win prizes worth a total value of R1 345 000, which includes cash prizes of R200 000, finalists and winners are able to expand their networks and receive invaluable exposure for their businesses.

“The staggering rise in unemployment levels and a tightening squeeze in the formal employment market has resulted in job seekers and government turning their attention towards creating jobs in the SME and entrepreneurial sector of the economy.

“Government’s 2030 objectives state that 90% of all jobs created should be in the SME space and any platform established to recognise leading entrepreneurs, as well as educate prospective entrants to this sector are crucial in helping to reach this goal,” concludes Naidoo.

Interview with Elian Wiener, MD of Epic Communications

Interview with Elian Wiener, MD of Epic Communications and winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 and the Innovator of the Year 2011 titles in the annual Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year ® Competition.

An epic success

Winner of the 2011 Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year® and the Innovation Award

Founded in 2009 and already ranked the 7th largest public relations and communications company in South Africa, it’s comes as no surprise that founder and managing director of Epic Communications, Elian Wiener, walked off with two coveted titles at the 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year Awards: Emerging Emerging of the Year® and The Innovation Award. Here’s how it all began…

Elian WienarIn less than three years, Epic Communications went from a zero client base to currently more than 25 retainer clients – the vast majority of which are blue chip companies such as Old Mutual, Aon, DuPont, Nedgroup Investments, and WesBank. “When I started Epic Communications, I knew it was crucial to attract high quality staff if I was going to have any chance of securing any major clients; all of whom are traditionally reluctant to outsource to a one man show,” says Elian, who managed to grow the business to one that now employs more than 20 staff in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. “The vast majority of public relations agencies in South Africa focus on the consumer sector i.e. restaurants, celebrities, FMCG, etc, while very few have the technical ability to be able to provide communications services to companies looking to showcase their intellectual capital and position themselves as thought leaders to their respective target audiences.”

But Elian, who had all the skills and experience necessary to fill this gap – thanks to his position as head of external communications at Old Mutual – approached the market with a well-constructed business case and plenty of belief. A man on a mission, he then went on to seek out a few key personnel – all of whom are still with the company and have benefited in many ways, including financially.

The difference?

Apart from offering its clients strategic communications and public relations services, Epic Communications is also involved in a number of other initiatives, including a joint venture to produce INVESTA, one of South Africa’s leading publications for the investment industry, as well as the launch of its investment seminars – attracting over 150 investment professionals and featuring some of the leading figures in the industry. And if that’s not impressive enough, the company also runs Epic Journalism Training Seminars that are aimed at improving the technical skills of local business journalists.

“From a public relations perspective, our key advantage is that we ensure we have an in-depth understanding of our clients businesses and the industries in which they operate,” explains Elian. This, he reiterates, is crucial to being able to identify opportunities to communicate their key messages and engage with their target audiences. “In most cases, we are generating virtually all the content on behalf of our clients, from press releases to newsletters to social media posts and responses. We are also extremely focused on delivering communications that are geared towards assisting our clients achieve their business objectives and put measurables in place to gauge our performance on these criteria.” And, of course, the company’s strong media relationships and journalists also play in its favour.

But Epic Communications is unlike the average company that operates on a specific set of guidelines and rules. It is constantly evolving to adapt to the ever-changing times, and one of these changes includes the addition of the Epic Social Media Division in late 2010, which currently runs a number of social media and online reputation management campaigns for clients. “I set myself a target of consistently generating four to five new innovations and ideas per month. Of these, I target 75% to be implemented successfully within a three month time period. Some may be small operational ideas, such as better ways of reporting to clients, while others may be extremely big picture ideas such as new business units,” Elian explains. It is clear why the EOY judges saw him deserving of the Innovation Award.

Being married to an entrepreneur

“Owning your own business requires a huge amount of focus and commitment, so my wife (who recently launched her own business) and I, accept that there is not a lot of room for socialising or partying, although we do try to get out from time to time.” Elian, who has a degree in marketing and finance as well as an Honours degree in Corporate Finance and Investments from WITS University, is married to – as he describes her – “a very energetic wife” and they share an equally energetic two-year-old daughter. Despite the sacrifices that the couple has to make for their respective businesses, they also realise the importance of taking regular breaks. “We try to go on holiday at least twice a year. This year we spent a week in northern Italy in June, which was really fantastic,” he adds.

Before taking the leap toward entrepreneurship, Elian believes that it’s important to ask oneself three very important questions:

  • Is there a gap in the market for the product or service I want to provide?
  • Do I have the necessary skills or ability to build or attract the skills that are required to deliver my service or product?
  • Am I passionate about the industry I want to operate in.

If you can answer yes to all these questions, he concludes, then the rest of the challenges can be overcome.