Learning from failures pays off over time

Makhato Tommy, owner of BiBi Cash 'n Carry supermarkets

Makhato Tommy, owner of BiBi Cash ‘n Carry supermarkets

MAKHATHO TOMMY says his success as owner of the largest wholly black-owned retail operation in South Africa is mainly due to having learnt from his past failures and those early businesses where he came to understand that planning and staying close to your customers are most important in achieving good results.

It took 25 years for Makhatho to grow BiBi Cash ‘n Carry Supermarkets into the success it is today. And, in September, he received his due recognition when he was announced the winner of the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

According to Nimi Naidoo, project manager of the competition, he was awarded the overall title because of his ability to build and grow a sustainable business. He also won the Job Creator of the Year title due to the contribution he made to providing jobs in the local community.

Makhatho believes that his determination to operate close to the townships and communities where most of its consumers live is what has led to his success. BiBi Cash ‘n Carry Supermarkets is most active in the Free State.

“We believe in conducting our business professionally, progressively, honestly and with a commitment to addressing the expectations of our predominantly black customers,” Makhatho says.

Like most entrepreneurs, he says he has made several mistakes and has had many failures. But he has learnt from them.

His first enterprise was a travelling hair salon on the East Rand, founded with money he made as a waiter. His training as a hairdresser also came in handy.

Makhatho eventually opened a backyard hair salon in Orlando East, but he misread the market and had to close the business within a couple of months.

“I had been over-ambitious and greedy and made the mistake of not planning properly,” he says.

By 1982 he was back on the road, distributing hair care products and a range of bed linen to townships in the Free State, Northern Cape and Lesotho. “I travelled thousands of kilometres and the business was doing well. I figured that, with the extra money I was earning from the bed linen, I could afford to open up my own hair salon in Qwa Qwa.”

The MT Black Hair Salon, which still exists today, first opened in 1980 and went from strength to strength, with six branches opening over time. From an initial amount of R7 000, Makhatho accumulated R300 000 in two years. Then he opened the Jabula Cosmetic Centre in Qwa Qwa in May 1991, and four others followed. With 3 000 different stock items in the business, he had to learn a great deal about storage space, planning, management and control systems.

In 1994, the great political changes in the country saw the demise of the Qwa Qwa self-governing “homeland”. With the departure of many government officials, unemployment rose. Makhatho looked at a market area that was not effectively serving the black community of Phuthaditjhaba. He closed two Jabula stores and then tried his hand at general grocery retailing, which turned out to become a huge success.

In 1998 he opened the first BiBi Cash & Carry Family Supermarket, followed by a second store at the Setsing Shopping Centre and another at the Naledi Mall in June 2004. A food distribution centre opened in the Free State in October 2006, and BiBi Wholesalers QwaQwa in December 2006 as well as BiBi Cash ’n Carry Bethlehem in April 2007.

Today he employs more than 500 people, which results in him indirectly supporting more than
3 000 people.

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