Today, the 74-year-old owns his own bottle store, but it is only one of a string of businesses that he managed to build up over a long entrepreneurial career that started at the epicentre of the Soweto riots in the tumultuous seventies.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rolly, who owns The Roadhouse business complex in Dobsonville, Soweto, is that he is still in full swing, not only running all of his existing businesses, but starting new ones. In his latest venture, he is about to build a Sasol service station in Protea Glen, Soweto.
Rolly grew up in Rustenburg but matriculated at Morris Isaacson High School where the Soweto Uprising erupted a few years later. Rolly’s whole life would be disrupted by the tumult of the times, but at the same time his career is a testament to the opportunities that emerged as a result of that struggle for freedom.
After school he went to study law at the University of Fort Hare, but the numerous strikes and political upheaval at the institution meant that we could not finish his degree. He returned to Johannesburg to work at the municipal bottle store, first as a cashier but later on as manager.
Rolly, who says he was always interested in making money growing up, was intrigued by the brisk business that the state-run bottle store was doing. “The kind of turnover that I used to see! How I wished that I could have a bottle store of my own. But in those days for a black man to have a bottle store was definitely a no-no. So I said to myself if I can’t have a bottle store, I’ll start a grocery shop,” says Rolly.
In 1972 he hired two shops in Soweto to start his grocery business. His mother, who had worked for 30 years as a domestic worker, resigned to help him run the shops. The business did so well that when he had to shut down the shops by the time the Soweto Uprising broke out, he had saved enough money to go back to university, where he finished a degree in politics and public administration.
In the early eighties Rolly seemed destined for a corporate job. He worked for the multinational IBM in Johannesburg, marketing their personal computers, a completely new thing at the time. IBM also sent him to Wits Business School on an MBA type crash course, a formative experience for his future business career.
Once again the politics of the times disrupted Rolly’s life when IBM disinvested from South Africa. With the small lay-off package that Rolly received, he bought an ice cream van, hired two employees to drive around selling ice cream, and never looked back.
The ice cream business proved very lucrative, especially during the Rand Easter Show where he hired up to ten vans for the two-week long event. After a couple of years Rolly found a space in a new shopping complex opposite Baragwanath Hospital and opened the first ice cream shop in Soweto.
The venture brought Rolly into contact for the first time with what he calls his “financial home”. He tried raising finance for his ice cream shop idea from the commercial banks, but could not meet their strict requirements for collateral.
But the Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC), the forerunner of Business Partners Limited, (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) required less collateral, and were willing to bank on the skills of the entrepreneur and the viability of the business idea as well. With his brother’s house put up as collateral, the institution financed the ice cream shop, starting a relationship that has lasted for decades, throughout the change-over from the SBDC to BUSINESS/PARTNERS today. After the ice cream shop, the SBDC financed no fewer than four Chicken Licken franchise outlets for Rolly, the second of which he still owns in his Roadhouse complex in Dobsonville.
BUSINESS/PARTNERS also proved useful in selling some of his Chicken Licken outlets when he later decided to focus on filling stations. He was able to take the aspirant buyers of his outlets to BUSINESS/PARTNERS, who would then finance the deal.
Although Rolly’s businesses became bankable long ago, he still prefers to go back to his “financial home” for his next round of finance. “The banks are so full of bureaucracy. If I go to BUSINESS/PARTNERS, come rain come shine they will definitely give me a loan, whereas if I went to the banks, they may, they may not,” says Rolly.
At the peak of his business expansion, Rolly owned the four Chicken Licken outlets, several filling stations and had a contract with the provincial government to supply chicken, beef and bread to several hospitals. Along the way he also acquired a cattle farm, started a butchery and a pub and restaurant.
Since then he has had to scale back with the filling stations suffering the effects of too much pilfering by some of his staff. A filling station, he has learned, requires the constant presence of the owner and strong control systems. Undaunted, as always, he is ready to try again, this time with the next generation of Soweto entrepreneurs in the form of his son and daughter by his side.