“It was the system that got to me,” says the Kempton Park based entrepreneur who has recently taken over an innovative franchise aimed at teaching children arithmetic and analytical thinking through the use of a Chinese abacus.
Her complaints about the traditional school system are typical of true entrepreneurs who find themselves trapped in a job. She simply could not stand the staid old ways of thinking and doing that she knew can and should be done better.
Judy, a B Com graduate, left schooling and went to work for a few private companies before she decided to dedicate a few years at home raising her children. It was here that her entrepreneurial nature started emerging that would eventually take her back to her roots and her first love, teaching.
In between child care and housekeeping, she was constantly busy with crafts and cooking for home-industry shops. Things got serious when she started selling a range of aloe-based skin-care products. Soon she became the area node in the company’s network-marketing system and at one stage was turning over R1million a month – all from home. The experience taught her a lot about marketing and selling.
When the company decided to change the commission structure, however, she found it no longer worth while, and decided to try her hand at teaching again. This time, she joined a primary school as a maths teacher. Again, she found the system very wasteful and frustrating, but the experience gave her an important basis upon which to build her next business.
Responding to a newspaper advertisement, she made contact with a little-known franchise called UCMAS, and was intrigued. The method, Chinese in origin, uses a simple abacus to teach arithmetic and analytical thinking to children between 4 and 13. By learning how to visualise the abacus in their mind’s eye, they can do sums at astounding speed. This builds confidence which boosts all their other subjects.
Judy promptly bought the rights to the franchise for the Kempton Park area and got started by asking a teacher to recommend fifteen sets of parents whom she went to see one by one. She signed up no fewer than twelve. “By that time I was pretty good at selling,” she says.
But soon the system started selling itself. Among her first intake was a boy who stood on the verge of being expelled from his school. The UCMAS turned his school work around and caused such a change in his attitude towards school that he later became a prefect. It is not just Judy who believes that the change was due to her system. The boy’s mother persuaded no fewer than 30 other parents to sign up.
All the while, Judy was building an educational centre at a centre in Kempton Park called Wakker Jakkers in which she offered all sorts of extra lessons that complemented the UCMAS teaching. Her staff grew to eight. She had about 80 UCMAS clients and a further 40 who signed up for other extra lessons.
But while her own franchise grew, the franchisor, which held the South African licence for the system from the Malaysian-based international head office, ran into trouble. Just as Judy prepared for the end of the system in South Africa and got ready to concentrate on her non-franchise lessons, the Malaysian head office approached her, as the strongest franchisee, to take over the South African license.
Judy did some intensive research and confirmed that the Malaysia company was indeed the biggest and most esteemed abacus-based teaching system in the world. Locally, she knew that there was a huge untapped market, because the previous licence holder had marketed it only to a very limited set of communities.
The trouble was finding the roughly half a million rand she needed to buy the country licence. The banks wouldn’t touch the idea, and an official at the one development-finance agency she approached suggested that she rather ask her husband for the finance.
One of the best moves she made, says Judy, was to team up with a franchising consultant who had worked with the UCMAS group before. She proved to be invaluable, not least for her suggestion of approaching Business Partners, which agreed to finance the purchase of the license.
It has been a difficult first year as franchisor, says Judy. She has had to sort out a lot of problems left by the previous licence holder. She has focused almost exclusively on stabilising the 21 franchisees she took over. Fortunately, only three franchisees closed down in the transition process. Now she is ready for a strong marketing drive to build the group.
Judy says part of her strength as an entrepreneur is her “remarkable family”. Her son, scarcely two years out of school, agreed to jump in and help out with the business when Judy had to leave for Malaysia to sign the contract. Her school-going daughter is a highly trained UCMAS instructor, and earns good pocket money teaching at one of the franchises. Her husband has meanwhile bought his own educational franchise which complements hers, and the two of them has formed one management team to run both side by side.
There is still a long way to go to build the UCMAS brand in South Africa, but Judy finds the entrepreneurial challenge combined with her love for teaching so satisfying that she cannot conceive of doing anything else. “My husband and I have decided never to retire,” she jokes, “We’ll just take longer and longer holidays.”