The first form of entrepreneurial nurturing that Herman got was from his uncle. Raised by his single mother, Herman’s father figure was her brother, a farmer in Balfour in the Eastern Cape. His uncle was a formidable entrepreneur who, as a black man, managed to establish himself as a farmer and trader despite the ruthless apartheid land laws.
School holidays spent helping his uncle were a formative experience. When they couldn’t go to Balfour for the holidays, Herman used to work as a shoe salesman at an East London shoe store, where the young school boy was consistently the top salesman.
After school, Herman studied teaching, but had to start working to support his first child. By chance he applied to join the municipal fire department, passed the rigorous tests and spent the next thirteen years working his way up in the fire department ending – crucially – in the training department.
Herman is a keen iron-man athlete, and to satisfy his entrepreneurial urges while he worked at the fire department he started a sports equipment shop linked to a local gymnasium. He employed his sister to manage it and a year later sold it for a good profit.
By this time he was rearing to work for himself, and he started planning a health-and-safety training business. The market is provided by the Occupational Health and Safety Act which makes it compulsory for all businesses above a certain size to have at least one staff member trained in first aid, while certain industries require specialised training courses such as marine safety.
Herman resigned and started working from home. With his pension payout he paid off his house, and used some cash reserves to keep him going while he canvassed for business. Every day he would drive to a business area, park his car, and walk from door to door to introduce his service.
It took three months before the first call came in from a local branch of Game that wanted to have some staff members trained. Herman says there were times during those first three months when he wondered if he had done the right thing, but he tends to be optimistic by nature and he was secure in the knowledge that he had the best possible health-and-safety teaching qualifications and experience.
Herman kept his operation small, did most of the training himself, and added some corporate contracts such as arranging for stand-by fire fighters at Transnet depots when large oil tankers docked at the port.
Then came a tough decision. SAB, one of his clients, had a vacancy for a local risk manager. They were impressed by his work, offered him the job. Herman knew that it was an opportunity to learn world-class standards in health and safety, but at the same time he knew that he was destined to run his own business. In the end, he got the best of both worlds. SAB agreed that he could continue running his training business while working as their risk manager.
Herman took it one step further, and enrolled for an MBA at the then University of Port Elizabeth. It was a “hectic” three and a half years during which he worked long days, spent an hour or two with his family, and the rest of the evening in front of his books.
With his MBA done, he began itching once again to work for himself. He resigned from SAB and bought a license for an Australian tiling concept. It was in 2007. A year later, the financial system came crashing down, the construction industry ground to a halt and his new business failed.
Working from home once more, he devoted his full attention to his health-and-safety training business. He had always managed to let the training business tick over, but with his full-time attention the floodgates seemed to open. “I remember sitting at my computer one day and I could literally see the money coming into my account. My phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” said Herman.
This time, he set about building a fully-fledged business. He started by employing a trainer and today, four years later, has 21 employees. He rented a training venue and within a year had outgrown the premises.
Herman identified the ideal complex that could house his business, provide several lecture rooms and has space for outdoor training modules, but at R10m, the property was out of reach for Riverport Training Academy. But Business Partners agreed to finance the property deal through a combination of loans and equity.
Riverport Training Academy is now poised to expand nation-wide. Having developed two additional branches in Umtata and Port Elizabeth, Herman’s plan is to sell 25 franchised branches throughout South Africa.
Herman believes he was always destined to be an entrepreneur, but he was nurtured in various ways: through the example of his uncle, his experience as a shoe salesman, his sports shop, his work-from-home years, his corporate experience at SAB, his MBA, the lessons from the failure of his tile business the property deal with Business Partners.
Perhaps it is true that entrepreneurs are born, not made, but how they grow depends on the learning opportunities they take.