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 Graduating from a life of learning

 

 Most business owners have to build their enterprises from scratch. The same goes for Anelene van Wyk, except that her 14-room guest-house business in Springbok in the Northern Cape is merely the culmination of an entire life built out of nothing.

At the age of 17, she was orphaned when her mother died in a fire that gutted the family home in Nababeep. Her father had died when she was six. She had no choice but to leave school with only a Standard 7 (Grade 9), and started working as a shelf packer in the local Metro Cash & Carry.

Fending for herself from such an age in arid Namaqualand instilled in her a fierce, almost obsessive, work-ethic. At various stages she considered going back to school to overcome the greatest impediment to her career, but “my work was everything to me”, she says. Later on she would find that she simply couldn’t stay at home as a housewife, even though her husband was able to sustain her and their three children.

Apart from a vague sense that she liked the subject hospitality studies at school, and that she would always throw herself into events that had to be organised at work, she had no clear idea that she would one day find herself in the hospitality industry, let alone owning her own business. She just knew that she wanted to get ahead, learning as much as she could from each job as she was rapidly promoted from shelf packer to the cigarette counter, stock counting division, debtors’ department and ultimately to chief cashier.

Eleven years later, she felt confident enough to start a florist business in Springbok, and embarked on what she describes as a huge learning experience. While she learnt a lot about the business world in her previous job, she found that she still lacked critical strategic and financial management skills. The business did not do too badly, but her financial controls were not good enough to stop her partner in the venture from ringing up crippling debt.

When her husband, who worked for a mining equipment company, was transferred to the adjacent town Kleinzee and later to Alexander Bay, she sold the business and vowed never to try to start one again. But for some people entrepreneurship happens despite their intensions.

Anelene landed a clerical job at Alexkor, the government diamond mine, and characteristically steamed ahead to the position of assistant accountant, this time with some formal part-time training courses. But when her next career move was thwarted simply on the basis of her lack of a matric certificate, she decided to take another stab at starting a florist in Springbok.

This time, her attention was diverted by a boarding house which came up for sale. She immediately saw the opportunity of growing it as a guest house, and bought Undulata Country Lodge through a rental deal with the owner of the building.

Soon the six rooms were consistently fully booked, but to her utter frustration, she found out that while a business owner does not have to be limited by a silly educational qualification, lack of finance is a major handicap.

Try as she may, every single bank and financial institution turned down her application for finance to buy the building because her operation was too small. But without ownership of the building, she could not add rooms or make any structural changes to the guest house.

The entrepreneur in Anelene pushed on, and she converted three rooms in her own house, and rented another five elsewhere, doubling the turnover of her business. Meanwhile, she entered a competition called the emerging tourism entrepreneur of the year, in which she came second and won R100 000 for her business. More importantly, the competition helped her to formalise some important systems in her business – her tax affairs, public liability insurance, staff registration, customer care systems and a formal tourism grading of three stars.

But the award was nothing compared to the day that Anelene realised she had “graduated” as a business owner. By chance, she was waiting for someone in her car in front of Business Partners’ offices in Springbok, and, more out of frustration and the urge to vent a bit of anger, she entered the building to ask why it was that she could not get finance for a thriving business.

She was invited to once again submit her financials, and, based on the new turnover figures that had managed to attain, she was granted an R1.2m loan to buy the building which housed her business.

From where Anelene sits today in her own guest house overlooking Springbok and the vast expanse around it, the sky is the limit. Ironically, now that she is able to afford – in time and money – any education and training she were to put her mind to, she feels that it would probably not be worth the investment, because, after all, formal education for a business owners is only useful where “it clashes with reality”. That is the way she’s been learning all her life.

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