Lailvaux, a Johannesburg-based restaurant entrepreneur, is 56 years old and at the top of his game. He currently owns two successful restaurants and is starting up a third – a tough workload even by the standards of hardened business owners.
Yet he makes time to spend every Thursday morning at Business Partners Limited’s (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) Entrepreneurs Growth Centre, evaluating business plans and taking calls from business owners seeking advice and guidance. And as one of about 300 mentors in BUSINESS/PARTNERS’s Mentorship Programme, he dedicates hours out of every working week in one-on-one sessions to advise and guide other business owners through the minefields of growing their enterprises.
Even though his mentorship activities provide only a minuscule amount of his income, Lailvaux regards it as an extremely important part of his life. It provides “balance”, he says, a way of “giving back” to the community that has blessed the many enterprises in his long career with success.
Lailvaux wanted to become a teacher at first, but his first job, a technical one at IBM at the start of the IT revolution, changed his trajectory. He soon bought an IBM dealership specialising in fax machines, and later merged the business with that of his brother, and moved over to PCs, providing network solutions to small and medium enterprises.
When the business grew to about 25 workers it was bought out by a large corporate which Lailvaux joined as a director. The deal had secured his financial independence, and when he found that the long hours in the IT industry was impacting on his family life, he stepped out and joined the Spur group as a franchisee.
Although the restaurant trade is itself notorious for its long hours, Lailvaux’s approach was to partner with strong managers in each of his restaurants. They run the operations, while he concentrates on the financial and HR management of the business. This gives him the flexibility that he needed, and also provides him with the kind of overview thinking that makes him such an effective mentor.
He found that he was able to apply his IT skills to manage restaurants in a way that was revolutionary at the time. Soon he developed a model to measure the health of any restaurant, which today is one of the basic tools of his mentorship.
Lailvaux was introduced to mentorship when he opened a restaurant in Montecasino. The National Empowerment Fund (NEF) financed the equity stake of a 30% BEE partner in the restaurant, and was so impressed by the information package that he used to prepare for their own mentors on the progress of their investment, that they asked him to become one of their mentors. Later, he joined the BUSINESS/PARTNERS Mentorship Programme through which he has been able to help dozens of entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry.
His main motivation and reward for his mentorship work is a deep sense of satisfaction that it gives him, but Lailvaux also mentions a surprising spin-off from mentoring – every time he mentors another entrepreneur, he learns more about business, and it makes him a better entrepreneur.
He experienced this most strongly when he was asked to mentor a young entrepreneur who had received a grant to start a chicken farm. The entrepreneur had an agricultural degree, but Lailvaux was able to show him the ropes on the business side of the venture. Apart from a deep friendship that formed between the two, Lailvaux says the project gave him a huge amount of insight into agriculture and how it fits into the restaurant industry.
Today, the chicken farmer employs eight workers and Lailvaux is helping him to branch out into rabbit farming.
Not all of the work of a mentor is as positive as this, though. Lailvaux says he is often asked to help an entrepreneur whose business has deteriorated to such an extent that it needs to close. His role in such cases is to help the business owner negotiate a closure as painless as possible. It is emotionally draining, he says, but still very satisfying if he helps to minimise the losses.
Another downside of his mentoring work is that it amplifies the pain that the economic hard times inflict on his own restaurants. He constantly deals with the struggles of entrepreneurs whose businesses would have fewer problems if the economy were stronger.
But while his mentorship activities often expose him often to such hardships, it also his main source of optimism about the future of South Africa. He says the calibre of entrepreneurs coming up in South Africa is nothing short of inspiring. “What is so exciting for me is that their biggest goal is not to make millions. For the layer of entrepreneurs who are in their 30s and 40s today it is not about enrichment, but about developing their community. They want to employ, they want to mentor, they want to grow people. I think they are going to take the country forward.”