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 Trailblazing success built on ferocious determination, support networks

 

 It is highly  unusual to find someone who ventures into business for the first time in her  late sixties, especially if it entails starting entirely from scratch and  turning a derelict plot into an idyllic guest house.

But a closer look at the extraordinary career of Annette Combrink, owner of the Mooirivier Oewer Guest House in Potchefstroom, removes at least some of the surprise: here is someone who was never going to retire quietly.

In the sense that entrepreneurs are leaders and pioneers who break new ground, Combrink has clearly always been leading an entrepreneurial life, even though she has never started a business before the guest house.

Combrink, together with her four siblings, were the first generation of their family to go to university. After a brief stint as a school teacher in the 1960s to pay for her studies, she returned to academia as a junior lecturer and opened a path for women at the University of Potchefstroom, which used to be one of the most conservative and patriarchal universities in South Africa.

Through “ferocious determination” she completed her PhD in English and worked her way up to the position of head of the English department, the first female dean at the university. She switched her career to academic management, and broke through several glass ceilings to become, in 2004, the first female rector of the Potchefstroom campus of the university, which by then had been renamed North-West University. All of this she managed while raising eight children, three of her own from her first marriage, and five step-children from her second.

Although many aspects of academia may seem like the opposite of the business world, Combrink found plenty to stimulate her entrepreneurial instincts. Her fight against the blatant gender discrimination of the university world in those days was not unlike that of the lone start-up entrepreneur who tries to break the mould of an industry, battling entrenched interests, simultaneously working for herself and blazing a path for others.

For at least the first decade of her academic career she was paid less than her male colleagues and was denied a pension. Discrimination permeated everyday life, right down to the expectation that she, often the only woman in a meeting, was expected to pour the tea. She always refused.

Combrink had no formal management training, but she always had a knack for organising, especially delegating, and she enjoyed the challenges of stretching and massaging budgets – totalling R1.8 billion at one point – to make it fit the priorities of the university.

Much to her disappointment, the rules forced her to retire at the age of 65 in spite of her being at the top of her game.

Combrink unleashed her considerable energy on a range of new projects, including translation work, consulting for the university’s international relations department, serving on the board of the Aardklop Arts Festival and making waves in local politics.

At the same time, she embarked on what many would experience as more than a full-time job – starting her own guest house. She decided to invest her pension pay-out in a two-acre plot with a large house next to the Mooi River, about a kilometre from the university. The idea was to turn the house into a guest house catering for visiting academics.

For weeks she tried to get an answer from the banks about financing her plan, until one banker, sensing her frustration, suggested that she contact Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS). Within two weeks she had her finance in the form of a ten-year loan.

Today, she rents out seven furnished units in the guest house and a further 14 student flats. BUSINESS/PARTNERS has meanwhile given her a second loan for subdividing and developing another section of the property.

Combrink says she has adapted well to the demands of the guest house, despite having “just barged into” the industry. Developing and empowering her six staff members is what she enjoys most. Whenever she encounters a problem or needs some advice, she consults a range of family members, friends and associates.

Combrink is a firm believer in the importance of support networks. She says although the fight against gender discrimination is to a certain extent won, women are still vulnerable because of the pressure on them to be the lead parent. The answer, says Combrink, is for women to build and maintain excellent support networks of family and friends, which allows them to reach their full potential at work and in business.


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