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 You've got to rest to keep going, says round-the-clock entrepreneur

 

 Jaap de Bruyn finds himself in one of those relentless round-the-clock industries in which it seems impossible to take a holiday, yet he is adamant that every person in his 700-strong workforce, including himself, needs to take their annual leave – not because the law says so, but because it is a crucial part of keeping fit for business.

But the challenge for De Bruyn, 69-year-old co-owner and managing director of Micaren Exel Petroleum Wholesalers, is that he cannot allow that one of his network of 31 petrol stations to run dry, not even for a few minutes. It is not just the loss of sales that will hit the business, but as a small, emerging petrol-station brand Micaren Exel has to outperform the big brands at every level. Even more important is maintaining the trust between Micaren, the wholesaler, and the 31 petrol-station owners in the Group whom it supplies.

There is of course no off-season for fuel sales, and the operation is never ending. Even though the Vryburg-based Micaren’s fleet of fuel-delivery trucks is well serviced, the occasional breakdown does not wait till after the holiday season. Furthermore, buying fuel as a wholesaler is especially relentless, and must be done three months ahead of time in a constantly changing market.

So how does De Bruyn manage to take a family holiday over December every year?

It helps, says De Bruyn, that Micaren is a family business. The head office in Vryburg is kept open with a skeleton staff while De Bruyn and his extended family move down to Groot-Brak on the Western Cape coast for the holidays. Essentially this means that the top management of the company moves down to the family holiday home, including De Bruyn himself, his daughter who is the company accountant, and his son-in-law who is, crucially, in charge of fuel procurement.

Everyone switches to holiday mode, but the core of the company’s management finds themselves together in one place if anything goes wrong with the ongoing operations.

De Bruyn says in one sense he never really stops working. Even on holiday he is constantly busy building and fixing around the holiday home. It is the change of scene and focus that rejuvenates him, but his busyness also means that he remains fit to swing quickly into business mode again.

His restless energy is no doubt also one of the reasons why Micaren has been able to maintain a slow but steady growth over the past 18 years in a difficult industry dominated by giant firms.

De Bruyn says he comes from a generation that was taught to aim for a professional qualification rather than entrepreneurship, and he qualified as a land surveyor. But his entrepreneurial nature emerged nonetheless, and after pioneering new technology in the field, he was able to sell his business early on.

This was followed by a stint of farming in the Molopo district in the North West province, among other activities, which in turn drew him into a farming cooperative. There, he became involved in the buying of bulk diesel, a crucial commodity in farming operations.

When the fuel industry started opening up to new entrants for the first time in the nineties, De Bruyn, his brother Annes and two other business partners saw a major business opportunity and formed Micaren Exel Petroleum Wholesalers. Instead of sticking to wholesaling diesel to farmers, a market that soon became flooded, Micaren chose the more difficult but ultimately more lucrative route of supplying fuel to a network of petrol stations.

Under the Sasol brand Exel, Micaren essentially develops opportunities for petrol-station operators by not only taking over existing under-performing stations, but identifying and developing new sites in under-serviced areas, especially townships.

It has been a slow and difficult journey to build up the network to 31 stations. They have had to be careful not to outpace the roll-out of Sasol’s own Exel branded stations. Also, setting up a petrol station is very capital-intensive, especially if Micaren owns the property as well as the fuel-pump and -storage equipment, as it does on many of the Group’s sites.

This hunger for capital led to an early approach to Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), which decided to take a 20% shareholding in Micaren. The move, based on the Micaren entrepreneurs’ firm belief in growth through partnerships, paid off when the Group went through a difficult patch some years ago. “We met with BUSINESS/PARTNERS, and rather than pulling the plug on us, they were totally supportive, almost parternal,” says De Bruyn.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment for Micaren. The experts from BUSINESS/PARTNERS who helped them pointed out that the root cause of their troubles stemmed from the fact that their management accounts were not good enough to inform important decisions.

De Bruyn says the experience helped him to shift the aim of his accounting system from trying to provide convincing statements for outsiders, to producing financials that he himself can trust totally and rely on in his planning.

Such informed planning is a further factor that allows for decent holidays. De Bruyn and his company’s planning cycle starts in August each year, when the company reflects on its performance of the previous financial year, and detailed growth plans are worked out not only for the Group as a whole, but for each individual petrol station.

By the time the holiday season comes around, the company’s detailed plans are ready for the year ahead, and allow them to hit the ground running when they return in January.

In a sure sign that Micaren is getting it right, De Bruyn recently received a huge offer from investors to buy the company. He declined, vowing to keep going until Micaren opens at least its hundredth petrol station.

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