When “youth entrepreneurship” is mentioned, the image formed in the minds of many South Africans is that of one or two intrepid twenty-somethings starting a business from their parent’s garage. Much less thought is given to the generation of young people who sooner or later face the often very difficult choice between joining their parents’ business on the one hand or carving out an independent career for themselves on the other.
Michael Oosthuizen’s story is a good illustration of the intricacies of that choice, of the power of family business, and why a decision to join the family business can certainly also count as entrepreneurial.
Michael runs Central Bridge Trading, a Pretoria-based supplier of building materials and equipment to Eswatini which was started by his father.
Michael’s school career in Kempton Park was as wild as his father’s business was successful. He was in constant trouble, and by the time he reached his late teens, he had a full-blown drug problem and realised he had to get away “to sort myself out”. He left school for London before completing his matric. “I’m one of the few who went to London with a drug problem and came back without one. Usually it’s the other way around,” says Michael.
A very tough stint as a labourer on a scaffolding crew in London helped him to clean himself up. The news that his dad had to undergo an emergency heart operation prompted him to drop his London plans and to help back home. It turned out to be the first of two stints in the family business.
Michael soon proved that he had inherited some entrepreneurial genes from his father. He took charge of the transport side of the business, ferrying building supplies from their base in Gauteng to their clients in Eswatini and built up a fleet of five trucks as well as their own mechanical workshop.
Although Michael operated the fleet almost as his own business, there was no formal distinction between his trucking operation and the rest of the family business.
Michael explains the family’s ethos: “My dad, mom, sister and I would each have our own cars, but any one of us would just get into any of the cars if we had to go somewhere. They belongs to us all. That’s how it has always been in my family.
In 2004 calamity struck. A long-standing, good client of theirs went bust with a huge outstanding account, and for the first time Michael’s father could not pay his own suppliers. The family lost everything – the trucks, three of which had been paid off already, equipment, stock, premises, and their home.
Without any qualification, not even a matric, Michael did a short construction-foreman course just to get something on his resume, and he started working right at the bottom at a WBHO building site. Within half a month he oversaw half the operation at the site. Four years later, he was assistant site manager at another WBHO site in charge of a budget worth millions.
His dad, meanwhile, who had restarted the same business with nothing more than a bakkie and a trailer borrowed from a friend, called Michael to join his business once again. Michael had no doubt that his father would rebuild and become even bigger, but the fact that he was rising in the ranks of WBHO made the decision more difficult this time. In the end, the most important considerations were family and independence. “When you work for your own company, you don’t have to ask permission from anyone to pick up your children at school,” he says.
The choice to join the family business once again was also the beginning of a spiritual homecoming for Michael, who today finds much of his inspiration and endurance in the church.
Enriched by his experience as a construction site manager, Michael had become an even better business partner to his dad. “As usual, my dad brought in the bread of the business – the large orders of building supplies such as door frames. And I went out finding the butter – the orders for tools, equipment and all the other stuff you need on a building site,” says Michael.
A major breakthrough came when Michael managed to convince the builder of the new American embassy in Eswatini to order supplies through Central Bridge Trading rather than through US suppliers.
Back in Pretoria, meanwhile, Michael felt uneasy about their warehouse, which they had rented for years on a short-term contract from the owners of an adjacent shopping centre. Acting purely on intuition, he had just managed to secure the purchase of a plot of land for a brand-new warehouse – financed in part by Business Partners Limited – when they were finally given notice to vacate the old building.
Over the years, Michael took over more and more of the running of the business from his dad who, at 76, still regularly comes in to look over the financials of the business. Like all family businesses, some differences emerged between the generations in their style of doing business. His father was always at ease doing business on a handshake, while Michael is far more comfortable with formal contractual agreements in place.
But such differences have never weakened their relationship, which has only strengthened with mutual pride, the father for the achievements of his once wayward son, and the son for the huge foundation laid by his father.