JOHANNESBURG — Entrepreneur Kuben Naidoo got involved in the KFC franchise business in the 1980s. Today he is one of South Africa’s top franchisees, as he recently opened his 100th KFC store in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s an incredible story and one that many South Africans can be inspired by. It also shows the power of family business as he’s a second-generation KFC franchisee. His father opened their first store in Chatsworth in 1974. It’s a great interview that gives the back-story to how Naidoo got to where he is today thanks to sheer determination. – Gareth van Zyl
Kuben, it’s a pleasure talking to you today. You’ve just opened your 100th KFC outlet in KZN, Pinetown. The story of how you got into the KFC franchise business is a fascinating one, dating back to the 1980’s?
Yes, Gareth. I’m a second-generation KFC franchisee. My dad opened the first store in 1974 in Chatsworth, Durban. I joined the KFC side of the business in 1986 and at that time my dad had a part share in the original store in Chatsworth and then built a second store in Tongaat. The real growth came thereafter. It took us from 1974, from the very first store, it took us 15 years to reach store number 3, which was Newlands in Durban. What was absolutely fantastic is that the growth continued more and more rapidly in the last vie years. We’ve doubled our store numbers from 50 to 100.
How did that doubling happen? What’s the secret ingredient behind it?
With the doubling, I think there were a number of things that came together. One was our organisation that reached a level of sophistication and maturity. We grew the calibre of people that we had in the company. We created a separate development division that focused solely on site finding and store builds. So, there was a concerted effort during the last five years to build the company.
You’ve got KFC stores all over in Southern Africa. How many in total and in which countries specifically?
We operate in Namibia, where we have 21 units. In Mozambique, where we have, I think it’s 12 units, and the balance of the stores are in KZN, Mpumalanga, and a few in the Eastern Cape.
Right so, is KZN still very much the heart of your focus and your business?
Yes, KZN is where we started off from originally, and the bulk of our stores are actually, still in KZN.
Where does True Blue Investments come into the picture here because this particular company of yours also dabbles in the property and liquor space, correct?
That’s correct. True Blue came about as a rationalisation of many companies that my dad had opened during the years. When I joined the business a few years thereafter we rationalised all the businesses for the sake of efficiency and we ended up with a holding company, which is True Blue Investment Holdings, and three divisions, which was True Blue Foods, which was the KFC side of the business; True Blue Hotels, which held all the liquor interests, and True Blue Properties, which held our property portfolio.
What’s quite interesting about you as well is that you, at first, studied medicine many years ago but you didn’t complete your studies.
So, did you always have this yearning to get your hands dirty and to get into business from quite a young age then?
Yes, I always did. As far back as I can remember, I used to help my dad in the businesses that he ran so, it was after school, on weekends, during holidays – I was always involved in the business.
Your dad now, is he still involved in anyway?
No, my dad passed on in 1994, so it’s been a while.
So, the mantle was passed firmly into your hands then.
Yes, what was good was my dad – I can’t put a value on the coaching he gave me in business. I actually took over the reins well before my dad had passed on so, from the business perspective, it was an easy transition. After my dad’s death, there wasn’t any hiccup on the business side of it. I think he had great foresight.
Obviously, in the 1980s and early 1990s, in particular, it was quite an interesting time in SA, especially regarding the changeover that was happening. Just casting your mind back to those days what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered at that time and, looking back, how has SA changed since then?
The change has been dramatic. One of the early impediments to our growth was the Group Areas Act, which prevented us from operating in non-Indian areas. With the abolishing of that act the ability of pastures spread to other places just opened up. It also had the adverse effect on our liquor interests in that most of those interests were built up during the apartheid years. So, when the Group Areas Act ended, what we found was that our markets for the liquor interests had virtually vanished overnight. Our assets were not ideally located and we had to, over time, transition out of the liquor industry by the selling off or converting properties to other use.
Just to get back to your background, Kuben, you’ve also completed your MBA and you ended up being at the top of your class. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Yes, that’s true. I threw myself into my MBA studies. It was a fantastic journey. It was an online course through an institution called Universitas 21 Global but the degree was conferred by the University of Melbourne, Australia. Being in an online environment, interacting with other students and lecturers throughout the world was a unique experience. Also, being in my position I was able to apply learnings that I had gleaned from the program directly into my company over the course of that program. I completed my MBA in 2011, so that was just before this huge growth spurt that we’ve had in the company.
Was that growth spurt attributable to you getting your MBA then?
Not solely. It was just a confluence of factors but that definitely played a role. The other thing that played a role was my exposure to a program and a book called, ‘Taking People With You’ by David Novak. I went to a course that he had personally conducted by himself in Louisville, Kentucky and it was something that really transformed at the way I looked at things and the way I looked at how I can move towards and achieve my goals. The first goal I had set, during the course, was to reach 50 stores. At that time, when I went for the course, I had 30-odd stress in the Group so, that seemed a huge feat of setting the target of 50 at that point in time. But it was something that we overachieved, let me put it that way. I went far beyond what I had originally anticipated.
Very clearly so, what were some of the key lessons that you learnt from that particular trip? It sounds very interesting and I’m sure that a lot of our readers would be very interested in that particular motivational course as well?
Some of the learnings are that you cannot do things entirely by yourself. You have to engage with others. You have to know yourself. You have to know your people as well. You have to know how to press the right buttons, so to speak, to actually get them to buy into the vision that you have. It’s a very simple course but exceptionally practical. For those that want a good motivational read they can also apply as a practical guide will abdicate by actually purchasing a copy of that book.
And just looking at your company closer to home. You’re also involved in a number of CSI initiatives. Can you tell us a little bit more about those?
Yes, the one dearest to my heart is actually the Add Hope Program, where we feed over 120 000 kids in SA on a daily basis. This is particularly close to my heart because I was in the formation of the original corporate social responsibility trust from KFC. To see something that just came from a thought and actually coming into fruition and doing such great work makes me extremely proud. Feeding 120 000 kids doesn’t fully address the problem of hungry kids in the problem but it goes some way towards lessening it and I think it will only get bigger and bigger. It’s also close to my heart in the sense that poverty is one of our biggest issues in the country and I strongly believe if we feed a child we feed a mind and feeding a mind would allow the child to actually achieve better in life and break out of the cycle of poverty.
What are some of the logistics around something like that, an initiative around that? It sounds immense, doesn’t it?
It is but we have partnered with a number of NGOs around the country to help us to reach the children and to actually do the feeding. We are not doing it alone.
Kuben, what is the next step for you and True Blue Investments and your involvement with KFC? What’s your next goal? You’ve mentioned some of the goals that you set many years ago, which you’ve now surpassed. What’s your next goal?
I think with the rapid pace that we’ve been growing it’s time to actually take a breather and revisit strategy so, the new vision that I form would not be just mine alone but one from our entire leadership team so, I’m waiting for that strategy session to take place and to really set goals within the company.
Kuben Naidoo, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today and very interesting. Thanks for chatting to me and to our listeners.
Thank you so much. Much appreciated and take care.