Jacques Basson, king of the Afrikaans business podcast, taking global lessons home

Many are surprised at the incredible success which many Afrikaners have made in business. I’m not among them. A Calvinist culture makes them well suited to an endeavour which rewards honesty, loyalty, hard work and single-minded focus. Not to forget the McGyver-like attribute that comes embedded in a people who believe “n Boer maak n plan.” As you’ll hear in this podcast, Jacques Basson is a successful entrepreneur in the UK service industry. But he’s spotted an emerging new opportunity in podcasting and has applied his curiosity and experience to build a dedicated audience. – Alec Hogg

Welcome to the BizNews podcast, I’m Alec Hogg. Well, what a small world. I met fellow South African, Jacques Basson through a PR lady who mailed me from her office in East London, that’s the one in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, not the UK. Jacques lives in Northwest London in the UK and I’m in Surrey to the Southwest. We met up in a coffee shop in the centre of this great city in Covent Garden, that’s in part of a complex that’s owned, as it happens, by a company that’s listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Well, back to Jacques, he’s in his early forties and typical of a new breed of Afrikaner entrepreneurs who are breaking the old stereotypes. Here’s Jacques’s story which begins with me asking him “Why are you investing so much of your time in this new podcasting revolution?”

Well, Alec I think for me personally it’s my go-to medium. I enjoy listening to it, I can run and listen, I can listen in the car, so it’s very mobile, I think it’s very relevant, and I’m excited about where it’s going, so for me it’s very intriguing that it’s such a young digital medium and I thought this is something that I need to take a closer look at for the South African market. It’s the prime digital real estate of the future and I thought it would be interesting to see what happens behind the scenes so to speak and the mechanics behind it.

What’s it called in Afrikaans?

‘Klipkouers’, the direct translation is a rock eater, but of course, for the guys that know ‘klipkouers’ is Afrikaans slang, which in essence is grit, it’s seeing things through, you know it’s not giving up; it’s slow and steady wins the race’ type things.

It’s kind of ‘vasbyt’.

“Vasbyt’ exactly, that’s an even better word.

Over the past year you’ve interviewed dozens of people, but specifically looking at a niche, first of all in Afrikaans and secondly in a niche of a certain kind of person.

Absolutely, obviously being a businessman, for me it was the go-to industry so  to speak or sector and I think what bugs me in a big way over the years is the lack of practical business content, especially for guys out there. I’m always looking for a nugget, that one learning how I can apply in my own business and of course I think there are many guys, the wanna-be entrepreneurs as they call them or the guys who are starting out that want practical advice, so that was the main thing for me. Then from there it was a matter of, let’s see if we can add an international flavour to it.

That was very important because many companies in South Africa, the guys I speak to, the girls I speak to, I think they realise the importance of earning foreign currency, so yes they’re doing well in the South African market, but they need to almost get away from earning in Rands in many ways because of the uncertainties that go with it. That gave me another opportunity to go and hunt down these Afrikaner entrepreneurs across countries and again because how we do things in the UK is different from the Aussies, the Americans, and from the South Africans, so it’s getting guys in the South African market exposure to practical business advice, but most importantly it’s making them aware and giving them access to these international entrepreneurs.

Who are the interesting guys that you’ve met?

I think bigger is hot always better, but I have to single out a guy like Louis van der Watt from Atterbury and the reason other than the fact that they’ve just built The Mall of Africa, which obviously, is the biggest. I was actually in Pretoria at the time; there was a traffic jam on opening day. That’s pretty impressive, but it’s also how they’ve expanded into Eastern Europe. The Eastern Europeans are at a young mall culture, so as far as the scope there, it’s phenomenal. They own many malls in Greece and all of that, so it’s fascinating to see this Afrikaans, Pretoria-based business that’s making significant waves on an international level and still in South Africa, it’s not that they’re backing down.

Something else which really stood out for me was a guy like Rohan Vos of Rovos Rail and why he stood out, other than the fact that they have these phenomenal luxury trains which are on par with the best in the world, is that Ruan earns 95 percent of their income from an international market, so again, the only thing they rely on in South Africa is the railway itself or the tracks which is a challenge in many ways, but it’s incredible, the successful company that earns the bulk of their money in foreign currency, so those are definitely two guys that stood out in a big way.

What I like about your podcast is, it’s exciting, it gives hope, you follow a formula that is easy to understand and not only can one listen, but you also can read it, which would give greater access, but where did this all come from? You mentioned earlier that you yourself are an entrepreneur.

I think it’s a combination of things, Alec. Number one, we live in the digital age, so I think it was important for me to really engage in a way that, to lead by example so to speak, to say “Listen, if you’re going to tackle a new business, a new opportunity, you can’t go wrong going digital because then it allows you to tap into a global audience”. That to me was always very important, but also it is niche, so I think again not to give you a business 101 lesson or try to give you a lesson here, but the thing is I’m all for niche and that’s one thing bigger.

I think many out there big is pretty, in the sense that we think the Richard Branson’s of the world, all these guys, they get all the attention and the ‘ear’ so to speak, but ultimately it’s the niche businesses where the magic’s at, it’s where the high margins are, it’s where you can tap into a global market especially if it’s digital, I think, so for me that was important. I said “Okay, podcasts is niche, it’s something new, business podcasts takes it another level and if we’re going to chuck in a bit of Afrikaans now we’re sitting with almost three levels deep niche-wise” and I think to me that made sense, that if I were to give this a chance to explore it and give it a chance to success, it had to be niche, niche, niche, so to speak.

It’s interesting too that you have a boy from the Free State who is sitting in London doing Afrikaans podcasts for presumably a high percentage of the Afrikaner market in South Africa, but also the Diaspora.

Yes, you know it’s one of those things that, earlier in the year I was in Pretoria for a few months and I almost felt there are moments where, if I’m brutally honest, you feel like I’m sitting in the UK and I’m preaching and going along and what have you. Then my wife reminds me that if it wasn’t for the fact that I sat in the international market and I thought differently, I don’t think this would have come about, so I think the good thing about all of this is that I have been removed from, I’m not too close to the South African market, so I can see the opportunities a bit clearer to see where things are moving towards, so I’m grateful that I’m here and of course it’s the international connections, I think that’s the key thing. It’s harder if you’re in South Africa, especially as a local SME, where do you start? It’s like me saying to a guy in South Africa now, “Hey, come and start a business here in the UK”, where do you start.

It gives you that exposure as well, to new ideas and different things. What about your own story, how long have you been in the UK and what have you been doing here?

In January it’s 13 years, but you know we’ve always joked, said “It’s 13 years temporarily” and it is. It’s just incredible how the time has flown. I started my business (Van Brock, it’s a commercial cleaning business), 9 years ago and I think at the time cleaning found me. I never envisaged that, I always called it a mop and bucket business’, but it took me probably a year and a half or so to realise that there’s an opportunity to take this mop and bucket industry and really turn it on its head and the way we market, the way we communicate with our customers, the way we clean and ultimately it’s about marketing and people I find, nine years later and it’s been a tremendous adventure.

At the same time, four years ago, I formed a joint venture in Texas, in Austin with another commercial cleaning business and that was an incredible adventure and journey in itself, starting from scratch in a market where I didn’t even know how much VAT these guys charged and they have different tax systems and all of that. That I think, again added to that international flavour that’s always been important for me and to try and give that to the South African market, the entrepreneurs over there.

So you got your entrepreneurial genes from somewhere. Is your family interested in business, did you talk about it around the table?

Yes, my folks were involved early in the eighties, I don’t know for the guys and girls out there, Parys in the Free State, we had, when the N1 still ran through there, we had the Moulin Rouge Roadhouse and I remember as a ten-year-old I didn’t understand what this Moulin Rouge was. I only later on realised it was the oldest strip club in the world, but anyway Moulin Rouge was, in the South African context a roadhouse and obviously that’s the first exposure I got to business.

What were you doing there, serving?

At that age, no I think I was eating more than anything else. It was a self-serve and I was growing my waistline, I think that’s what I was doing, but later on in the nineties I was in my fourth year at university and my folks, at that stage it was Café Dulce, which is now I think Dulce Café, I think Kobus Wiese, Wiesenhof’s Group acquired them a while back, but that was the start of Mugg & Bean as a matter of fact. These guys were one step of Mugg & Bean and it’s always interesting, I remember Dulce had 20 outlets at the time and Mugg & Bean was starting out and guess who is left, who has really made massive strides, but yes, so I was actively involved in the business there and as a student, two months holiday, so there I served. I was involved behind the scenes and all of that, so I really got my hands dirty, so to speak.

Is that important for someone in a business, an entrepreneur to actually know where every nut and bolt goes?

I think it’s critical. To give you an example, I always look back at how my career started. Again, I got involved, I wanted to do corporate after University and I gave myself, I always said it’s a ten-year plan, I want to get my training and I guess ignorantly in a way thought I’m going to get the proper preparation for entrepreneurship spending time with big corporates, but the one company that I will always single out is Coca-Cola. I was recruited into their managerial development programme in 1999, it was called [Kwesile? 0:12:02.6] at the time. We were only 18 people and what Coca-Cola did was; we were exposed to what was called a questionnaire-driven field assignment.

We would literally do some classroom training, they would split us all up, and they would chuck you into a Coca-Cola bottler. I spent eight weeks there and it would say to me “Go spend a week in the lab and every day this is the question you’re going to ask this person. The next week your’e going to spend with the production manager”, so till this day, 18 years later I can tell you exactly what happens in the Coca-Cola system, from the production, how much sugar water goes into it and it’s all stuck in my head because I was exposed to the practical aspect of running that business. Thus, I can’t emphasise that enough, that the only way to learn is to get your hands dirty.

It also helps you ask the right questions of the entrepreneurs that you are now interviewing.

Absolutely, as I said before, for me it’s important to lead by example, so I think it’s critical that I can extract information. Yes, the questions are the same, but number one, it gives us structure and of course it allows us to quantify the data, which is important because I need to and I want to identify trends which I can feed back to the listeners and the readers and say “Hey, you know if 50 guys say X or they’ve made this type of mistake or this is their sales and marketing strategy, you need to pay attention”.

That’s a big part of it, but yes, of course at the end of the day there is an entertainment aspect to it and that’s me having a cup of coffee so to speak where I can extract information because of my practical experience, which I guess a lot of guys out there, whether it be a journalist that just purely is generating that content, there’s not a deeper understanding of the business or being able to engage or understand immediately about this type of industry and then digging deeper during the interview.

Jacques, it’s been a very interesting journey for Afrikaans people in particular in South Africa, because in the old South Africa they were encouraged to go into academics or to go into the public service and in the new South Africa, of course, they’ve taken to entrepreneurship like ducks to water. It’s an incredible success story if you have a look at the Christo Wiese’s, the Marcus Jooste’s, the Jannie Mouton’s and we could go on all day. Why do you think that is, why do you think it is that it’s almost like Afrikaans-speaking South Africans have found that business really works for them and particularly self-employment?

I think speaking to some of these guys, the Jannie Mouton’s, and these guys; a lot of them were entrepreneurs in the old regime in a way, so it’s a different animal. So let’s talk about the younger entrepreneurs or the younger SME’s that kick-started around 1994, 1995. Many of them were retrenched and they were really chucked into the deep end, and even now if I look at what in South Africa, entrepreneurship is alive and well, but it’s not to the extent that one would think, especially amongst the Afrikaners because the golden handcuffs, there are still many professional Afrikaners out there and I find there’s not enough entrepreneurs.

Jannie Mouton (68) keeps his favourite books in his office for easy reference.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised that, one of the learnings for me was entrepreneurship is not as active as it should be, which tells me the pain is not as big as everybody thinks it is because the golden handcuffs still do the talking. So a lot of the dynamic businesses that I’ve seen, it was purely the guys were made redundant or they were chucked into the deep and whatever, they were fired and it was not okay, sink or swim and that’s where the magic happened. At the moment, I think the heat in the kitchen needs to increase before we’ll see some drastic increase in activity, I think especially amongst the Afrikaners.

What has been interesting is when people have left South Africa and gone into various parts of the world where they’ve had to become self-employed. You talk to quite a few of those people and quite a few are successful.

Yes, and again it’s the culture. I think you touched on something very important. The Afrikaner is historically a political animal. Back in the day the ambition was to become the prime minister, you know entrepreneurship was not alive and well and again, not going to political conversation, but back in the old way of doing things also there was very much a closed circuit in a way. I think even coming to the UK where 13 years ago and self-employment, people doing their own thing, you’re more confronted by it, it’s more normal than not and I think that changes the way, I think even the way in Australia, America, it’s not a sink or swim scenario, it’s a matter of, it’s normal to do your own thing, it’s not weird and of course the economy and the government allows for that, makes it easy for you to engage.

It was very interesting talking earlier before we put the microphone on where you have still very warm feelings towards South Africa, you’re even thinking of maybe of going back and relocating. Is this a common them amongst people of your age?

It’s a great question. Are people returning? Yes, there are people returning. This year alone I have two friends that have returned. I can’t say; it depends on what drives you back. I find that a big driving factor is friends and family, you’re very isolated, very alone and I find that especially where the first grandchild is born, there is a lot of pressure to go back, but then again there are many that do stay, so it’s not a matter of… I don’t know what the exact percentage is, but I would say all in all many don’t go back, they’re still stuck, their children are in school. I think I mentioned to you earlier, the children become British in a way and it’s almost like they’ve become more British by default, which right or wrong, I can’t say.

Another interesting aspect I’d like you just to touch on briefly is that you said in Texas there’s an alive and well and thriving Afrikaans community.

Absolutely, I would say in comparison with the UK, well there’s no comparison. The times I’ve been there I remember, I’ll give you a classic example and this is one of many, the one weekend I was in Houston, I was staying at close friends and we were off to, not only a braai, they were making boerewors in their garage and there were four Sasol expats there making boerewors, braaing the boerewors and even their teenage daughter, she was fluent in Afrikaans. They had been there for 12, 13 years, so it’s fascinating and you even see it in the children. I find it very intriguing that in the UK, as I mentioned earlier, the kids go to school, of course, it’s a peer-to-peer, they end up English, but in Texas, those kids are also exposed to the Texans and they roll, of course they have this cute rolling accent, but they speak Afrikaans and it’s alive and well, so it’s two extremes in a way, I can’t explain it.

Just to close off with ‘klipkouers’ also means people who have a tough time, it’s not easy to do it. Does it have to be that way in entrepreneurship; do you have to go through the fire to be successful?

It’s the only way you learn. Unfortunately, it’s making mistakes and in the making mistakes is unfortunately mistakes is a bad word, but it’s learning, I think it’s constantly learning. Forget about the word ‘mistake’ and the only way you’re going to learn is by bumping your head. So definitely there’s an element, but I think ‘klipkouers’, I remember one guy said to me, he doesn’t like the name ‘klipkouers’, it’s negative and I said “But you know it’s not about that. I think the Afrikaner at the moment and even more so, everybody is a ‘klipkouer’ because it’s not straight forward for the Afrikaner in South Africa and yes, you’re going to have to bump your head, you have to learn and that’s the only way to learn and move forward and to make a future for you and your family.

Also to look at things differently and find hope in places that you might not have considered.

Absolutely, I think one of the articles that I read, where you said such an important thing that entrepreneurship is not for us to define boundaries, it’s to operate within the boundaries” and that’s even the positive, that’s the light and that’s even for me the option considering the fact going back, I think the whole thing with BEE and I’ve said this to many people, I think it’s the biggest business opportunity I’ve ever seen, BEE. Either you can look at it from our poor old Afrikaners, whatever, poor old white people, or you can see it for what it is, this is a hell of a business opportunity and that gets me excited, but it’s operating within that framework, it is what it is, you’re not going to change it and it’s actually getting worse, but it’s working within that framework.

I have to ask you, how is it a business opportunity?

Again, it’s a great question, so it’s nowhere in the world, I mean if you look at let’s say one of the boxes that needs to be ticked; it’s allocating a percentage of payroll to training. Nowhere in the world does a government force accompany to spend X on training, which means if the law forces a company to spend money, it means you just have to position yourself in that supply chain to scoop the money. I’m oversimplifying, but the bottom-line is companies have to spend money and many companies just want to tick a box, but if you’re going to go one step further, I’ll give you another example.

I spoke to a guy at a medium-sized marketing agency in South Africa, they have to spend, I think it’s two or three percent of payroll, they can’t find proper candidates for their agency because the guys are not trained properly or there’s no practical training out there, so they have these rookies that come in that cause problems. Now they’re taking that spend, which they have to spend and they’re creating their own training company, which they own 49 percent of. Suddenly that expense becomes an investment and by the way, now they’re going to train up those guys for other marketing agencies and for themselves, so that’s a classic example of additional opportunities that are created versus “Oh, I have to spend this money now and it’s only an expense”.

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