From fashion to film to art to fields of flowers in bloom, colour dazzles and brightens up our lives. But for Andries Kemp, who grew up in Bloemfontein, helping his mom run her little home industry from the kitchen, colour means something else. It means big business, with customers all over the country and around the world.
That little home industry has grown into a company called Rolkem, which manufactures and distributes a wide range of eye-popping colourings for foodstuffs, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
It’s a story of homegrown ingenuity and global success that has turned Andries into a leader in the field, taking him a long way from the Free State and from his early career path as an accountant. He sat down with Ruda to share colourful and inspiring story.
Hello, and a very warm welcome to another, shall I call it, an episode on the Change Exchange. My guest today, Andries Kemp, the CEO of a company called Rolkem, you make colourants. What for, and what are they and how does it work?
Good morning Ruda, and thank you for having me. Ruda, we manufacture a colourant that’s the most versatile in the world. I know it sounds arrogant to say that, but it started off with food colouring, and then we branched out into cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and we’re even looking at automotive now where the applicants will be used.
Okay. Well, we’ll get to that and to the developments in your company and so forth. But let’s go back to the beginning. You started out wanting to be an architect.
Yes. My dream in life was to be become an architect. Other kids at school would go and buy magazines, Archie comics or those type of comics and so on, and I would buy magazines with building plans in them. I loved that. I’m extending my house at the moment, and I’m busy with that plan almost daily. I just love it.
This was in Bloemfontein?
I grew up in Bloemfontein. Bethlehem, initially, and then Bloemfontein after that. But my world changed, in the sense that my parents recommended me to become an accountant, follow in dad’s footsteps, the reasoning behind it, they know my lifestyle and then they know that accountants normally can support that lifestyle, which at that stage architects most probably couldn’t. And then I studied accounting and enjoyed it. And I learned a lot.
Did you enjoy it or was it hard to give up the dream?
I never really thought about it that much and it’s only later in life that I actually realised again that I would still love to do that one day and I’m definitely too old to do something like that. And I think I will still do that, becoming an architect one day.
But while you were working as an accountant, your mother was developing what is now your business. Were you aware of that? How did that grow?
We all were involved in the business when it started. My mom started Sugar Art in 1986, it was the year that I went to the army, that I was drafted. And she needed to do something to keep herself busy while her youngest son, or project, was out of the house. And we all got involved with the business. My one sister is a dietician and the other one is a, at that stage, did a doctorate in plant physiology and together the three of them came up with the first recipe of manufacturing a food colouring to use in sugar art and in cake decorating. It was successful. My mom took the first colouring to a class that she gave in Klerksdorp, and the people loved it so much and she came back and she said, we need more, we must make more.
Was she literally doing it in the garage?
Actually, the kitchen, she started off doing that … I had a little 50cc motorcycle at that stage. When I came to visit on my weekend passes from the army, which I took, Idrove to the different pharmacies to buy the little pill bottles to pack the colouring in. And when I came home the first time, 15 pill bottles. And we thought it was a lot. Now we procured 100,000 of the containers that gets especially manufactured for us a month, if they last a month, sometimes it’s more.
So how did you finally get drawn into the business full time?
In 2005 my mom contacted me and she offered me the position to join the family business. At that stage she was becoming ill, she didn’t want everybody to know that and she wanted somebody from the family to assist her.
What were you doing at the time?
I was with Tiger Brands. I was in their program office, financial accountant in their program office. I enjoyed working for Tiger Brands, it was a great company to work for and they took very good care of me…
It’s a huge step from this security of a big company with all the perks to come into the family business where, you know, it depends on you and it can fold tomorrow.
Definitely. It was a complete mind shift that I had to do. There were circumstances at that stage in Tiger Brands as well, which I can almost say made the decision easier. Not that much easier, but the month after I handed my resignation in and I’m starting at the company, but thinking that I’m the boss’s son and will be able to walk in to a management position. What a surprise, I had to start from the bottom, packing shelves, filling, colouring, even putting cellotape on containers and learning every part of the business.
How big was the business at that point?
It wasn’t as big as it is now. It was about, I want to say about one twentieth of what, or even smaller than it is at the moment. Mostly specialising in food colouring for the cake decorating industry.
And what was the most difficult thing for you in making that change, if you think back to it now.
I’m a city boy. I have to be honest. At that stage the factories were in Kya Sands – the manufacturing was in Kya Sands. My parents were staying in Naboomspruit, they went to retire there, and moving to be closer to them, where the decisions are made, and learning all of that. I think the most difficult part was moving out of the city. I can remember my first two weeks in Naboomspruit, I said, I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. I have to get into a mall soon, go to Pretoria just to take a walk through Menlyn Mall. I enjoy the city and I enjoy city life, but at this point, after spending 10 years, actually 12 years in Naboomspruit, actually traveling the world … Every time I enjoy getting back to the peace and quiet of Naboomspruit.
And how has the business grown?
Exponentially. I don’t want to give numbers now. That’ll just be plain bragging, but our year-on-year growth for the past five years in a row varies between 52 and 75 percent year on year.
Good heavens. So you double every second year?
We double every second year. At least every second year. Sometimes it’s earlier than that.
And is it a constant research and development process?
It’s constant … you have to reinvent yourself the whole time. The way that I see it is that something that I took to heart, Nick Dennis, who was CEO of Tiger Brands, said something that stayed with me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. He says in any business you should see yourself as on a burning platform in the middle of the ocean and you have to reinvent yourself the whole time to stay afloat and I made that part of our business as well. So we have a lot of research and development, new products coming out, but also exploring new markets the whole time.
And what’s the biggest market?
At the moment cosmetics, cosmetics is about 70 percent of our business and second I will go with food. And third is pharmaceutical.
Mainly South Africa?
No, 80 percent export all over the world, daily actually, last night I still went through a few client application forms and I saw Bulgaria, Romania, Istanbul, places that you normally don’t visit. Not the normal general places of travel, but our biggest market at the moment is the UK – England, Scotland, Wales, that we distribute most of the products. I’m now talking food side. On the cosmetic side it’s Italy, France, and America.
How did a ‘boerseun’ from Naboomspruit make contact with all of those markets?
Strangely, right about 1988, we had a telephone call, it was before cell phones and so on.
So it was boerseun’s mother.
It was, I actually took the call and the gentleman, Ken Fry, from England got hold of one of our containers and he wanted to procure it and start distributing it in England, but on his own brand as orchard colouring and it started off small, it never went far anywhere, but in 2015, we did quite a few trade shows in South Africa and during the trade shows we also saw there was a lot of interest and a gentleman from Australia contacted me and he was interested in our product. And then we sent him a few samples. At that stage we were still having difficulty getting all the paperwork ready for exports. I sent it out in my personal capacity because I didn’t want to put the company at risk and then it just boomed from there to Australia. People in the UK picked up on it because the social media was getting quite busy with promoting our products, talking about it, especially Facebook, Instagram and so on.
Did you initiate that or did it just happen?
It happened at a Good Food and Wine Show that we attended. My cousin that was at that stage freelancing for the company in the marketing side. I said to him … There was quite a few, well known chefs and I would just want to brag a bit with pictures of myself next to them, and she said to me let’s put it on Facebook and I said to her I don’t know how. And she took my cell phone and loaded Facebook and it all started from there. And I was part of Facebook Europe and posting… The way that I use Facebook is more for the company …
It’s a marketing tool.
It’s a marketing tool for me. I don’t splash my personal life on Facebook. It remains personal for me.
Advice for a smallish company wanting to get into the international market?
First of all, do your homework. There are so many regulations that you have to adhere to. We, for instance …
Especially in food, I suppose.
In food I think it’s the biggest obstacles or obstacle is in the food side, but something that you bear in mind, there always is Google and all regulations can be downloaded and verified through there. What my advice will be is if you have a good product in any sense, do your homework, get your labelling. That is the most important part. You’re labelling right for your product because people, especially abroad, look more at the labels than they do in South Africa. In South Africa we tend to buy a product because it looks good and it’s marketed well in that you can use it. In the UK they buy more on the information on the side label and the label of the product. So, labelling, especially that side, extremely important. And then research your market well and make use of social media. The power of social media in marketing is immense.
The massive growth in cooking and baking shows must have had an impact?
Definitely. If you take it, the average person, in, let’s say 1990, 1995, there wasn’t that many cooking or baking shows. I remember Ainsley Harriott had something on … A cooking show that he had and the likes of him, but there was never that much to do with baking. During the past few years, especially the food network, the popularity of the food network…
The Big Bake Off.
All of those grew in popularity. Buddy Valastro, for instance, The Cake Boss is extremely popular. Even though we might not, icing sugar artists might not agree with his style or his work. But everybody to his own. People like that, put a definite positive spin on it and everybody realised that you don’t have to have that much formal training. Anybody can try, anybody can do it. And it really just took off from there.
And the anti-sugar sentiment that’s growing, I think especially in the west?
Yes… Anti-sugar sentiment. We could see it in quite a few of chain stores where they are changing their aisles of temptation to have more healthier products … In the baking industry we are part of celebrating. We are. We always. We actually laugh about it at the office, where we say before a parcel gets finally sealed, one of our packers, I’m going to mention her, Mavis. She takes the box and she would hug it. I asked the first time I saw it, I asked Mavis, why are doing this and she says to me, I’m keeping the, the love inside. I said to her, what love? She says remember we are giving love into the product because we are celebrating life and now with that and that is actually the attitude of most of the staff or I can say all this staff. We are part of celebrating life and with of celebrating life there is always cake or something sweet to eat, but the lovely trend that is coming up is people that are getting the vegan recipes, the gluten free recipes, even sugar-free recipes, sugar-free cake, banting cakes, all of those and it’s growing in popularity at the taste is magnificent. It all had to start somewhere.
You yourself have to watch what you’re doing because you’re a diabetic, if I’m correct?
Unfortunately, yes. I’m a type 1 diabetic, so being in the sugar industry or part of the work is relating to sugar and sugar, sweets, cake and so on, I have to be careful because I tried to control my diet, or my sugar levels with my diet and watching everything that I eat and it sometimes happened that I have to judge a show or judge a cake tasting and you end up eating too much sugar and then the next two days after that I will suffer for that. But it’s like …
If you’re careful, you can still enjoy it.
I try to control it. I try to buy organic products when I buy products. And the biggest culprit, I will say it’s not necessarily sugar, but white flour that is actually worse than sugar in my opinion.
And plans and dreams, professionally?
We always laugh about it when we say we want to have world domination, but no, we don’t want to go for world domination. There is always enough sun in the world for everybody in every company to shine. But what I would like to do is to be visible across the world. That will be my legacy that I leave behind one day. I do not have children of my own, so my company will be my legacy that I leave behind. And that will be put through the staff. We’ve structured the company in such a way that if I fall away one day the staff is taking over the company and they are getting the company so they will have all the shares of that. But in the market, the market possibilities, are immense, because we’re only touching on the market now. Marketing research in the UK … We are one of the three big players in the UK now and we are still only touching on 20 percent of their market. We are about 0.05% percent of the US market. So there’s a lot of scope for a lot of growth in the company still.
Talking about your staff. You said to me earlier that you have a very diverse staff compliment and you are very conscious of that and you make them aware of it, of the differences and you make them talk about it.
We, we have that. We are South African. We don’t refer to groups of people or ethnic groups, but in South Africa, the nice part about it is the diversity of everybody and we can all learn from one another and we do spend quite a bit of time learning another, one another’s cultures and learning about how they do things differently. For instance, just to use an example, if I may, if a male person walks into a room in front of a female, you are regarded as rude. If a Zulu man does that, he is seen as weak. He has to go in and see that the environment is safe before you go. Little ethnic differences or differences in our understanding …
Which often leads to misunderstandings
It does lead to misunderstandings. And also … I don’t know if I can say this, but pigmentation. We’ve, we actually spend quite a bit of time in our company where we’ve spoken about pigmentation differences.
Why? How did it come up?
We had the racial incident at the office. And I don’t condone it. I will never allow any racial, political or religious incidents in the office.
And you don’t sweep it under the carpet.
We will not sweep it under the carpet. We deal with it immediately. Now it could be we saw that at that stage as extremely, uh, it could cause a volatile situation, which I want to stop immediately. And we got all the staff together from all the different divisions of the company and we started talking about it. And I do like to talk as you can see. I love people. The only thing I love more than people is dogs and I love people and we started discussing why are there are different skin colours. Why there are different races. And the way that I addressed it and started off with the advanced by using the Nordic countries, referring to the people, staying there. Blond hair, blue eyes, very light skin, taking it through to your countries that has more sun, summer sun, coolish winters, where the [inaudable], for instance, will have a bit more body and the olive coloured skin. And expanding the differences of climate and to the people and that is my perception why there is differences in skin colour.
And did your staff then start talking to each other? How do you see this and why do you do this?
They had many questions. Many questions were asked and how I saw it and they started giving input and it was discussed and everybody talked about it and it’s as if it was this idea light that just went up in quite a few people’s minds.
I love the fact that in South Africa we actually face this stuff. We, we talk about it. We don’t, we’re going to try and walk around at this.
We are diverse. The nicest thing about South Africans is we can laugh at ourselves. We can joke about it. And yes, we do get offended easily, but that’s if somebody that doesn’t understand difference, tries to make a mockery out of it. I love South Africa, I love the diversity. I love the people. And even with the food. And that’s why South African food is so good and that is why we all look like this after Christmas. Different fusion of the different tastes and inspirations. For instance, if you take the Moyo restaurant in Blouberg, you must be familiar with it, all the different foods fused together, and the magnificent recipes that they have.
You have homes now in Naboomspruit, in Johannesburg, in Cape Town’s. How are those, I mean the one is very rural, in die platteland, and others are cities, but how are they different and which one is the closest to your heart?
I can’t choose just one. My main house is in Naboomspruit. The biggest one of the lot. I enjoy it there. It is peaceful, quiet. My relaxing time. The time that I spend with my dad. My dad stays with me or we share the house and then we have a great time together at the Naboomspruit house. The second one is the one in Somerset West, that is my breakaway. If I just wanted to get away from everything, that is where I go. It’s in a lifestyle state and I just love it there and then when I want to get busy and going. It’s the one in Fourways that I choose.
And what makes a house a home? Is there something you take with you? Do you put on a carpet, put up a picture? How do you make it yours?
First of all, the decor of all three houses are different, but it’s all three part of me, part of me, part of my family and there’s quite a few heirlooms in furniture that I’ve divided between the three places and so there’s always something of, of us there and then of course pictures, family photos and so on that is displayed here and there. For me, something that makes a house home is a puppy or a dog lying on a carpet or lying on the couch where they shouldn’t be, just relaxing.
So do your dogs travel with you?
Unfortunately not. I, I can’t even travel with them, they’ll take over the flight. I wish I could, I could, but if we sometimes get a babysitter for them to come and watch them when I’m not there. And every time I get back on they’re excited to see me and then I just want sit there with them lie on the floor and let them climb all over me.
Well, all of the very best, we’re recording this at the beginning of a new year, you move one step towards world domination this year.
Thank you Ruda, for your time and it was a privilege having the interview with you. Thank you.
Until next time, goodbye.