In the early 80s, Connie Mashaba worked for Southern Sun hotels as a junior bookkeeper. In 1985, her husband Herman Mashaba asked her to join his fledgling business in Garankuwa, north of Pretoria. What started out as a small manufacturer of hair care and grooming products for the black consumer has grown into a multi-billion rand business and a household name.
Herman Mashaba launched Black Like Me with his wife Connie at the age of 26, with R30 000 he borrowed from two friends. They marketed and distributed ethnic hair products and, within seven months, the loan was repaid.
In 1997 he sold 75% of the business to Colgate-Palmolive, buying it back in 1999. His company had 47% growth in 2001 – the most rapid in the industry sector. Black Like Me re-invented its image in 2002, launched into the UK, and added fragrances and cosmetics to its range. In 2003 it entered the personal care market.
Today, Connie Mashaba has set the company – a model of African entrepreneurship – on a solid growth path, merging the business with cosmetics company Amka, driving its market share, and streamlining its operations to strengthen its performance.
Entrepreneur spoke to her about what it’s like to be the driving force behind a leading South African brand.
What role did you play in the establishment of Black Like Me in 1985?
I was involved in the company from the beginning and I did everything from reception all the way up. I’m an all-rounder, but my love has always been for administration and finance, so that was where I landed up.
You took six years off to study between 1997 And 2003. What did you study?
I left when Black Like Me formed a strategic partnership with Colgate-Palmolive. Herman stayed on as MD, but I did not want to be part of a corporate organisation.
I also wanted to complete my studies as I had never had the chance to do so. I finished my bcom and followed that with Honours in business management. My goal was to consolidate the knowledge I had gained through work experience.
How have your studies benefited you in your current position at the helm of the company?
Achieving a qualification gives you a greater, firmer belief in your own abilities. When you combine experience with education, you have a winning formula.
Herman Mashaba relinquished the reins to you in 2004. What were the reasons for this move?
In 1999, Herman bought the business back from Colgate-Palmolive and spent the next few years injecting flexibility, speed and entrepreneurial flair into the company. By 2004 he wanted to enter a new business environment and there were several people who were possible candidates to take over from him, but because of my experience in the business the board took the decision to appoint me as MD.
What particular challenges have you faced (if any) after taking over from Herman?
We are in an era of vastly increased competition, particularly in the lifestyle industry, so differentiation and relationship building are extremely important. I have also learnt a lot about leadership – people cannot be taken for granted, and you have to keep the channels of communication open at all times.
Why did you decide to merge with Amka in 2004 when you took over?
Our two companies had been long-time competitors, and we agreed that by merging the businesses, we would increase our market share significantly. As a result, Amka bought a 49,9% stake in Black Like Me. The BEE deal was one of the biggest ever in the beauty industry and saw two serious black companies joining forces.
There were great synergies between Amka and Black Like Me, from both a manufacturing and a distribution point of view, and Amka had a distribution network established in over 39 African countries.
What value has this brought to Black Like Me?
It has streamlined our distribution, enabling us to reach every corner of the country. It has also provided us with a vehicle for further expansion into Africa. Another important outcome is that we both have increased buying power.
What challenges did you face as a result of the merger and how have you overcome these?
Herman and the Kalla family had been competing for many years, so the two businesses were fairly familiar with each other. Nonetheless, integration itself is not easy as two organisations have to learn each other’s cultures and approach to business.
We were fortunate that both companies were family-owned businesses and were entrepreneurial ventures – that meant there were some fundamental similarities and common values that eased the way for us. It took about a year for us to become fully integrated.
How have you maintained the identity of the Black Like Me brand within the merged company?
I am responsible for the sales and marketing of Black Like Me, so I am fully involved in the identity of the brand. I think it’s important that I am here and doing things hands-on.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs whose companies are going through some form of significant change such as a merger?
If it’s a good merger, one plus one will equal three. Success depends on the trust and respect you have for one-another, as well as shared commitment to the business. Number one rule: do not go into a partnership if you have any doubts.
You have set the company on a specific growth path. What is your strategy?
My strategy focuses on three simple tenets: Give people what they want; do not take customer service for granted; and do not be static – when you stagnate, you die.
You are well on your way to building Black Like Me into a major African brand. What challenges have you faced in marketing the products beyond our borders?
We are exporting to about 10 African countries and also to Papua New Guinea and the UK. However, our focus remains on South Africa because we still have so much to build here. The most challenging aspect of exporting to other African countries is collecting payment. Getting products through customs is also very difficult.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to export into Africa?
The most important advice I can give is to start by establishing your brand at home first. Only once you have accomplished that should you start studying the foreign market you want to enter. It’s important to pinpoint your reasons for wanting to do so, so that you are clear about this upfront. It is also essential to establish partnerships in the countries you wish to export to – you cannot do it yourself from South Africa.
What level of interaction does the black like me brand have with its customers?
We have two types of customers: wholesalers and retail stores, and consumers in the lsm 4 to 7 brackets. The former are most receptive to initiatives like product promotions.
To reach consumers we promote our product in print media and on tv, where we tend to sponsor certain shows. Our primary interaction with consumers is at store level and our in-store promotions are extremely successful.
What is the key to maintaining customer loyalty?
Competition is growing in our market, but the key to customer loyalty is firstly the quality of the product. Secondly, we place a huge emphasis on education at salon level. In Gauteng alone there are over 4 000 salons that use our products. We have teams who visit them regularly and demonstrate new products to them.
Black like me is over 20 years old. How do you ensure your products remain relevant to a fast-growing black middle class?
We redesign our packaging every two years to keep it fresh and up-to-date. We also have a dedicated research and development team that conducts intensive research into the cosmetics market to ensure that our products meet the needs of our target market, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Our range has grown to include not only hair care, but also skin care products, cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances.
How big is your management team?
There are six people on the team, three men and three women. It is focused entirely on sales, marketing, public relations and promotions.
How would you describe your management style?
It is democratic and consultative, but i am not afraid to show authority when i have to. I expect people to be responsible and accountable, and because i trust and respect my team, they are.
You are a highly successful leader, from both a financial and operational point of view. What would you say are the key reasons for this success?
I’m passionate about the business. I am committed to making sure it succeeds, and i am surrounded by people who are all working towards the same goal – as a team, we understand where we are going.
Does the business still maintain its entrepreneurial flair?
Most definitely. When we come up with decisions, we go with them there and then. There is no corporate machine standing in our way. We have also retained all the flexibility of an entrepreneurial business. And we work from the grass roots up, not from the top down.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt about being involved in a business with your spouse?
The day never ends and you always take your work home with you. On the other hand, you always have a profound understanding of the problems and challenges you both face and you can rely on one another’s support. You also know that the advice you receive is relevant and apposite.
What are the next big goals you have set for black like me?
My aim is to grow the business in the face of fierce competition. I want to reach as many black women in South Africa as possible, no matter where they live, whether it’s in villages, towns or cities. I want them to know and understand our products. I also want to ensure that every woman in this country can afford to buy our products.
How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
I surround myself with people who are knowledgeable. I ask questions, i attend seminars, i read as many books as i can about subjects that interest me.
Is there anyone whom you look upon as an inspiration in your career?
There are many people, but i prefer to focus on the qualities and strengths they have and to admire and emulate those, rather than to focus on the individuals themselves.
What major strategic moves did you make over the years that made the biggest positive impact on your business?
Our single most important strategy has been community involvement. The community projects we have sponsored and supported have differentiated the black like me brand.
We have educated hairdressers in rural and urban areas and taught beauticians how to use our products; we have sponsored boxing events; and we have funded emergency helicopters for the annual pilgrimages to Moria in Limpopo.
Giving back to the community at this level – and being visible at events that are seminal in the lives of our consumers – has carved a space in their hearts and minds for black like me. In-store promotions have been invaluable in increasing the visibility of the brand.
Working closely with salons and salon associations to educate users of our products has also contributed enormously to growth. The products work and once people know how to use them properly, they are hooked.
What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business in this country?
Understand the market you want to go into, be passionate about what you want to do and be committed. It’s a cliché, but if you do not love your business, you cannot succeed. It was John Maxwell who said, “winning is an inside job”. Trust and respect the people you work with.
If you don’t give them that, they will sabotage you, even without knowing they are doing so. Be positive in your outlook.
Despite the very serious issues that South Africa faces, the possibilities for economic growth are enormous, and job creation is possibly one of the most important things you can do for this country today.
What have you brought to the business that has complemented or extended Herman Mashaba’s legacy?
I’m benefiting from what he has built and I work hard to maintain his legacy. I have cemented the relationships he created within the industry. I have been most fortunate in that the respect he built in this sector has opened doors for me.
At the same time, I have to ensure that my actions remain consistent with the foundations he has laid. Relationships in business are extremely important and when someone has been as successful as he was, it’s vital that you do everything in your power to maintain those bonds.