Known to most South Africans as Bassie from the television magazine show, Top Billing, Basetsana Kumalo is far more than just a beautiful face. Behind the former Miss South Africa title lies a business brain that has built a personal brand of extraordinary value in a very short space of time. Using her title as a platform to launch herself into the business world, she is an example of someone who can identify an opportunity and pursue it.
At the age of 20 and with very little business experience, Bassie negotiated the first external contract to be awarded by the SABC to an all-female production company when Tswelopele Productions, of which she is a 50% partner, took on the job of producing Top Billing.
Since then, she has opened a publishing division in the company and launched the very successful Top Billing Magazine, started her own make-up, clothing and sunglasses range, and amassed business interests in mining and property.
It has been a steep and steady learning curve that has been driven by a combination of a hunger for success, a grounded personality and an ability to keep her eye on the ball at all times.
Entrepreneur: What influence did Miss SA have on your business career?
BK: Having that platform opened up so many doors of opportunity. I understood that it was just a 12-month reign and that it was important to use it positively to achieve my short-, medium- and long-term goals. From a business point of view, it meant people returned my calls, simply because I was Miss SA, even if they didn’t know what I had to offer in business.
It was through Miss SA that I met my current business partner, Patience Stevens, who was producing Top Billing for SABC at that time. I did a promo and she was impressed by the fact that I managed it in one take, so she invited me to be on Top Billing.
E: Did it teach you any particular business principles?
BK: It taught me that you always need to look for opportunities and make the most of them, and not to doubt my ability. It taught me a bit of chutzpah (it takes courage to strut your stuff on a platform in a bikini, in front of people you don’t know!) and that has served me well in business.
E: During your reign you were awarded an honorary scholarship by Madiba to study overseas. Did you take up this opportunity?
BK: Not yet, but I will! It’s a scholarship to Georgetown University where Bill Clinton studied, and is open for me to take it up when I want to. I have a love for politics and believe I will end up in that arena in some or other way in the future, so I think that I will probably study politics there.
The reason I haven’t done it yet is that I have been building the business for the last 12 years, and I need to focus on creating a succession plan and grooming someone to take my place when I step back a bit.
E: How easily did you slot into the role of TV presenting?
BK: Even though I never taught in a school, I think my training as a teacher helped a lot. Also, I don’t think it takes brain surgery to read a script so it wasn’t all that difficult, and you either sink or swim. I still get butterflies, but I have managed to teach them to fly in unison.
E: Did you receive any training?
BK: I did some elocution lessons when I started on Top Billing, but my mom was really my coach. I am a very fast speaker and she always used to say to me, “I didn’t hear a thing you said! Which train are you trying to catch?” Again, the Miss SA pageant obviously prepared me in some way.
E: How did the title Revlon face of Sub-Saharan Africa assist you in ‘building your own brand’?
BK: It was a key element in building the Bassie brand and was critical to where I am today because of the stature of Revlon as an international company. Brands are not necessarily born – sometimes they are made, and that was the case with the Bassie brand. Revlon definitely helped create it.
E: You have very successfully built a business around the Bassie brand. Was it something you had conceptualised at the outset?
BK: No, it has evolved over time. I have an appetite and enthusiasm for going into new terrain and have been involved in beauty, fashion, mining, property and media. These all create publicity, and the publicity builds the brand.
E: What are the keys to building a successful personal brand?
BK: When you wake up each morning, you have to think of yourself as a brand and act accordingly. How well you do that will define the brand’s success. If you live the brand well, people start to believe in it and buy into it. Over the years, people have shown great confidence in the Bassie brand and that’s been really humbling.
E: How did Tswelopele Productions come about?
BK: Top Billing is Patience Stevens’s brainchild. She took it to SABC, they liked the concept and offered to take it on and pay her a salary. After three months or so of presenting on Top Billing, I thought, “There’s got to be more to television than just reading someone else’s script.”
I also thought there was something wrong with the idea that Patience had a concept but someone else was making the money. So I spoke to Zwelake Sisulu, who was CEO at the time, and over six months, negotiated that they give us the contract as independent producers.
I was 20 going on 21 and I didn’t have any of the right business speak, but all I knew was that the picture looked wrong. Patience and I each have a 50% shareholding in the company.
E: How did you finance it?
BK: I borrowed money from my parents and we found money wherever we could. I had also won some cash prizes and appearance money from Miss SA and I put that into the business. I remember the bank asking for collateral, which was a big word for a 21-year-old!
E: What were the early challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
BK: Being a Miss SA had pros and cons and one of the challenges was overcoming people’s perceptions that I was nothing more than a beauty queen and had nothing to offer. I realised that I could either allow people’s perceptions about what a Miss SA can and cannot do to determine my destiny, or I could use the opportunity to show that I had something real to offer.
I worked really hard to prove myself and made sure that everything I did was done to the highest standard of excellence. My attitude was that, although I knew that I didn’t know much, I was willing to learn, so over time I did business courses and learnt from others in business.
E: Is there anybody in particular whom you have looked up to from a business point of view?
BK: Definitely my parents. My mother was a teacher and my father was a bus driver, but they were so enterprising and did a number of things to make extra money. They ran a small construction company, my mother and sister made and sold curtains at the end of every month in Lesotho, and as children, we were expected to play a role in making extra money.
I sold sweets to friends at school, and we would sell sandwiches and ice cream at soccer matches on weekends. So from a very early age I understood what business was about and I knew how to work with money. All the basic business principles I learned from watching my parents.
E: What difficulties did the company face with the demise of Union Alliance Media (the now-defunct listed company that had owned shares in Tswelopele Productions before going bankrupt)?
BK: We paid our school fees! The initial UAM deal afforded us the opportunity to play in the stock market. It augured well in the beginning and gave us an increased profile. I think its going under was a blessing in disguise, though.
It gave control of our company back to us. We had got ourselves into a situation where we were being controlled by people who didn’t understand our business but were telling us how to run it. In the end, the whole thing worked to our advantage.
E: What did the experience teach you?
BK: That sometimes it is better to run a small outfit and have control over it rather than be swallowed into a large conglomerate, where people don’t really understand what you do and are only interested in the bottom line. It taught me to think long and hard before selling off.
E: What has helped the company grow?
BK: In the first year we made a loss and only made R63 000 profit the next year. But every time we made some money, we put it back into the business to buy more facilities and upgrade our systems. Patience and I also have a great partnership.
I call her the Spielberg of television – she takes what I do and turns it into good television. She’s more technically orientated and I am more on the marketing, HR and contractual side of things. So we complement each other’s skills. We also have the same value system, we understand each other and we’re passionate about the same things.
E: You have built a number of different sub-companies. How are these businesses going?
BK: They’re going from strength to strength. We produced Pasella and have just finished producing Our Beautiful Country. We have also just been awarded a contract to do another magazine show. We’ve gone into corporate videos and that’s doing fantastically well, and we are doing below-the-line commercials.
As you know, we opened up a publishing arm which now produces Top Billing Magazine. I took a proposal for that to the IDC and they funded it because they believe in the strength of the brand.
E: What kind of infrastructure have you developed to manage all the different products?
BK: I have a great team and have surrounded myself with some of the best brains in the business. Leanne, my PA, keeps me sane and I have a wonderful husband and family support system. I am surrounded by good people and good energy.
|Your six keys to success in business: 1. Dare to dream
2. Take risks
3. You have to be street-smart and have suss, which no one can teach you
4. Don’t take “no” for an answer
5. Surround yourself with the best brains in the business
6. Go with your gut feel
E: With so many projects on the go, how do you manage your time?
BK: My biggest gripe is that there are not enough hours in the day. I prioritise things according to their level of urgency and plan at the beginning of the year, so I have diarised all the important meetings and events well in advance. I have cut down on the international travel as well and I lean on people to help me.
E: As sales is critical to the business, what sales strategies do you have in place?
BK: Publishing has been one of the most difficult and challenging businesses I have ever embarked on. At my last count, there are over 572 titles so you need to have a unique product offering. Initially, advertisers have a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, so I had to hussle and push, making use of all the contacts I had built up.
Consumers are very sophisticated and the product must speak for itself, so our strategy is to back our sales pitch with an excellent product. I try to impress upon the team that we are only as good as our last performance and when we have a bad issue, I tell them. Nothing goes to print without me seeing it first.
E: Entrepreneurship is about innovation and succeeding against the odds. where have you been the most innovative?
BK: In the area of media. I have extrapolated many facets of it, from presenting to producing to publishing, writing – the scope is so wide and I have tried to become a media specialist.
E: Has innovation ever caused failure and how did you overcome it?
BK: My husband and I were invited to buy into a Spar in Bryanston and we invested in it, but it was bleeding from day one. The numbers looked good, but we ended up having to go to court and pay huge amounts of money. I learned a very hard lesson about knowing when to cut your losses and walk away. Also, signing surety is a bad thing! I did it three times, when I was 20 and young and naïve, and I won’t do it again.
|What Bassie sees as the key aspects of developing a personal brand
The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising.
Once born, a brand needs advertising to stay healthy.
A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.
The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity.
In the long run, a brand is nothing more than a name and how that name is perceived.
E: What is Bassie planning on doing next?
BK: I want to start consolidating and making sure that the future direction holds a clear and positive path. My next goal is to go to Georgetown and take up the scholarship and also to list the company.