One of the first things you notice about Mary Holroyd is her size. She’s absolutely tiny. Sitting in the waiting room of her Johannesburg office, I’m taken by surprise when this diminutive woman smiles and puts out her hand to me, apologising for keeping me waiting. I was expecting someone larger.
Someone shoulder-padded. A powerhouse of a businesswoman. After all, this is someone who won IMM Marketing Man of the Year. I expected to be intimidated. So, I’m ready to get down to business immediately and uncover the nitty-gritty details of what it’s taken to build the 32-year-old Weigh-Less empire. I have a list of questions to get through.
But Holroyd isn’t playing along. She laughs and talks about her UK childhood and Irish family. She asks about my family. I deflect her questions, steering her deftly (or so I think) back to the hard-nosed stuff of business. But it doesn’t work, and eventually I give in and let the conversation flow.
As I listen to her talking, it slowly dawns on me that what I’m seeing is the story of Weigh-Less. The secret to Holroyd’s success lies in precisely what she’s doing with me right now. Talking, listening, empathising – she’s totally, 100% engaged. And I realise that yes, Weigh-Less is a business empire and yes, Holroyd is a businesswoman of some merit, but that the essence of the company doesn’t lie in the answer to a question about strategy or systems or overcoming cash-flow challenges.
It lies in the fact that Holroyd has created something few entrepreneurs manage. She’s taken her unique personality – that intangible, slippery, hard-to-quantify thing that drew people to her initially and made her first Weigh-Less slimming groups so successful – and managed to replicate it throughout a business that employs over 1 300 field staff and holds over 2 900 meetings a month.
The reason this is relevant is because the ‘product’ Weigh-Less sells is not a diet plan or even the recipe to a healthy lifestyle. It’s not a magazine or a range of food products (although the company has both of these). What Weigh-Less sells is a sense of belonging.
It’s a club and no one understands this better than Holroyd. “As a former fat person, I will never forget what it was like to go to a slimming club for the first time. I will never forget how much I wanted to be accepted. And I never let my group leaders forget it either,” she says.
Holroyd started her first few groups in Durban in 1975 with just a bathroom scale and R10 to pay for printing and advertising. She ran the early groups herself and says that doing so was driven more by the need to be accepted as a foreigner into the local community than by any thought of starting a business.
But the fact remained that she was good at what she did and word spread about “Mary’s groups”, as the locals termed them. She took on more and more members but running every single group was never a realistic option. So when the company grew, she needed to hand over new groups to new leaders.
And what better people to sell the Weigh-Less journey than those who have travelled it? Every group leader is a former Weigh-Less member. As Holroyd explains, this makes them uniquely qualified to lead other people through the Weigh-Less experience: “Being a former group member means they understand the experience from the member’s point of view.
They know what it feels like to be a member and to want to lose weight. They know what it feels like to have a group leader who empathises with them and encourages them. They know how good it feels to belong to that group. And because of all these things, they know how to replicate that experience for others.”
It’s a simple concept, harnessing the immense power inherent in what is essentially referral marketing. But in 1975, when Holroyd implemented this ‘strategy’, the term hadn’t even been coined. “I’m just a housewife and I did what made sense,” she says. “Okay, I eventually did my MBA, but that was at 50 and I left school at 15.
I didn’t know anything about business. But I did know what it felt like to be a member and I just followed that.” In every decision she makes about the company, Holroyd says she keeps her members top of mind. “Take my field away and I’m blind,” she admits. “I need to be in touch with my members and my groups – from a business and personal point of view. Having that connection helps me make the right decisions for the company.”
These decisions have led to the growth of the company in a number of different directions, but Holroyd has ensured that the essence of Weigh-Less is at the heart of everything. In 1979, she launched the first Weigh-Less endorsed food item.
“The impetus behind that decision was members complaining that they didn’t have time to weigh their food, and couldn’t I develop a breadroll that they wouldn’t have to weigh. They told me if they could just have such a breadroll, they’d never cheat again, and that set me off! Because I was always looking for the one thing I could do or say or give members so that they would never cheat again and just lose weight,” she laughs.
Bakers manufactured the first breadroll. The SlimSlab, manufactured by Beacon and now synonymous with Weigh-Less, soon followed. A slimmer’s Melrose cheese wedge came next. “Every one of these products was developed because a member had requested it initially, or indicated that those things would help them in their Weigh-Less eating plan. It all starts with the members,” says Holroyd.
Today the brand endorses a range of products manufactured by other companies, as well as their own Weigh-Less range. Although the company is not involved in the manufacture of these ranges, it has strict licensing agreements, guidelines and contracts signed with each manufacturer.
“The fact that those products have our name on them is a massive responsibility, and one that I take very seriously,” says Holroyd. “They have to be of benefit to our members.” This guiding principle also sparked the launch of the Weigh-Less magazine. Now a bi-monthly glossy publication that sells thousands of copies, Holroyd recalls that it had humble beginnings.
“It started as a photocopied and stapled leaflet, but there were three core elements back then that it still retains today: a member success story, a group leader article and recipes,” she says. The magazine has been an integral part of extending the members’ sense of belonging so important to the Weigh-Less ethos. It was followed inevitably by the Weigh-Less website, which has 95 000 e-members and, as Holroyd points out, is where her next challenge lies.
“How do you create the Weigh-Less feeling of belonging in the virtual world? I believe that it can be done, that it’s possible to create vibrant online communities,” she explains.
Is there any chance of the website replacing the groups in the field? To this she answers an emphatic no. “I believe there will always be a place for the human touch because ultimately, that’s what Weigh-Less is about. Anyone can go on to a website and download recipes or photocopy the book.
What you can’t photocopy or download is the experience of being part of a Weigh-Less group. You can’t photocopy the encouragement you get each week, or the sense of pride you feel when you are applauded for reaching your goal weight,” she says. Having said that, the food, magazine and website undoubtedly play a key role in building and maintaining the Weigh-Less brand.
“I didn’t plan any of it – they sort of fell into place. I guess I was just following what made sense at the time,” she says, when asked about the brand’s growth strategy. “Years later, when I did my MBA, I learned all the terms about what we’d done at Weigh-Less, but in a way I was glad that I only did it later on in life.
Because you can know too much and I don’t think I’d ever have started the company if I’d read about all those things a business is supposed to be about! But I didn’t know, so I was guided by what I felt my members needed. I just went with what I felt was right.”
Going with her gut is something Holroyd feels strongly about – and with good reason. She ignored it once and came close to losing the company as a result. She remembers the period as one of the most difficult in the history of Weigh-Less. Realising that member retention rates and standards were dropping, she made a great effort to get back ‘into the field’ and in touch with group leaders and members.
But this involved long periods away from the office and she turned to ‘professionals’ for assistance in running things and hiring new people in these roles. “I felt at the time that I needed specific fields of expertise in the financial and managerial sectors,” she explains.
For a while, everything went to plan until Holroyd started to learn, through a grapevine of disgruntled long-standing employees and managers, of directives being issued from head office without her knowledge that threatened to undermine the fabric of the company.
One instruction was for group leaders to shred the Weigh-Less manual. “A new manual was put into the field, which left out all the major critical success factors of our company – the cultural communication and people skills specific to Weigh-Less, which is the heart of the company,” Holroyd relates, adding that the next change was a subtle removal of all staff who were close to her.
“Loyal staff were being demoted and dismissed, and I was being convinced that this was for the good of the company,” she says. A long-standing branch manager expressed concerns to Holroyd that the head of the management team was connected to a competitive company. But the person in question simply provided a convincing explanation and victimised the accuser until she was forced to resign.
Trying to fix the problems in the field and with her attention diverted away from head office, Holroyd admits that it took a while for her to realise how far the poison had spread in the company. The lightbulb moment eventually came when a member of the new management team openly challenged her during a meeting. Recognising that there was something deeply wrong, she set about investigating exactly what had been going on.
What she discovered was disturbing. One group, for example, was losing R10 000 a month. The team of professionals she’d brought in had not only undermined what she had built, but had neglected to do the most basic managerial tasks.
Looking back, Holroyd says she blames herself for what happened and although the incident took place many years ago, the lesson she learnt is still fresh in her mind. Writing about that period in her autobiography, she says: “An entrepreneur must never lose sight of the fact that the biggest qualification they’ve got is sitting in their gut.
You taste it and feel it. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. Don’t ever think because you haven’t got an MBA or BCom or any other degree, you’re any less qualified to know what’s right for your company.” With characteristic determination, Holroyd took the bull firmly by the horns and wrestled the problem to the ground. In the end, she says that the learning curve was invaluable, forcing her to scrutinise the way the company conducted the business side of things.
“I learned that information is vital,” she says, explaining the complete analysis she conducted of the business before investing in information systems that would help to ensure that she would always have her finger on the company’s pulse.
She also learnt the meaning of ‘non-negotiable’ and they’re words she’s not afraid to use. She makes sure things are done her way. And so, finally, I get to see the hard-nosed businesswoman I came expecting to find. What becomes clear by the end of our conversation is the fact that, while the heart might be what’s immediately evident on meeting Mary Holroyd, it’s balanced by the wisdom of an astute business head. And the combination of the two are worth more than their weight in gold.
One of the most important lessons you can learn is the difference between delegation and abdication. At the end of the day, you’re the one who gets into bed with it. Don’t give anyone total responsibility in your business if it’s just a job to them. Don’t let anyone make decisions for your whole company on a “just a job” attitude.
Information has a vital role to play. It tells which direction to pursue and where to place your time and effort. The times when you aren’t sure which way to go are the times that you don’t have enough information at your fingertips.
Take time to talk to staff and ask them in the corridors how it’s going. You can have daily management meetings but nothing replaces those personalised questions. It keeps you in touch with what’s going on and where people are at.
In the real world you can’t have a monthly meeting and just rely on the fact that everyone goes away and does what was agreed. I don’t care how professional people are, I have learned that they still need to be followed up.