If gaining access to funding is the biggest initial stumbling block for small businesses, managing growth is certainly the most significant second-stage challenge. Countless businesses, in spite of showing early promise have failed for one of many growth-related reasons, from lack of cash flow and skills to poor management expertise or insufficient infrastructure. But perhaps the biggest culprit is an unwillingness or inability on the part of the business owner to relinquish the iron-fist control that they grew used to exercising (and which was essential) when the business was growing. Unable to spread themselves across all areas of the business but unwilling to delegate tasks to others, such entrepreneurs doom their businesses to failure. Either that, or they end up selling to someone who can run a growing operation.
Chris Weylandt, founder of Weylandts furniture and lifestyle stores, is one of a rare breed of entrepreneurs who manage to grow with their business. The most successful among them are the Raymond Ackermans of the world – the people who manage to make the leap from profitable family-run or one-man businesses to major national operations. They know how to balance their entrepreneur’s ego with the cold hard fact that they can not conquer the world alone. Although he lists expansion as the biggest challenge he’s faced thus far, Weylandt quickly learned how to delegate to a hand-selected management team – and to put forward-looking systems and structures in place that could support the growth trajectory he had planned for his company. And while he might still describe himself as ‘hands-on’, he’s the first to admit that being hands-on when you have one store is very different from being hands-on when you’re running multiple stores in locations across the country.
But his success has not only been about managing growth. It’s also been about vision and setting new trends, about leading and finding new ways of doing things instead of following and copying what others are doing. Weylandt is lucky by his own admission to have a head for numbers as well as a feel for creativity, a combination that, unsurprisingly, has been a winning combination in his line of business. His eye for design has been invaluable in achieving his vision of creating a new kind of homestore retail space.
Weylandt grew up with the furniture business (his father owned a small family furniture store in Namibia) and although he studied to be a CA, he returned to his roots. During the five years in which he worked in the family business, he took over the manufacturing plant and started supplying South African furniture stores. “By 1996 I had grown frustrated with simply supplying the retailers – I wanted to get involved in merchandising. I understood the product and wanted to show it to clients in a different way. I wanted to bring a new kind of furniture retailing to the market. At that time, the homeware sector was just taking off and I realised there was a gap,” he relates.
Weylandt’s vision was to tap into the holistic focus on lifestyle that was emerging in the furniture and homeware markets. “What I had in mind was to sell a whole concept, a way of life, a lifestyle. It’s not about selling a sofa or a table – it’s about creating a space where customers can experience different looks and see a whole mix of products working together to form a living space,” he explains.
The first store was an instant success with the Cape Town public, but looking back on those early days, Weylandt admits that times were frequently tough. “Because I was a Namibian citizen, I really struggled to get permanent residence in South Africa, even though I had established a factory and was providing employment in the area. For similar reasons, it was also difficult to get finance for our first building. In the end, we funded things internally from the Namibian operation but there was only so much ready cash available. I had to juggle it very carefully between getting the building up and running, paying in advance for imports and running a new business. It was exciting but frequently challenging,” he relates. Soaring interest rates didn’t help matters, which makes Weylandt all the more proud that the first store was profitable almost from day one.
The look and feel of the Durbanville store came to characterise the unique Weylandts signature. “I wanted a destination store, which meant that location and the type of building were all-important. The multi-levelled building in Durbanville was perfect because it meant that customers could experience different displays and move through different areas on different levels. We put a crèche and a coffee shop in it so that people could come and enjoy the different lifestyle spaces. This was very important if we were to differentiate ourselves from other furniture stores.”
“But we also differentiated ourselves in what we put inside our stores,” he continues, “and part of developing the Weylandt’s handwriting was about creating a certain style that people couldn’t get anywhere else. Our products are both locally manufactured and imported but the distinctiveness arises out of how we mix them together to create a unique look. It’s quite European – clean and uncluttered – but at the same time it’s not like anything else. I believe that creating your own identity is vital – you can’t simply copy someone else – and that’s a principle that we’ve always stuck to. Our drive has always been to innovate and bring new things to the market.”
Getting this right means investing a great deal of time sourcing just the right mix of products. “Obviously your starting point is knowing what the market wants and this requires a fine understanding of current lifestyle trends. But at the same time, if you want to push the envelope it also involves educating the market about new trends and directions,” he says, adding that regular international travel has been invaluable in helping the company stay ahead of the curve. “However, you can’t simply copy what’s happening internationally – you need to add local flavour as each country’s market is quite specific. I get inspiration from Europe or Scandinavia but I apply it to our context here. The end result is something new and I always find that exciting,” he adds.
The Greenpoint store followed closely on the heels of the pilot outlet in Durbanville and Weylandt then turned his attention to Knysna, where he opened on the exclusive Thesen Island, a move prompted by Weylandt’s growing reputation. “We were approached by the developer of Thesen Island who wanted to get a shopping node going,” he explains. Knysna was still fairly close to home, however, and the company’s biggest learning curve came with the establishment of its first Johannesburg store in Fourways.
“It was our biggest challenge, without a doubt,” relates Weylandt, “In Cape Town we were starting a business, building a culture and sharing a vision with staff who were growing with us. Suddenly you open a store 2 000 kilometres away and it all changes. Bear in mind that we were still a young company with limited resources in terms of HR and training systems and I couldn’t be there all the time.” As so many other entrepreneurs have discovered before him, one of the biggest difficulties lay in ensuring that the company’s unique culture and brand integrity were not diluted by its growth. “We quickly realised that we needed to put a lot of emphasis on training. Fortunately for me, being so hands-on and close to the staff and operations in the beginning meant that I was totally familiar with all aspects of the business – from how to make the furniture, to assembling, marketing and selling it – so I could pass this knowledge on to new staff,” he says.
Logistics proved another significant challenge. “We’d always had a competitive advantage because we held a large amount of stock and could deliver items quickly, which meant customers didn’t have a long wait between choosing their furniture and taking delivery of it. But when we opened in Johannesburg we didn’t have a distribution centre to start off with. We’d deliver from Cape Town to a transit distribution centre and then on to the client but that had a lot of time implications. So we knew we needed to establish a mirror image in Johannesburg of what we had in Cape Town and that solved the problem,” he says.
But perhaps his biggest advantage lay in the fact that Weylandt recognised his own limitations. “When you can’t be in all places at once you have to ask where your back-up is. I knew that I needed people I could rely on to make decisions when I wasn’t there so three years ago I started to build a management team,” he explains. In doing so, he has focused on internal recruitment. “You can’t underestimate the value that experienced employees can bring to the company,” he says. And unlike many entrepreneurs who try to handle staff issues themselves, Weylandt has established an HR department to deal with personnel. “As the business grows, you realise that you are spending 90% of your time on people issues and this means that valuable time is not being spent on creative or strategic issues, the things that will take the business to the next level. Being able to hand these things over to HR has freed me up to focus on the business and where it’s going,” he explains.
Perhaps the reason so many entrepreneurs are reluctant to give up control of various aspects of their businesses is the fear that implementing hierarchical structures will remove them from the coalface and slow down decision-making processes. It’s not an entirely unjustified concern. Small businesses have a competitive advantage over their larger peers because they can make decisions quickly and react to market changes first. Weylandt is well aware of the need for the business to remain nimble and as he points out, “I may have put various structures in place to improve how the business operates but we don’t have a board of directors. One of our enduring strengths has been our ability to identify market trends and changes and respond to them quickly, and I believe we have retained that edge even as we’ve grown. The industry that we operate in undergoes constant change and evolution and we’ve managed to adapt and evolve with it.”
He’s also been able to balance the business growth with a period of consolidation. “In the past two years we haven’t expanded as it was important to have a period of consolidation after bringing in a management team. You’ll really kill a business if you don’t allow it time to absorb the changes that growth brings. So we’ve been concentrating on getting our house in order and now we’re starting to look to what the future holds for us in relation to our next growth phase,” Weylandt explains.
It’s a future that will see expansion not only in South but also in Southern Africa. “We’ve built a very strong infrastructure and we can now look at servicing more outlets – we’re looking at Durban and perhaps another store in Johannesburg,” he explains. But he’s quick to point out that the business is not interested in growth for growth’s sake. “I don’t ever want to be a mass retailer – it’s not our business model. We’re niche and specialised and that’s where we want to stay. This limits our local market to a certain extent which is why we’ve also turned our attention to expansion into Southern Africa where I believe many opportunities still exist,” he adds.
Chris Weylandt’s Advice to Aspirant Entrepreneurs
- Start off with a clear vision of what you want the business to be. You must have thought through the concept thoroughly and have a very clear understanding of what you want to achieve.
- Drive, passion and a positive attitude are invaluable in making a success of a business, particularly when you come up against challenges.
- You have to take risks and be willing to put everything on the line. A successful business never arises out of doing things in half measures so decide what you want to do and give it everything.
- Go with your gut!
Critical success factors
- Not worrying about what everyone else is doing and focusing on what I want the business to achieve.
- Building long-term relationships with suppliers all over the world – this helps to ensure that we are always able to source fresh and interesting pieces that reflect new trends.
- Travelling around the world and visiting trade and design fairs but never copying anything anyone else does. We take inspiration from global trends but mix products together in a way that is unique and locally relevant.
- Trusting the people I employ to make the right decisions but balancing this with leading by example, always communicating and following up to make sure that things happen as they should.
- Developing our own handwriting and identity, which gives us a unique competitive edge.
- It’s never my job to dictate a style – I can only offer ideas; a stitched together philosophy from my journeys around the world.