Businesswoman explains how to build a top retail company from scratch

In 1979, South Africans Margaret and Allan Hirsch started a mega appliance retail company, Hirsch’s. Their first store was no bigger than the size of a large bathroom, but the family-run business has since grown to become a well-known brand in South Africa, with 17 outlets across the country.

Margaret Hirsch

Margaret Hirsch

Margaret is Hirsch’s chief operations officer and has played an integral role in the company’s development. Last year the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa presented her with its top entrepreneurial award. This year she is one of the finalists for the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Where did the idea for Hirsch’s come from?

I was unemployed and my husband had the idea of opening a discount store with his boss. His boss told him that he wasn’t interested and if he wanted to have a discount store he should open one himself. So that’s what we did – we went ahead and started it ourselves.

Looking back, what would you say was the tipping point for Hirsch’s?

The tipping point was definitely the advent of the microwave oven. Nobody else knew what it was or how to use it and we started the first microwave cookery school in South Africa way back in 1979.

What have been some of your business failures, and what have you learned from them?

My biggest business failure was buying a readymade business that I thought would enhance my business. Instead it nearly crippled us. What I have learned from that is never to buy a business. You can always start [your own] off from nothing and mould it yourself.

Any plans to expand Hirsch’s in the rest of the continent?

At the moment we are so busy in South Africa. There is so much potential in South Africa. We are keeping our feet firmly on the ground in this country at the moment. I am very pro South Africa.

How do you inspire and retain employees?

What we have done with a lot of our employees is we have helped them to start their own businesses under our umbrella. For example, our drivers now own their own trucks and run their own businesses. Our technicians have their own businesses but they all work under our umbrella.

For the permanent staff that we have, we inspire them and motivate them daily and make sure that their own lives are continually made better as a result of working at Hirsch’s.

Drawing from your experience, what are the pros and cons of running a family business?

There are in fact only pros as it’s running a business with family and the people you love. It is a privilege to work with one’s children and to be able to mentor them and watch them grow in the family business.

What is the one thing you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

I wish I had known as much about the importance of motivation as I do now. I also wish I had known more about the value of positive thinking as it will always attract positive energy and growth.

Last year you were presented an award by President Jacob Zuma as the South African Businesswoman of the Year in the entrepreneurship category. What advice do you have for aspiring businesswomen on the continent?

My advice to businesswomen is very plain and simple:

  • You have to have a passion for what you do.
  • You have to work really, really hard.
  • You have to focus and be really the best at what you do.
  • You have to be in the business to serve. You always have to be there to serve your customers.
  • You have to have a really good idea and do something that somebody else has never done if you want to set yourself apart from the rest.

The last and most important one is you have to persist. You just have to keep going even when you think you are never going to make it [because] the winner is the one who just keeps going.

Where would you like to see Hirsch’s in the next 10 years?

I would like to see Hirsch’s as the most sought after employer in South Africa.