Meet the Boss: Frans van der Colff, director, Fruit & Veg City Africa

"If you cannot make it in Africa, you cannot make it anywhere in the world in this day and age," says Frans van der Colff, director of Fruit & Veg City Africa and International.

“If you cannot make it in Africa, you cannot make it anywhere in the world in this day and age,” says Frans van der Colff, director of Fruit & Veg City Africa and International.

1. What was your first job?

I was a barman at Artscape Theatre. It was my very first job after I left school and I was at university.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake night?

Nothing really about the job because I think we are moving ahead and doing great things. But I think what keeps me awake is probably the health of our continent. It is about people not having enough opportunities. There are still people on our continent that can’t go to school, that go to bed without meals, that don’t have proper beds to sleep in, that die of malaria, and as a world I don’t think we are doing enough for the continent of Africa. I see lots of changes and I see a progression, but we are still not doing enough. And that’s probably what keeps me awake most of all: how can I try effect more change?

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

I would say Raymond Ackerman. I spent many years at Pick n Pay… I grew up in Pick n Pay. So I think he was an immense influence in my life. When we were young managers at Pick n Pay he used to spend time with us and he discussed the business and his vision and why he is doing what he is doing. But most of all I think his whole philosophy is that if you give, you will have a better business. So businesses that share and give will be more successful than businesses that keep everything to themselves – that has been a huge lesson for me.

Also, his passion for customer service. He used to go into a store and to the front of the tills and take a customer’s trolley, push it to her car for her, and put her groceries into her boot. He would say he learnt much more about his business that way, because obviously he would then talk with customers… But can you imagine the customer loyalty it creates if you go and shop at Pick n Pay, and there is Raymond Ackerman taking your bags to your car? That sort of thing is just one small example. He was an amazing influence in my life.

4. What is the best professional advice you have ever received?

It probably is about understanding your customers, knowing who you are catering for, but it is also simultaneously treating the people that work for you as customers as well… If we treat our staff well, they will treat our customers well, and those are the people that make our business happen. So it works both ways, on both sides. If you don’t treat the staff well, you won’t have a successful business, as much as if you didn’t treat your customers well.

5. And the top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I think firstly it is about having that dream and then putting it into action. It is about dedication. Nothing comes without hard work, and unfortunately in the retail business it entails long hours as well. So you have to be passionate and dedicated.

6. Where is the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

Both… I do believe academics gives you a certain grounding, but on the job is where you are going to get the real stuff, as long as we can take that theory and apply it to the reality… It is about taking the theory and making your business better. So it is 50/50 to me, I think you need a bit of business school and on the job [learning].

7. How do you relax?

Theatre, good food and wine, and a lot of reading, I am passionate about reading.

I am studying again at the moment… I am doing a PhD in Integral Management, so it is really about how we are finding new ways to make Africa a better place, and to make businesses in Africa more successful. It is about getting back to the African community and building on that, rather than the individualistic approach of what we would call the West. So it is finding an African solution for Africa – that’s really all it is. So I have a lot to read and that keeps me busy.

8. By what time do you like to be at your desk?

That is such a difficult one because I hardly ever have a desk. My desk is in an aeroplane and that sort of thing. Often those flights are at 6am or 7am, so I leave my home at 4am to get to an airport to travel. And then of course at hotels, inevitably one is awake quite early, and I do a lot of work in hotel rooms… So it really depends on where I am. But I do try live a healthy lifestyle and fit in some exercise as well, which might come first at times. I believe there must be a balance. We need to do our work thing, and as I said retail takes a lot of dedication, but we also need to relax and do those other things that are important for the mental health.

9. Favourite job interview question?

How would you make a difference to a company? What is it about you that will make this a different and better place at the end of the day? I think it is opened-ended enough for people to be able to explore what makes them and who they are. And you know everybody can make a difference. Whether you are a till operator in a company or the frontline supervisor or the CEO, you can make a difference. I think [potential employees] need to think about this and try to verbalise how they are going to make a difference – that will tell me what they think about themselves.

10. Your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?

If you cannot make it in Africa, you cannot make it anywhere in the world in this day and age. Africa has more opportunities than anywhere else.

So live your dreams, but remember to put that action into [realising] the dream.

Frans van der Colff is the director for Fruit & Veg City Africa and International. He was appointed in 2011 to head and grow all of the retailer’s operations outside of South Africa, which includes 12 countries.

Prior to joining Fruit & Veg City, he spent nearly 23 years in various management positions at Pick n Pay.