The journey so far: Margaret Hirsch, co-founder, Hirsch’s
Margaret Hirsch is the co-founder and the chief operations officer of Hirsch’s, a South African homeware and appliances store that has branches across the country.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
As you know, we [her husband Allan Hirsch, co-founder of Hirsch’s] started in 1979 and by 1988 we felt we had made it. We had bought a beautiful house of our dreams and paid for it. We owned our cars, our business was running well and we owned the property we were in.
Business was growing and we were able to buy other businesses that were coming up. We had paid all our debts. We had R2m in the bank, which was a lot of money in those days, and we thought everything was made in heaven.
Then somebody said that we should expand to Pietermaritzburg. We thought it was a really good idea, as we both had [schooled] in Pietermaritzburg. We went and had a look and we found a company which was up for sale.
It was [owned by] an older man [who had] three sons. He said that his sons were never going to run his business and [that] it would be perfect for us to buy. He wanted R2m for it. I [told] Allan that this must have [meant] to happen because we had R2m in the bank.
We bought [the business]. We then found out it wasn’t worth one cent. It was hopelessly insolvent.
Although it had taken us 10 years to make the first R2m, I made it back within two years. And then we went on from strength to strength. My message to everybody is: no matter what happens when the rug is pulled out from beneath you and everything falls flat, you can always get up and start all over again.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
We have won numerous awards and I was proud when my husband won Marketing Man of the Year. I was proud when I won Most Influential Businesswoman in Africa. For me, it was fantastic because I won it [when] I was 64 years old. In that year, there was also the Most Influential Man in Africa Award, and that was won by Richard Maponya.
At that stage, Richard was 84. When most people are 64 and 65, they start thinking of retiring, but Richard Maponya [winning that award] and him being 84 made me realise that I had another 20 years of life in business still to go. This really changed my life around.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I am a sucker for a good story. [When] people come to me with a fantastic story, I take them in and I usually find that it’s far from the truth. I find I am too trusting, and in the beginning, I trusted everybody.
Today, I am more sceptical and check everybody out. Today, with social media, it’s much easier to check people out than it was in the old days. So, now I check everybody out on social media before I believe what they say and take them under my wing.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
When somebody wants to start a business the first thing everybody says is: “Where are you going to get your funding from? Go and borrow the money for funding.” I believe this is completely wrong. What we did at Hirsch’s is [that] we started small and ploughed every cent back into the business for many years.
In fact, for probably 25 or 30 years, every single cent was ploughed back into the business – and even today whatever money we make is ploughed back into our business to improve it. My advice to entrepreneurs is to never borrow a cent. Sell your skills, in the beginning, to get yourself money. Don’t waste your money.
I always say God gives you a little bit of money and he sees how you handle it. If you handle it well, he gives you more. If you waste it, he doesn’t give you any more, so you have to be careful with your money. Invest it back into the business, don’t spend it, don’t go out and buy those big houses and cars until you can afford them and the business is doing well.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
I will be 70 next year and I am now doing my MBA. I wish that I had educated myself better when I was younger. I wish I had done my degrees when I was younger. I wish I had my MBA when I was 30, instead of 70. It would have made a huge difference to my business.
‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip.