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Updated 30 Sep 2020

Growth lessons from an empire builder extraordinaire

Growth lessons from the man who turned R17 000 into R500 million, wasn’t ready to retire, and is now doing it all over again. 

Monique Verduyn, Entrepreneur, 16 August 2013  Share  0 comments  Print

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He’s already proven his entrepreneurial chops, but Durban-based Brett Latimer is at it again. By turning customers into fans, he’s shaken up the food business in South Africa’s most laidback city, taking his store’s turnover from R4 million to R34 million – in its first month.

Three steps to high-impact growth

1. Staff

Latimer cares for his employees as if they were family. He greets them every day, provides training and incentives to do well and, most importantly, he pays them well.

2. Customers

Latimer did his homework before opening the store, identifying that there was a gap in the LSM 5 to 10 market for a one-stop food shop that was a cut above the rest when it comes to variety, quality and customer service.

3. Price

By going direct to farmers and suppliers, Latimer has stripped out unnecessary layers from his business model, making it possible to pass the resulting cost-savings on to his customers.

From modest beginnings

Small taxi-rank butchery or high-quality foodmarket, Brett Latimer’s understanding of trends has fuelled growth.

Charismatic and super-energetic, Brett Latimer exudes the magnetism of a celebrity. Not quite what you would expect from your grocer. But that’s probably why he’s been so ridiculously successful.

Latimer’s father, a boxer, died when he was 11, but he taught him a very important lesson: When you get knocked down, get up again immediately. It’s a mantra that he’s lived by all his life. He struggled at school, and was no academic achiever.

After failing a couple of times, his mother sent him to Damelin, where he did commerce and typing. He had planned to study law at university, but he soon realised that tertiary education was not for him.

Luckily, when he turned 18, he received an inheritance of R17 000. Both his father and grandfather had been butchers, so it was natural for him to follow suit, especially because he idolised both of them. But first he needed to learn the trade.

He joined the Avonmore Spar in Durban as a trainee manager. There he learnt all about how to buy meat, debone and cut it.

He also got to work with staff at all levels, and gained experience in dealing with people from all walks of life, which taught him the value of being friendly and polite to everyone.

By age 22 he had invested his inheritance in a small butcher shop in Overport. Thanks to the position of the butchery close to the taxi rank, he sold a lot of pre-packed meat for busy consumers. Two years later, he sold the store for 100% profit.

 Oxford Freshmarkets

Next, in the early 80s, he bought a rundown store in Isipingo,  again catering for taxi commuters and blue collar workers. He set up braais outside the shop to attract shift workers with the aroma of meat on the fire, recognising a gap in the market that would develop into today’s highly popular shisa nyama fast-food craze.

Latimer stayed in the meat business for many years, at one point owning 17 butcheries including seven located inside Boxer Cash and Carry Stores, all of which catered to the working class. Over the years he consolidated these down to six Cambridge Food stores, which he sold for more than R500 million to JSE-listed Massmart between 2008 and 2010.

By that time, he says, he felt like he’d been driving the same car for years and it was time to trade it in for a new ride. After a short sabbatical, he got together with his business partner Paul Beltramo, and invested R75 million in a new store in Tara Road on The Bluff, one of the most densely traded streets in the area, and called it Oxford Freshmarket.

He made the move, he says, because he believes the future lies in high-quality food. Given the shift in the role that food plays in our lives and in our culture, he’s definitely on the right track. Food has become more than one of life’s great pleasures.

Think Masterchef. It’s a signifier of style, too. The notion that ‘you are what you eat’ extends beyond the virtues of a nutritious, well-balanced diet. Beyond the overwhelming popularity of reality TV cooking shows, food and cooking websites are attracting 70 million visitors each month.

These days, it often seems that you are what you buy in the supermarket, or at the organic farmer’s market. The grocery list has become a reflection of people’s values and identity. Food is the new fashion, and Latimer is cashing in on the trend.

Staffing solutions

Employees who shine

Latimer has tons of praise for his staff who, he says, make all the difference when it comes to customer service. We asked him what makes them so nice. “We pay people well.

The entry level salary is R3 000 a month. We have employees who started on that and are now earning R8 000. Also, our staff are full-time and not on contract. We’ve created a family of around 350 people who are all 100% invested in the business.”

But how does he get that right?

“I engage with the staff every day. I greet all of them. We hug, we squeeze. I promise you that one thing I have learnt over time is that every single human being longs for some form of recognition.

They want you to ask them how they are and to listen to the answer. That’s why we also employ for attitude, not excellence; we want friendly people who are looking for an opportunity and want to be part of our movie. We want people who are committed to improving themselves. They know that we are there for them. This is their Oxford university of life.”

What training do you provide?

The training is done by me and my partner Paul. It’s all based on hands-on experience that we have gained over many years in the business.

We specifically avoided hiring an HR manager until now because we wanted to establish our own principles and values first and then have that person take those forward. The point is that we want our employees to be followers — we don’t want to beat people to get them to work.

The lesson: A strong growth strategy requires a focus on staff. Latimer has always encouraged his staff to feel like the business is a part of them. He cares about them, and they care about the business as a result.

Keeping Customers

The customer experience difference

There are several upmarket food retailers in the country. What’s different about Oxford Freshmarket compared to other food stores?

“Our customers love us. It’s what we call a destination store. It’s in a convenient location which makes it easy for people to drive right up to the shop and park outside. You walk into a store with a dramatic open plan flow, which has a fairly industrial feel with beautiful finishes, like a cross between a Woolworths and a Makro. It’s segmented into areas for fresh produce, a butchery, a bakery and a grocery section. Each area is staffed by people who have expertise in what they are selling. They are invested in what they do and behave as if it’s their own business.

Yeah, yeah… What else?

The store opens at 6.00am and it closes at 9.00pm. We’re all about convenience. Like our signage says, ‘We’ve done our homework with you in mind.’

When customers come to the store, they can see the staff working in the butchery section and they can watch the bakers making bread. At other stores, you don’t see that. Everything is pre-packaged and the process of buying is completely impersonal.

 Oxford Freshmarkets

Here, we treat customers like we want to be treated. We greet our customers. We thank them for coming to shop at Oxford Freshmarket. We help them put their purchases in their car and we wave them goodbye.

What’s with the mic and the PA system?

I love what I do. I’m over the top. I get on the mic and tell customers about our specials. When we’re busy and we have no time to meet, I give the staff updates on what they need to know.

We have nothing to hide from our customers. They’re part of the family. It’s all about talking to people all the time. A few weeks ago I went to a restaurant for dinner.

The owner walked past our table several times and did not greet us once. That’s terrible service and I won’t be going back. At Oxford Freshmarket, the customer experiences the exact opposite.

The lesson: When you devise a business model, think about the customer first. What do they really need? If you can answer this question and build something that really suits them, whether it’s a product, store or service, you will always have customers.

Pricing difference

Great prices without quality sacrifices

Latimer was forward-thinking enough when he sold Cambridge Foods to Massmart to ensure that he concluded a preferential procurement deal with them. It’s one of the factors that made it possible for Oxford Freshmarket to cater for the masses of customers who lined up outside the store in its first month.

What he’s also done is cut unnecessary layers out of the business and focused on connecting directly with suppliers and farmers as much as possible. This allows him to cut out extremely expensive financial and retail middlemen.

“It means we can sell a fillet for R109, compared to other retailers where customers pay R200 for the same cut. We go direct where possible, which enables us to cut out a lot of unnecessary expenditure. It requires you to work longer hours because you are driving to farms and markets, but it does mean you can pass the savings on to your customers. I’m a great admirer of Raymond Ackerman and he once said to me, “Remember that rich people like low prices and poor people need them.”

Latimer insists that Oxford Freshmarket is the only food retailer that sells everything under one roof, which also helps to ensure that savings are passed on to customers.

“We do the shopping for the consumer so that they don’t have to go from store to store to get the freshest and best quality food items.”

The lesson: Finding the right price is all about understanding your customers and aligning their expectations with your prices. The next step is reviewing your business model carefully and seeing where you can curb unnecessary expenditure.

Super start-up opportunity

We asked Brett Latimer what he would do today if he was a young entrepreneur having to bootstrap himself to success.

“If I wanted to go into business as a young person today, the first thing I would suggest is make sure that every time you go into something, have an exit strategy, or what I call a back door.”

Why? Because you need to know whether you are trying to establish a lifestyle business that generates income without plans to sell it in the future, or you are building equity in a business that you may want to transform into cash.

Depending on your goals, the type of business you choose and the way you grow it should be aligned with your objectives.

If, one day, you plan to exit your business and transform your equity into cash through a sale, you need to prepare for that every step of the way. You’ll need to build value and equity in your company by selling great products, backed by unique services and relationships.

The container concept

There are great opportunities for young entrepreneurs that Latimer wants to offer under the Oxford Freshmarket banner.

“In Durban there is a wonderful coffee shop called Freedom Café, which is housed in a converted red shipping container with a glass extension. It’s attractive and filled with quirky details like dachshund salt and pepper holders.

“I’d like to see young people who want to get into retail buying containers like this one and turning them into retail outlets equipped with a refrigerator. I’ve even registered a name for these stores — Hit ‘n Run — because they’ll cater for people who need to stop in quickly on the way home to buy meat, vegetables, bread and groceries.”

Latimer says he is a great believer in entrepreneurship and wants to encourage interested people to take the opportunity to go into supermarket retail. In line with the model he envisages, the container-based stores would be franchises of Oxford Freshmarket and operate under its banner. However, he says, he would not charge a franchise fee.

“Under our brand we would set rules about minimum hygiene standards and create a list of products to be sold. I would advise entrepreneurs who are keen on the concept to set aside R100 000 for stock. We would provide them with model stock and advise them what the top sellers are in the market they are trading into, and enable them to come to Oxford Freshmarket to buy their stock at wholesale prices from us. We’d act as a cash-and-carry for them, but strip out all the additional costs, which would make them more competitive than other retailers in the space.”

Latimer says he sees enormous potential for this type of business model in the KwaZulu Natal hinterland. “Business owners could position themselves at taxi drop-off points, set up an instant shop with instant signage, and get all the mentoring and support they need in merchandising from us. They would even have the opportunity to buy the rights for a particular area and grow the number of stores they have.”

It’s a subject he feels strongly about because, he says, it’s black economic enrichment that is being promoted by government, but not actual empowerment. “We want to help and encourage all people who are keen to get into the supermarket retail trade so that they can truly change their lives.”

For more information on this exciting new concept, contact Oxford Freshmarket at [email protected]

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Monique Verduyn, Entrepreneur

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