Lessons from one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs, Quinton van der Burgh, on why you should always be thinking long term.
Mining magnate, TV producer, tech entrepreneur and investor, Quinton van der Burgh, founder of Quinton van der Burgh Investments, has built up an impressive portfolio, was listed as one of Forbes ’Ten Young African Millionaires To Watch in 2013 and he’s not yet 40.
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His secret? Part risk-taker, part long-term thinker, this entrepreneur never makes decisions based on short-term needs. He believes that if you want to build real, sustainable wealth, you need to always be looking to the future.
The power of integrity
“The best lesson I’ve ever learnt in business is that money comes and goes,” says van der Burgh.
“You’ll make mistakes. If you’re a risk-taker, like I am, you’ll probably lose a lot of money along the way. But that’s okay. Every failure is an opportunity to learn as well. What’s important is to have a long-term vision, and to focus on building a solid relationship based on integrity.”
Van der Burgh learnt the hard way that not everyone sticks to their word. “I moved to London in my early 20s. I had a job reselling second-hand cellphones and 14-day returns. My deal was for commission only, 10% of each sale, which amounted to £1 per phone. In my first month I sold 30 000 phones, then 60 000 and 80 000. Within three months I should have made the equivalent of R3 million.
"Shocked by how much I was selling, my boss reneged on our agreement. I was in the UK alone, sharing a house with 14 other people, and I couldn’t pay my bills, even though I was working more than 14 hours a day.”
The experience taught van der Burgh that he had no intention of being a businessman who went back on his word. His clients quickly learnt that if he made promises, he’d go above and beyond to make sure they happened.
It’s a trait that’s particularly important when something goes wrong. “In tough times people often want to milk the system. They want to take what they can, and end up alienating clients and partners in the process. It’s such a short-sighted way of viewing the world, and business in particular. I’d rather go broke, back to nothing and build myself up again than do that. Today’s failure could be a much bigger opportunity down the line.”
Taking the knock
Van der Burgh is true to his word. While still in the UK, he left his boss and went out on his own. With no capital, he needed to rely on his clients paying him upfront, which he used to purchase large orders of phones from the service providers, and ship them off.
It was a successful system, until a dodgy supplier ran off with not only all of his savings, but R6 million of a South African client’s money as well.
“I promised the client I would pay back every cent,” says van der Burgh. “For the next few months everything I made went towards servicing that debt. I could have called it a bad debt, lost a client for life, and walked away. That’s not the way I want to do business.
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"My number one rule is to have integrity, and always honour what I say I’ll do. This is an integral part of always looking long-term though. I always knew I wanted to build an empire. That doesn’t happen by making short-term decisions. It happens when you look at the 10 year plan, and care about the business you’ll be doing with your clients down the line. I still have a relationship with that customer almost 20 years later.”
Van der Burgh has an unshakable belief in relationships. “They come first. When markets shift, I take the hit. Over the years I’ve taken a lot on the chin. Too often I’ve seen markets dip, and people start panicking, which leads to cutting corners and doing shady deals. That’s how you burn bridges. It might be a short-term solution, but it’s not a long-term one, and I always look long-term.”