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‘I had a vision and made it happen’

Despite challenges, my goal was to own a brand, says the owner and director of Wölsch Africa, Chris Sefate.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner with Moneyweb we speak to the owner and director of Wölsch Africa, Chris Sefate. Welcome.

CHRIS SEFATE: Thank you for inviting me.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Talk us through your business. What is it that you do?

CHRIS SEFATE: I’m a sole distributor of Wölsch watches, but I always refrain from saying “watches”. These are timepieces. I’m the sole distributor for Wölsch timepieces for the whole of Africa. I negotiated with good faith with the guys from overseas, so that’s where I am. But just to give you my background. I’ve worked in sales and marketing, which I’ve done for the past 16 to 17 years, working in the fast-moving consumer goods [FMCG] industry. So that’s where the entrepreneurial bug bit me to negotiate with other guys and bring products to South Africa, as we are the hub of Africa in terms of importing brands.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: How did you find yourself in this particular business? You speak of your skill of having to negotiate and strike a deal where you are now a sole distributor of this brand.

CHRIS SEFATE: When you work in sales and marketing, as I’ve just mentioned, you learn a lot of things in terms of being a businessman. So I learnt much in the corporate sector – how to negotiate, how to do the costing. And then that’s where I said to myself let me go and get a product that will represent me as a sales and marketing person. My goal was to own a brand.

In working in sales and marketing one was always given a brand to sell – and that’s when I said I’m capable of doing this.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Why then did you choose this particular route, as opposed to starting a business from scratch?

CHRIS SEFATE: That’s a good question, Tumi. When we grew up in the township we always had a love for beautiful things, and I always had love for timepieces. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford them then. But then I started working and I bought some timepieces and said: one day I need to have my own [brand]. I started looking around – as a sales person you’re always inquisitive – and then I came across these guys at Wölsch. I negotiated with them via email about three times and a fourth time on Skype – we are privileged to have this technology – and they were very interested in engaging with me. They could see that I could bring the brand here to South Africa. The brand was only available on online shopping. If you go to my website and my Instagram you can see what I’ve done with the brand.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Tell us more about your sales background. How has that helped you in your current line of work? You speak of sales and you speak of marketing. We have this boom where social media is playing a big role, where advertising and letting people know about products is a big deal.

CHRIS SEFATE: I think when I speak of my background in sales and marketing, when I started working for one of the big corporates I was actually trained as a sales trainee rep, where you go to different market segments. Because it was in FMCG you go to quick-service restaurateurs, you go to wholesalers, you go to corner shops, you go to townships – and that’s how you actually learn how the markets are different. You also learn about LSMs, which are the living standard measures, and that’s where I applied my trade.

While working for a big corporate I was promoted to sales manager, where I was doing trade marketing, which is where you sign the big deals with all the big guys. That’s when I realised that I could do costings because those are the things that you need to know to apply in terms of the marketing – where you do marketing, how you calculate costings, and how to run a business. I believe that we as South Africans are capable of being among the biggest entrepreneurs.

It’s all about marketing

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Tell us about you working within this business and making it a sustainable brand right here at home. How has that been received?

CHRIS SEFATE: It has been received very well. You’ll be surprised when people come to your desk at an exhibition and they ask who are you working for. I’m a perfectionist and I love what I’m doing, especially in marketing. We had to start with getting the name Wölsch out there, so we started with our website and also our Instagram. It’s the way to go. We had to make sure that the brand represented the right market in South Africa.

 

 

The same applies if you look at what’s going on in Sandton. It’s one of the biggest shopping malls in Africa and what you get there is all the luxury items. I think that’s the reason why I chose this brand. It’s all about marketing  – and not just by word of mouth; it’s the actions that you take.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: How has the business been received locally?

CHRIS SEFATE: So far the business has been received very well because, when I signed the contract in May 2016, from then until September I was working behind the scenes doing the marketing material. Then in October 2016 we launched the business formally. People were invited to see what we had brought into South Africa. We started trading in November and so far we’ve sold about 150 units of these luxury watches. It’s been tough out there. We’re currently in a recession but, other than that, I’m not complaining. People love our brand. People also like our Facebook and our Instagram [pages] but we want to make more sales, not only in South Africa. We hold the licence to distribute this brand throughout Africa. I’m waiting for other people to approach me and we [can] take the brand to other African countries.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: That said, what challenges have you faced in this journey? Share some with us.

CHRIS SEFATE: As an entrepreneur you wouldn’t like to sit in my chair; it’s so difficult. The first one that I can share is the cash flow. We seem to have a problem with cash flow when it comes to SMEs. The second one has to do with bureaucracy – and I’m talking about the big guys who have been in the game. When we approach them and say we have a product, can you please put it in your stores, they just refuse.

I don’t know why, we are just small guys. The third one is the funding. As I’m speaking to you, Tumi, this is a self-funded business. I used all my savings. But I can’t despair, I’m looking forward to looking after this brand, and I know that there will be one person who will come and say they believe in me and take the brand forward. So those are the challenges that we’re facing. And obviously paying our staff – and that goes back to our cash flow. Other than that the market has accommodated us, and when I say “market” I’m talking about the consumers.

The transition from employment to entrepreneurship

TUMISANG NDLOVU: I’m glad you raised that, especially about the funding issue. I wanted to ask you about the transition from formal employment to being an entrepreneur. How did you experience that transition?

CHRIS SEFATE: It’s a very difficult transition because you seem to hurt other people, because you take the money that you are supposed to save for retirement. I’ve taken most of the money that I had and some of the money on my pension to start this business. But I’m an entrepreneur and I’m a risk-taker, so why not? It’s taken my savings money and my pension money to open this business, but the challenge is when you buy things from overseas they want cash up front and you pay in dollars. So that’s another challenge, the exchange rate. And you’ve also got to pay customs to bring the brand into South Africa. So those are the challenges of the transition to becoming an SME, especially when importing goods tino South Africa or Africa.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: What then are your views on the current state of the SME space in South Africa? Is there enough support for entrepreneurs?

CHRIS SEFATE: I’m happy you’ve asked that question. I always tell my peers that if government can do something with regard to SMEs, that will be justice for us. We do go and knock on doors but unfortunately people just sit there and they look at us as if we don’t know what we are doing. We want support from our government, and not only monetary support.

The support should be at a primary school level. We as SMEs need to be taught in primary school because we only get exposed to entrepreneurship when we’re at corporate level. For us to start at corporate we’ve actually exhausted a lot of time, I’m 44 years old, I should have actually started this when I was about 30 but, because I’m passionate about it, I decided I’m going forward.

So those are the things we are facing, government needs to support us. I’m the first black person to go overseas and get this brand. I’ve just signed up another two watch brand companies, but where will I get funds from to buy those brands?

But I said because I’m a visionary I will make this happen and one day when you go to all these big shopping centres you will see our stores. That’s my goal.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Lastly, how would you advise a young person looking to get into the SME space?

CHRIS SEFATE: My advice is get a mentor, a person whom you look up to, and not just someone you know from the street but a person you grew up with in the community, because it will be easy for them to transfer what they are actually doing on a daily basis. Obviously, if you have a family member who’s running a business, then ask to go and volunteer for those kinds of things.

Also read, read and read. Don’t just go onto Twitter and Facebook. You need to read business books, read books that will inspire you to change someone’s life. Being an SME is a tough game to move in. It’s a tough game because I know what I’m going through now, but I’m not scaring anyone – let them come in. In future I would love to volunteer at high schools or assist university graduates because I started my journey in this without any formal education in terms of university. But now I’m qualified and I’ve got two diplomas. It’s theory and practical, these are the most important things you need to learn. I’d like to support other people who want to be mentored and they can learn from the mistakes that I’ve made in business. I might have even made some mistakes that I don’t know about. But I’d love to mentor those guys and say this is what’s done in business. Obviously you need to appoint an accountant in your business because if you don’t you won’t know what’s going on with your funds because you’ll keep spending without knowing how to do your books.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Thank you so much, we wish you all the best.

CHRIS SEFATE: Thank you very much.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: That was the owner and director of Wölsch Africa, Chris Sefate, in this week’s SME Corner with Moneyweb.

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