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Margaret Hirsch Business Woman of the Year Winner 2012

At eight a.m. on a Tuesday, a group of workers are dancing inside a huge retail store in Fourways, housing everything from fridges to furniture. I’ve been told to meet Margaret Hirsch.

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There she is, swaying back and forth unselfconsciously in black trousers and blouse, long hair falling loosely about her shoulders.  Suddenly silence. Margaret points randomly at a staff member, says “Tell us a motivational story.” Afterwards music from the band Glee blares forth, and everyone joins in singing ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’

By 8.30am it’s all over, staff scatter, and the tall blonde greets me with warm intensity and guides me to her office, a desk randomly situated in the midst of the showroom floor.

This is, after all, Margaret Hirsch, of Hirsch’s, the woman who was awarded 2012 Entrepreneurial Businesswoman of the Year by President Zuma; who in 2011 was anointed South Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Government; whose company generates R1bn turnover per annum, and still growing 20% annually.

This is someone who aged twelve, washed hair in a hair dressing salon each Saturday morning for 50c. And, this is also a person who lives part time in an apartment built on top of Hirsch’s Appliance and Electronics store in Meadowdale.

At 62 years-old, Margaret has all she could ever dream of, has nothing more to prove.  But she has no intention of stopping. She puts it this way “I thrive on people. My gift is to look at people and I see them not as they are, but as they can be. I see people when they come to me with nothing, and I see them as they are going to end up being when they have got all the things they want in their life. I help them get there. ”

Margaret hires each new staff member personally telling them “There are two important days in a person’s life. The first is the day they are born, and the second is the day they find out why. Your job is to find out why you are here and to list five most important personal goals, and your five business goals.”

She says most people want a motor car first, and usually about fifty staff members’ purchase new cars each year.
She is not being pompous. She just happens to know a thing or two about how to survive, thrive and likes to inspire others to reach their dreams.

Margaret’s journey began when at the tender age of eleven, her father died leaving her widowed mother impoverished and unable to support her and her six year-old brother. Margaret was placed in foster care in Pietermaritzburg, while her mother and brother moved to Durban where they rented a room in a relations house. Her mom worked in a clothing factory for R30.00 per month.

At sixteen Margaret went for her first work interview wearing a school uniform.   She recalls being in the school swimming team, and they had just finished swimming practice, her hair was dripping wet.  She got the job, and began her career working as a secretary in a legal firm.

Margaret married her husband and future business partner Allan at the age of twenty-one, he was twenty-four. Allan worked as a refrigeration technician earning R25 a week. He could neither read nor write, been labelled at school as stupid, and believed it to be true. Aged seventeen, failing standard 8, his father told him he had little hope of passing matric, and had better learn to work with his hands, and start a trade.

As luck would have it, Allan and Margaret’s neighbour was a retired schoolteacher, who recommended Allan see a remedial assessor.  It was discovered that Allan was dyslexic. “From that moment Allan gained confidence, and he hasn’t looked back since,” shrugs Margaret.

The couple working as a secretary and a refrigerator repairman, managed to buy a small home. When Margaret was pregnant with their first child Richard her boss fired her. “I picked up my bag, and decided that day, I would never work for a boss again. I took in shorthand typing at home. Daughter Luci was born not long after. At the time Allan suggested to his boss that they start discounting appliances, and his boss replied, “If you don’t like the way I run my business go start your own,”  
He did just that.

Margaret remembers, “We went from having no children and two jobs to having two children and no jobs in the space of just over a year. This was our big incentive.”

Thus thirty three years ago, with a meagre R900 scraped together, Hirsch’s, a mom and pop outfit was born.

“We had R300 for a months rent, R300 for the electricity, and R300 for the outside sign. On our first day we earned 13 cents. In those days a loaf of bread cost 11c, so we had a loaf of bread for supper, and made sandwiches the next day.
 
Nowadays, Hirsch’s is home to 12 mega stores, three brand stores, and a separate air conditioning and service divisions, The Bedroom Boutique and Aladins  Lamps stores, selling in total over 20 000 items, and employing a permanent workforce of over 800 people.  

It’s a family operation, with Margaret, Allan, Luci and Richard all playing their role. Margaret describes Allan as the innovator, she the implementer, and the children and the management team the force taking the business to greater heights.
Most businesspeople tell you that a huge deal of luck lies behind great company success, but Margaret scoffs, “People see too many movies. There, everything just comes easily and falls into your lap. In real life this doesn’t happen. You have to be disciplined, driven, determined, and work really hard consistently to get ahead.”

A portrait of Margaret’s week begins daily at 4am with half an hour meditation. She is in gym at 5am. By 7am she is showered, and at a meeting with her managers. (Each store has two managers and two trainees) Thereafter, staff members, from cleaners to warehouse managers gather round for a motivational meeting to ensure a successful day. By store opening Margaret works the floor, greets customers and assists with their problems, checks, warehouse stock, busies herself with accounts, stock control, dispatch clerks and checks trucks are loaded correctly.

A full work day finishes at 6.00pm when Margaret goes upstairs to shower, change and at 7pm meets with different suppliers to discuss promotions and trade shows. Then it’s forward planning until 11.30pm. She usually gets to bed at midnight. Two nights are spent in Natal, two in Gauteng, and two in Cape Town every week. The Hirsch’s have a flat above each shop, and their Durban home is a beachfront apartment. The love of Margaret’s life, the family 500 acre game farm in the Midlands, boasting zebra, giraffe, and buck and 180 species of birds, where the entire family, including her 87 year old mother, gather every Sunday. “My family are my real wealth, and our Sundays together are precious,” she laughs.

In every city Margaret finds time for her empowerment programmes, which are varied and many. One such is in impoverished Umlazi with its massive population, where unemployed women are taught to cook vetkoek and muffins with sponsored ingredients. Armed with know how they wake at 3am and are out on the road selling at 5am.  “For the first time I am financially independent and have enough money from selling baked goods to clothe my children and pay their school fees. I have reason to live,” says a mother of eight children.

Hearing all this, one wonders if Allan and Margaret have suffered setbacks on their way up and up Margaret throws back her head and laughs. “Are you kidding?  Many.”

 “Once, along the way in 1988, we had four lovely shops in Durban, were doing well. It was just Allan and I at the top and workers below. We had to invest in middle management. We had money in the bank, so we bought an electrical company in Pietermaritzburg. They had lovely middle management people who had been with them for twenty years. Long short story we lost all the money we invested, and the man we bought from opened a business in the same building in opposition to us as the trade restraint expired.  This: After nine years of slogging. We knew it would take another long time to build it up again. The nice thing about having done it once is you know you can do it again.”

So what next for Hirsch’s?  “We have a new boutique store in Boksburg with upmarket products at good prices and we are planning our succession.”

 Margaret it seems is set to prevail.

 

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