hennie de klerk business entrepreneur south africa interview

October 2016. Interview by Marelise Jacobs. Cover: Hennie de Klerk - Courtesy of Carina Groothof.

CEO and founder of TreasuryOne Hennie de klerk took his company from start-up in 2000 to doing more than R150 billion foreign exchange turnover on behalf of clients during 2015. Perkolate spoke to this hard working entrepreneur about the journey that took him from selling eggs at soccer matches as a boy to being the highly successful businesman that he is today.

Tell us about you as entrepreneur, where did it start?

Hennie de Klerk: I started selling newspapers when I was six years old. There was this specific neighbour, an elderly gentleman and he always bought the newspaper, no matter what I brought, he bought it. That's how I realised if you can sell something, then there's a business opportunity.

When I was about nine we moved out to a small holding about ten kilometers outside of town and I got frequented with the local boys playing soccer on weekends, so I saw an opportunity. We started our own soccer club, not as though there were money in there - not like today but I saw the opportunity of taking eggs from the fridge and boiling them and selling them at the soccer matches.

“...The main thing about being an entrepreneur is that you've got to have passion, you've got to have vision...” - Hennie de klerk

I think the real breakthrough, when I really started to become an entrepreneur, was when I opened a shop when I was thirteen years old. This was the early eighties and in a way it was the end of the cold war for South Africa.

Suddenly there was a lot of those brown military uniforms that became available on the market which you could buy them in big barrels. I bought one of these barrels and started sorting them out in different sizes and sold them cheap because we got them next to nothing from the military. That's how my first little shop started.

From there on I started supplying groceries, shoes and a little bit of clothing. Then when I was about sixteen years old I started a shebeen. I saw there was more opportunity there.

I remember when I was in high school, I would rent my dad's bakkie and drive on my own. I didn't have a license and I would have a bakkie full of beer. I would go the farm on my own, stock the shebeen for month end, collect the money, bank it, buy new stock.

At sixteen I was a full on entrepreneur, had my own little business. I employed three people that worked in the shop, selling from clothes to bully beef. Business came natural for me, but then the police closed me down.

Why did they close you down?

Hennie de Klerk: They found out about my shebeen, that I was making too much money. At seventeen I went bankrupt for the first time in my life.The police confiscated all my stock, overnight literally I had nothing. Back then, being young and living extravagantly, I didn't have much money left. Although I made good money, I never saved any of it.

It was a learning curve, overnight I lost everything. I realised if you do business you've got to save, you've got to be conservative. Something can go wrong drastically which it did with me. Then I finished school and went to university.

What was your field of study?

Hennie de Klerk: My dad is a chartered accountant so the vision up until that point was always to become one as well. I realised very quickly that I am no CA material.

After two years I left, I couldn't get my head around books so I started working for ABSA as a teller. It was the only job I could get as a second year student with no qualification but with a lot of ambition.

I got to know some of the guys in the foreign exchange department and it always looked so cool. I started engaging with them and they started telling me how this thing called the exchange rate works. I asked for an internal transfer which I got and then they sent me to a little branch in Bramley.

That was my introduction to foreign exchange. I applied for a position at Sasol as a cash book clerk in the foreign exchange department. I had to do the accounting entries, which I must say I wasn't very good at. I'm a big picture guy, I'm not a detail guy. But foreign exchange became my passion and I worked very hard at Sasol. I realised this is an opportunity for me to do something with my life.

One thing about being an entrepreneur, you've got to work hard. You've got to be lucky and you've got to work hard. I worked long hours, probably twelve to fourteen hours. I was always there first in the morning and be the last to leave. I got promoted quite quickly, got a nice senior position. Within a couple of years I was the chief dealer at Sasol Treasury.

What led to your leaving Sasol?

Hennie de klerk: I got to the point where I said I wanted to do something else and I was lucky to meet someone in the industry who had his own business in the past. We got to be really good friends. He introduced me to this concept of treasury management and treasury outsourcing and the idea just stuck with me.

For about six months I kicked this idea around, then I resigned. I sold my house and my car to get as much money as possible so I could start this business. If you don't earn a salary how you are you going to pay your car?

In 2000, the first of June was my first day at home. My friend and I eventually went into partnership which lasted for about three months. We could talk together but we couldn't work together. When the business was still young and it's a small business then you actually battle to get good people.

Believe me there's not a lot of people who wants to go work for a small business. They want security, and also they want the growth opportunities. In a small business where you are two or three people, where's the growth?

You are not struggling anymore, what changed?

Hennie de klerk: One of the key factors that made a big change in our business is that we didn't have good staff in the beginning. I went through a phase where I also didn't have good partners.

In the beginning when you're small it's difficult to find the right partner. It works if they share your passion. When the third partner didn't work, I took the responsibility. I took it on my own to say this is my business, I'm going to make it a success.

Because you're small ,you'll hire anybody who is willing to work for you. We had family members working here who didn't perform, we had people here that knew people, anybody. For the first six years we struggled to grow because we didn't have the right people.

Then I was lucky enough to marry a very nice girl who had a recruitment business. We would drive home and I would complain about the staff and then one day we made a pact in that car. She said that she's going to do the recruitment for the business.

We had an industrial psychologist come to evaluate everyone. She gave me a report back and said these people you can keep, these ones are not suitable and these ones you must get rid of immediately. This was crucial for the success of the business. We started getting rid of the people who weren't constructive to the business and then hired based on my wife's philosophy.

She would hire them for me and that's probably been the biggest success factors behind the business. I got the right people in and the wrong people out. Ninety nine percent of the people who work with me today she exclusively employed.

How do you maintain that level of success?

Hennie de klerk: Today we've got a nice big business, there's no doubt about that. Five years ago the business was okay, ten years ago we were surviving. I think that's the thing with entrepreneurs. They all go through their different growth cycles.

I always say the worst decision I ever made was to start my business from my bedroom. It should've been from my garage. If you look at all the big entrepreneurs, they all started from the garage. Mark Shuttleworth, he started it from his garage. Steve Jobs, started from the garage.

The main thing about being an entrepreneur is that you've got to have passion, you've got to have vision. There are no short cuts. I would almost think if there is a short cut to success it would lead to failure because you think you're so good at it. I started a small business three years ago, a completely different business. My wife asked me why are you doing this, and I said I'm such a good entrepreneur, it's easy. A year later I closed the business and lost a million rand. It shows you, don't get arrogant, it's not easy.

We've got slogans on the wall here at the office, one of them is a quote from Tom Hanks which says if it was easy, everybody would do it. So I always tell the guys remember what Tom said. It's not supposed to be easy. We're doing it because it's difficult. Business is not easy. Even though the business is successful now, if we don't keep it successful, it could go out of business.

Look at Kodak, they were a big successful business. Look at Nokia, massive business, but they lost the plot. Never think it can't happen to you.