Hirsch’s is a truly South African family business. Founded 41 years ago by Allan who is the Chairman, it is the largest independently owned Appliance and Electronics retail outlet in South Africa. Margaret is Executive Director of the company, son Richard is CEO and daughter Luci – Brand Manager.
Hirsch’s was not created overnight. When Margaret lost her job as a receptionist and pregnant with her first child, she and Allan needed to plan for survival. Allan had been working as a refrigeration repairman, but this would not have been sufficient to provide for the family. Allan suggested they start their own business. It started off as a refrigeration and air conditioning repairs shop and eventually, they were opening one store after the other. Today you will find Hirsch’s stores scattered around the country. In Gauteng (11), KwaZulu-Natal (6) and Western Cape (2).
Margaret regards herself as a “jack of all trades”. She has done selling, invoicing, demonstrating, deliveries, installing, and generally taking care of almost everything at Hirsch’s for the past 41 years.
She doesn’t have an office at any of the 19 branches. But before the pandemic, she visited each of them every week – joining the staff on the floor to get involved with customer queries, and enjoying every minute of it. “Keeping our customers happy and providing them with a unique, hands-on service has helped our business grow and we are continuously finding ways to improve our service to them.” She says. She is itching to get back on the floor to join her customers and staff when the time is right.
Her knack for empowering everyone involved with the company is inspiring. In 1994 Hirsch’s decided to empower their drivers. The company sold its trucks to the drivers at a low price over an extended period. The ripple effect of this was that more than 20 delivery businesses have started up over the past 21 years, and these delivery businesses now employ more than 800 people.
With more than 2 000 people in their employ, Hirsch’s mostly invests in turning their staff into motivated employees with sound goals. Objectives that are encouraged, including investing in their own homes to live comfortably. Values that are embedded with the staff are honesty, integrity, and loyalty.
As far as a recipe for success goes, there are intriguing points of difference in this family operation. The company has honed the concept of customer care to a unique level. It starts with building customer loyalty that made Hirsch’s a household name. The approach being that Hirsch’s is not just about shopping. They aim to add value to the shopping experience by hosting functions and demonstrations in-store that revolve around the product. This is driven by embracing 21st-century technology and social media platforms.
Customers are drawn to follow Margaret on their website and social media. On the website she provides entertaining and lifestyle sections on motivation, content for businesswomen, a sound cloud, and blogs on recipes, decor, and fashion. These sections are not trying to sell anything. They merely add value with a wealth of useful content to be enjoyed by followers.
Before Covid-19, Hirsch’s stores ran active community involvement projects like networking sessions for local entrepreneurs, training sessions for domestic workers and regular cook-offs by children in-store, or Margaret teaming up with celebrities for fun culinary experiences.
The networking programmes facilitate businesswomen and men to connect, share knowledge, and support each other. Successful business people in the community or Margaret herself regularly do a talk on their business model, providing motivation and business tips useful to the audience. During Lockdown, Margaret has held these networking sessions in a virtual setting, and the response has been exceptional.
During networking sessions, wannabe entrepreneurs often ask Margaret about borrowing capital to start their business. She believes entrepreneurs should never borrow money to start a business. She says, eventually they would need to pay back the money with interest. “Start slowly, use the money you have. Get what money you can, sell everything. And every cent you make, you plow back into the business.”
In the day-to-day business operations, Margaret savours customer interaction. “What I love in our industry, is seeing two and sometimes three generations from the same family coming through to furnish their homes with us.”
There is also no short supply in social responsibility drives by this brand. Margaret has been involved in promoting the Girls With Dignity project to support young girls throughout the country who used to be absent from school while menstruating. Following extensive talks at schools, motivating girls to attend school, attendance has increased from 40% to 80% and their marks have also improved dramatically.
Another initiative is the Margaret Hirsch Women in Business Achiever of the Year Award. Businesswomen in each of the areas where Hirsch’s operate are recognised for their achievements in the workplace. Margaret established the competition after she saw how well her business did and how winning many awards herself – gave her an edge over her competitors. “Winning these awards has been wonderful – both for Hirsch’s and for me personally, and I would like to see this happening to other women in business.”
Empowering women and helping them to realise their true wealth is something that she thrives on.
An example is Anna Mhlanga, an aspiring baker who she met at her Meadowdale store several years ago.
Margaret told us the story.
“Anna is the wife of a preacher and she needed to find something that would help boost the family income.
When she came to see me at the Hirsch Meadowdale branch, it was to get ideas on how to start a baking business. It was something that she was passionate about but didn’t know how to go about building a business around it.
I suggested that she start out making something she was comfortable with and selling. She started with cupcakes and before long she was getting large orders. She was also approached to make speciality cakes – wedding cakes in particular. She put herself on an icing course and then set out to make and sell the cakes. Before long she was tripling her profit and the orders kept coming in.
At one of our meetings she explained how much she enjoyed baking and had thought about starting up her own baking school. I agreed that it would be an excellent idea and together we put together a programme where she would hold lessons at one of the Hirsch branches that had a kitchen. This was in Centurion.
Anna started with a small group of women and gradually the group grew. She passed on her knowledge of baking and icing and charged the women a flat rate to attend the lessons. Although she continued to make speciality cakes, she found that she got some much pleasure out of teaching that she asked if she could do lessons at one of our other branches.
When the ladies who attended the Centurion branch baking lessons graduated I attended the graduation and was delighted to see that they had brought their children along to watch the ceremony and applaud their mothers for their achievements. It was also clear to me that they would all have a good grounding for becoming entrepreneurs themselves. The women who attended the course have all ended up with successful baking businesses of their own.
Anna took her baking business to our Brakpan store where she continued to teach baking skills to the local community. These women also graduated and have ended up running their own baking businesses. One, Abigail, holds regular classes at our Brakpan branch and has regular orders for her wedding cakes.
Anna’s husband was transferred to Somerset West three years ago and we agreed that she continue with her lessons there. She had an influx of Zimbabwean women coming through for lessons, many of whom were destitute and had to support their families. They were determined to make the most of their lessons and become breadwinners for their families. They have all done extremely well with their baking businesses and some have gone on to teach baking skills themselves. Others have gone the health route and devised healthy menus for families on a shoestring. Once again it has been hugely gratifying to see the reaction from the children of these women. All have seen how hard their mothers have worked and are on a path to achieve goals of being equally hard-working and successful.
Margaret has become a leading example to businesswomen in Southern Africa – coming from a humble background to co-founding and running the family’s multi-million rand appliance and electronic retail operation. She has been recognised with a multitude of business awards, including two Lifetime Achievement Awards in business and entrepreneurship.
This leading businesswoman believes that entrepreneurs could make a difference in the future of the country. “I am passionate about business. I am passionate about South Africa and I think we as a country need to be strong. We as South Africans have to be entrepreneurs.”