The shop floor matriarch

2013-03-24 10:00

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The Female Factor, which identifies established and emerging entrepreneurs, continues this week with Margaret Hirsch. Sue Grant-Marshall chats to the co-founder and chief operations officer of the family owned home appliance megastore, Hirsch’s

Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, famously grew up living “over the shop” of her grocer family. Thatcher’s namesake, Margaret Hirsch, whose firm hand holds the tiller at Hirsch’s, not only does that but she works on the shop floor too.

That’s where I find her, surrounded by her staff at their desks and by customers.

She’s on her high-heeled feet in a nano-second, whooshing me around the massive Fourways, Joburg, store, explaining the salient features of wall panel TVs, zany coloured fridges and food processors.

My head goes zip-zap as we race past stoves, washing machines and ice cream machines, trying to absorb the information that pours like a waterfall from this tall, elegant woman.

She says: “Our customers have a choice of about one thousand fridges on any one day and it’s our job to help you find the one that best suits your needs.”

That’s why Hirsch’s staff must be among the best trained in the nation. They are paid to arrive at work 30 minutes early for lessons in life skills, in motivation and to learn about new products.

The latter are cascading into our lives in increasing volumes and at ever-cheaper prices, relatively speaking, than before. It’s one of the reasons Hirsch and her husband Allan only get to bed at midnight and wake up at 4am.

“We have to concentrate and keep up,” she says as she whisks me off to the outdoor furniture section.

The Durban-based couple met in 1971 when Allan was a fridge mechanic. In the late 1970s, he suggested to his home appliance store boss that it would be a good idea to discount prices as other stores were doing.

The riposte, “open your own”, was all the wide awake couple needed to do just that.

Their first shop was so small it measured only the size of a large bathroom, but simultaneously Margaret was giving cookery classes on the then newfangled device – the microwave.

It wasn’t long before she had five cookery schools, one of them with classes of 75 students in it.

In the ensuing 33 years, Hirsch’s has snowballed to 12 massive stores across KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape, as well as concept stores in shopping centres.

Hirsch says: “We started with a staff of one, capital of R900 and two tiny children in 1979.

“Today we’re a billion-rand company with 900 full-time staff and about 2?000 working under the Hirsch umbrella.”

Her ability to empower staff is extraordinary. In 1994, they decided to sell drivers their trucks at low prices and allowed them to pay it back over a long period.

Their commitment to customers in terms of service is matched by customer loyalty.

“What I love is seeing two, and sometimes three generations from the same family coming through to furnish their homes with us,” says Hirsch.

She, Allan and their two 30-something children, Luci and Richard, all have desks on the floors of their branches, dealing with customer queries and complaints on a daily basis.

She believes it is important to keep the business in the family, mentioning that they’ve been offered large sums to sell. But to her, “it’s a way of life”.

She says: “The greatest challenge in running a family-owned business is to teach your children from a young age that they have to work really hard to get ahead. You have to keep working every day of your life.”

She learnt the hard way. Her father died when she was 10 and Hirsch was placed in a Pietermaritzburg foster home while her mother found work in Durban.

Hirsch walked 10km to school every day and worked in a hair salon on weekends to make enough money to buy a special pair of shoes that she wore for three years.

Life became easier when her mother found work and later re-married, but she never forgot the tough times.

She and Allan meditate, go to gym and are at their desks by 7am daily, working until 6pm before meeting suppliers, sometimes for hours.

Hirsch (63) gets by on four hours of sleep, “because I have trained myself to do so,” she says.

She and Allan clearly have no financial need to work at the pace they do. They own a game farm in KwaZulu-Natal and a house in Zanzibar, so they do still enjoy life.

Yet she is passionate about community and charity work. Among the many initiatives she supports is the Restoring Dignity to Young Girls Project.

“There are 9?million schoolgoing girls between the ages of 10 and 18 in our country, and most rural and many urban township girls miss approximately one week of school a month while they’re menstruating.

“This means they miss nearly a quarter of their school education,” she says, observing that men are able to feel good for four weeks in a month.

The project provides schoolgirls with reusable – they can be washed – eco-friendly sanitary towels, thus liberating them from the discomfort of menses.

If she had an office, Hirsch could cover its walls with all the awards she’s been given over the years, the latest being that in the entrepreneur section of the Business Woman of the Year Awards.

The decision she made as a struggling schoolgirl, “never to be dependent on a man”, has not only empowered her immediate family but also their hundreds of workers and thousands of people linked to their community projects.

That’s some footprint.

»?If you’re a female entrepreneur who needs a springboard to more success, sign up for the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10?000 Women Certificate Programme for Women Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. To apply, visit www.gibs.co.za/10000women

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