Local business thrives on family values

2010-11-04 00:00

WORDS such as discipline, hard work, humility, loyalty, obedience and respect are scarcely used in our vocabulary these days. They are decidedly unfashionable values in families today.

But, for the members of the Moosa family who built the successful Willowton Oil business empire, there is much to be said for old-fashioned family values.

It was after all, these family values that laid the foundation for a 40-year-old business that now employs over 1 200 people across three major South African cities: Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Fondly recalling the early days of his life, prior to the establishment of the giant manufacturing company, CEO Razak Moosa told The Witness that these core values are at the centre of the family.

“We had a strict regimen growing up. We would be at school in the mornings, then off to madressa [Islamic theological seminary and law school attached to a mosque], then to work at the wholesale shop. After that, we went home at 7 pm to have dinner and do our homework — and the same regimen all over again. This was the strict discipline our family instilled in us. Our family was not wealthy and we could not receive just anything that we desired.”

Occasionally, the Moosa boys (a group of brothers and cousins) as they were commonly referred to, would sneak off to the old Regent Cinema in the CBD for a matinée show. This was the only respite they would receive during weekdays — and it was usually short-lived.

“The moulana [a title preceding the name of a respected Muslim religious leader] would send a message to the shop, and a staff member would be sent to the cinema to take them out and leave them at the madressa. Sometimes cinema patrons would see a slide on the screen, saying: ‘Will the Moosa boys report outside immediately.’ After madressa, when we went to the shop, we would receive corporal punishment but the thrill of going to see a movie was worth the punishment.”

Duties at the family business M.H. Moosa Wholesale Merchants included assembling orders, packing shelves and loading goods.

This business formed the basis for the establishment of Willowton Oil by the late D.H. Moosa (Razak’s father) and his brothers Amod, Mahomed and Ebrahim and their respective sons.

Despite the strict upbringing, Razak praised the dedication and discipline his parents and older family members instilled in his generation.

“That was our learning curve. It was part of our training. We got nothing for free and we had to get involved in physical work. One week’s pay consisted of a paltry six pence, which would hardly be worth anything today, and a small chocolate. On Sundays after work, we walked to Alexandra Park to play sport and walked back to our homes in downtown passing the Oxenhams bakery in Commercial Road and the smell of fresh bread would lure us into buying hot bread and eating it on the way home.”

The boys’ entrepreneurial spirit evolved further during their school holidays, which were spent largely in Durban at various close family members’ homes in the CBD and Overport.

Razak says they began selling newspapers in the Musgrave-Essenwood-Sydenham Road areas to earn extra spending money, with the help of a relative who was a newsagent.

He also recalls the enjoyment they derived from playing football on the streets of the Durban CBD.

However, this was often cut short as policemen frequently harassed the boys.

“Due to apartheid, we [non-whites] had very few proper public amenities and parks in which to play sport.”

Razak says his family’s ties with South Africa date back well over a century.

“My great grandfather, who arrived in South Africa in 1898, returned to India in 1916 to get his son married. Our grandfather, Hassam Moosa, came back in late 1918 with D.H. Moosa, my father. They [Razak’s great-grandfather and grandfather] opened up what one could call a recycling business, using scraps of plank, cardboard and jute [a long, soft vegetable fibre that can be spun into strong threads] bags to make various products.”

Decades later, it was the repressive apartheid regime and unfair practices in the business world that led to the establishment of Willowton Oil.

The family owned M.H. Moosa Wholesale Merchants, which was located in the CBD between 1947 and 1976.

“In the wholesale business, one of the main products sold was cooking oil, which was supplied by a major company. They used hard-sell tactics like conditional selling. We had to meet targets every three months to earn loyalty discounts. But they kept moving the targets higher every three months. In mid-1967, we missed a target by one drum [of oil] due to a technicality, and hence we lost the supply line of cooking oil. Most of our customers sold oil, especially in Durban. It meant that we were no longer a preferred seller. We were delisted for a few months. My father and his brothers had had the ambition to produce cooking oil for many years prior to this, but could not do so. Under these circumstances, we had no choice. The unavailability of oil was harmful to our business. That is how Willowton Oil was established.”

Razak recalls the regular trips his family would make to general and psychiatric hospitals, to hand out food and care for patients. Clearly, giving to those less fortunate was a key aspect of their formative years and it is something that Razak and others in his extended family still foster.

Although it was a challenging upbringing, the family values fostered in their youth have paid handsome dividends.

Clearly, as is the case with many achievements in life, it all comes down to discipline, hard work, respect and humility.

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