Poster girl for busy-ness

2013-10-08 00:00

POPULAR wisdom holds that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Pietermaritzburg’s Margaret Hirsch could be the poster girl for busy-ness. The CEO of Hirsch’s and the recent winner of the Top Women Entrepreneur of 2013 award, as well as the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® Lifetime Achiever Award, works in a different province every couple of days and sleeps just four hours a night.

Immersed in the business

The leader of the country’s largest independent furniture and appliance dealer says that she is awake at 4 am every day. Hirsch starts her day with half-an-hour’s meditation followed by gym at 5 am and then a quick shower to make it to a meeting with her managers by 7 am, before another meeting and motivational talk with all staff members.

Then the “work day” begins, and Hirsch deals with customers on the shop floor; solves problems at any of the 12 Hirsch’s stores; handles the macro management issues inherent in running a nationwide operation employing almost 800 people and conducting around 4 000 transactions a day; and still finds the time to keep tabs on things like accounts and warehouse stock.

She even answers the Cape helpline and her personal cell number is emblazoned on all delivery vans for customers to call should they have any problem.

By the time the store closes for the day it’s usually around 6 pm, and Hirsch goes upstairs — she has a flat above each store — to shower before her daily meeting with suppliers.

Forward planning and tying up loose ends rounds off the day and she is usually in bed by midnight. She travels overseas for business one week per month and has been everywhere “except Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands”.

She says this is how she earned over a billion rands last year.


Hirsch had a hard childhood. At a young age, her life was turned upside down when her father died and she was left in foster care in Pietermaritzburg while her mother and young brother moved to Durban. It’s likely where she learned to be tenacious and how to create opportunities in life.

She remembers how, at the age of 12, she tried finding part-time work washing hair at hairdressers so that she could buy a pair of shoes for church.

“I went from salon to salon,” she says, “but they all chased me away saying I was too young.”

But with the sort of determination that characterises this self-made woman, she persisted. Eventually she got in at a place where an employee had called in sick and she set about making sure they would never want her to leave.

“I knew that when the other girl got back I wouldn’t have a job … so I did more — I put a biscuit with the tea for customers, things like that. That little bit extra makes the difference.”

It’s a philosophy that she still holds today and she values those who go the extra mile.

“Give back a bit. Don’t always ask ‘What’s in it for me’,” she says.

Lessons learned

Adversity — or rather, Hirsch’s reaction to it — has apparently been instrumental in the success of the company.

When Hirsch and her husband, Allan, found themselves unemployed in the seventies, they decided to start their own appliance repair shop in Durban with just R900 between them.

On their first day, remembers Hirsch, they made 11 cents, bought a loaf of bread for nine cents and put the remaining two cents back into the till for the next day.

“Turnover does not equal profit” was one of the first lessons Hirsch learned in business and her advice that “you plough profit back into the company” is one of many business lessons she has learned over the years.

Innovation is something else she advocates.

When Hirsch’s couldn’t get people to buy microwave ovens — the latest space-age appliance in the eighties — Hirsch decided to offer microwave cooking lessons.

The result was that microwaves began to fly off the shelves and the spinoff has been the publishing by Hirsch of four cookbooks (a fifth is due at the end of this year) and ongoing appliance lessons at all Hirsch stores to empower domestic workers.

“You have to have an idea that is different from everyone else,” the 63-year-old says, and goes on to explain how Hirsch’s concept stores — branded outlets in malls that have no obvious Hirsch’s connection — have enabled the company to effectively create its own competition.


So how has Hirsch maintained this level of performance over the years? How does she stay on mission and keep motivated?

“Do you want to be a winner or a loser?” she asks bluntly. “If it needs to be done, do it. Do what you think is right and trust your gut.

“And it’s money in the bank that tells you when you are on the right track.”

One of her goals for next year is to have her own TV show aimed at mentoring the youth.

“I just decided one day that I wasn’t going to be poor,” she says, “and I want to give youth that hope, the knowledge that they can also do something.”

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