Solly Kramer was eight years old when he started spending his weekends and holidays working at the family business at what is now the head office of Norman Goodfellows in Illovo, Johannesburg.
“I always knew what I wanted to do. You must understand this: I got through university on my working experience. I used to practicalise everything back to my working experience,” he says. “There was never a question. It was in my blood. It was, quite frankly, all I really knew.”
The office is filled with memorabilia of a family business, including a picture showing liquor being delivered with a horse-drawn cart.
Solly is the third generation to manage the family’s liquor business, originally started by his grandfather, also named Solly Kramer and the name behind what would become a household name in the retail liquor business.
When Solly’s father, Norman, started running the store in Illovo in 1977, which he called the Norman Goodfellows Illovo Bottlestore, it measured 100m2 (see sidebar). During that time the family owned four liquor stores in Gauteng.
“We built up the business, and this store became quite iconic and grew unbelievably.”
Solly joined the family business in 1979, after working at a distillery in Scotland for 14 months, after which he studied business administration at the University of Edinburgh.
“It wasn’t easy working with my dad in the beginning. The first few years were very difficult. I had new ideas...”
Norman stayed at the Illovo store, and Solly ran their bottle store in Bryanston.
In 1983, Norman was approached by Anton Rupert and asked to run a liquor store in London, owned by the Ruperts.
It was his father’s dream job as he had always wanted to live in London, says Solly. As a result of this development, Solly took over the family business.
“Then began a period of immense growth. And my dad, in his own words, was very proud. He left it in good hands.”
The premises, including the offices upstairs, currently comprise 1 600m2.
They bought the building in 1998, and then implemented major changes, which included the construction of an underground warehouse. “It was a huge thing to buy the property. Interest rates went sky high. It was a tough time.
“Then, because we built this huge basement, we started venturing into the wholesale side of the business, which supplies to other licensed premises, mainly on-consumption premises like restaurants, hotels, clubs, even schools with cold drinks.”
He explains that he had already started working with clients in 1985 to supply to their premises.
“We were the first of what is today known as redistributors in the liquor trade.”
Today Solly and his brother, Charles, manage the business. “My brother joined about 15 years ago. That was when we started to grow significantly on the redistribution side of the business.”
Building out the basement allowed them to scale the business.
They eventually transferred their stock to a warehouse about six years ago, and two years ago bought their own warehouse in Wynberg, Johannesburg, which they now “call home” to the distribution arm of the business.
Norman Goodfellows also has four retail stores in Johannesburg, two in Durban and two in Cape Town. They opened a redistribution centre in Paarden Eiland in Cape Town, and a wholesale warehouse in Durban is currently pending.
Charles spearheaded the move of their warehouse facilities and redistribution business to Wynberg.
“My brother has been very much part and parcel of the growth. He has managed the whole warehouse delivery side of the business incredibly well.”
The Wynberg facility is “a huge operation”, says Solly. “It’s absolutely fascinating. We run over 25 delivery vehicles from there. Every vehicle is tracked; where they should be, how long they’re at every place. Every invoice that’s picked is being traced. It’s amazingly well-run.”
What has been driving the growth in the business over the past few years?
“It hasn’t been by acquisition of new stores really, because we got rid of stores along the way. It’s been our service, our ethic, our code and the type of people we have working for us.”
At their recent awards ceremony, Solly handed out two awards for people who worked for the business for 40 years.
“And about 40-odd people who had been here for more than 30 years. And then probably 30-odd people who had been here for 20 years. Our people have stayed with us for a long time. So there’s a loyalty factor, people have been trained and they understand and they know our way.”
He says they are trying to provide a differentiated retail experience, but admits that maintaining quality at all their stores has become “more and more difficult”.
The training of employees is a crucial part of ensuring the type of service that Solly wants customers to experience.
“There are a few rules that we have. For example, a customer has to be greeted – has to, has to be greeted – in a very nice way and with a big smile on your face.”
The Norman Goodfellows call centres are a big part of the business. Often, Solly randomly phones in to test the quality of the experience.
A cornerstone of their service is “never to bullshit”. “If a customer asks you something about a product, you say: ‘Look, I’m not sure. But I’m going to find out quickly.’ Don’t bullshit. You know, if you tell the truth, you can’t get into shit. The customer will really like the fact that you’re honest.”
He relates an anecdote of how people used to phone in with orders and his father would, while on the phone, write down the order and hand it to the delivery man, who would jump on the bicycle and take the delivery to the address.
His dad would then continue the phone conversation until the delivery man rang the doorbell on the other side.
“There are these little things that I’ve learnt from my father that are hard to pass on.”
THE NORMAN BEHIND NORMAN GOODFELLOWS
Solly speaks of his father with great respect, and especially of his father’s marketing abilities, which he describes as “brilliant”.
He recalls how, once, when they were on holidays in Cape Town, his wife, Nicky, told him to come to a second-hand store in Salt River. At the shop, one of the owners showed him a vinyl record still in its cover.
“And it said: Solly Kramer’s Treffers. And it’s got all the hits of the time from the 60s and 70s. And on the back it says something like, ‘Have your party with Solly Kramer’s. We offer ice and glasses and all the alcohol…’
“My dad was amazing. He thought of all those type of funny things that he did. And he was brilliant in terms of getting the store going.”
BUILDING A LIQUOR FRANCHISE
Solly Kramer Sr arrived in South Africa from Lithuania at the beginning of the previous century and opened a tobacconist store in Market Street in the Johannesburg CBD around 1915.
The store was the precursor of what would become, in the early 1930s, the very first Solly Kramer’s liquor store, and which would eventually be managed by Solly Sr’s sons, Norman and Barney.
The two brothers developed the concept for the original store and opened a second one in Rosebank in 1962.
In the 1970s, they sold the Solly Kramer’s brand to a wholesale producer, Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW), which subsequently sold it to the then South African Breweries (SAB). Through the deal, Norman was appointed to continue managing the Solly Kramer’s brand.
SWF and SAB both had about 15 retail stores nationally. These stores were now all owned by SAB, and were rebranded to Solly Kramer’s.
Under Norman’s management, the brand grew to a total of 165 stores nationally, only for legislation about vertical integration in the liquor business to change, forcing SAB to disinvest its retail stores.
This was done through a management buyout and, to cut a long story short, Norman got the Illovo bottle store, which Solly says was the “single worst store out of 165 stores in the portfolio” at the time, because of its size compared to some of the other properties, among other reasons.
GETTING TO KNOW SOLLY KRAMER
Most important thing learnt from your father:
“The single most important thing is honesty. Never deal in stolen goods. Never buy anything that you think might be suspect. Never bullshit a customer – or anyone, for that matter. There’s no need to. And also to respect suppliers. But the biggest thing was the work ethic. You know my dad often used to sleep in the store over December – the busy periods. There’d be a mattress and my mom used to take food to them. They’d finish at 10 in the evening and start at 4 in the morning. ”
Most interesting liquor trend:
“I never ever believed that the main market would be so sophisticated and drawing on international brands, drinking international brands and following international trends to such a large degree. The growth of champagne, expensive malt whiskeys, upmarket vodka, upmarket gins and cognac has been absolutely amazing!”
How do you stay motivated?
“I love every day that I come to work. I absolutely love this industry. It has served me unbelievably well in my life. I’ve travelled everywhere with the industry.”
How do you keep a good work/life balance?
“Today I have a very good work/life balance. I try to play golf at least twice a week. I’ve got two young children now as well. I’ve got a much better balance than I’ve ever had before. But previously I was completely overcome by work. It was definitely my priority.”
Favourite holiday destination:
“Locally, Plettenberg Bay – I’ve been going there for over 50 years. Internationally, my favourite holiday is in Mauritius. That’s my holiday. And Greece.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“To build a brand. To own and build a brand for myself. I’ve built everyone else’s brands for the past 42 years.”
Biggest mistake made:
“Not spending enough time with my children.”