Top Dog: EOH and T-Systems
Underdog: The Business Connexion
Isaac and I were about 12 when we discovered computers at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley. The attraction was instantaneous and the fascination intense. We were two kids from Ga-Rankuwa. Our mother had been in healthcare all her life and she was a matron at the local hospital; our father started out as a teacher and became an education specialist.
They were both always very clear about education opening the door to success. And both of them were strong on discipline.
That’s why they sent us to a Catholic boarding school. We finished high school and did well enough to get bursaries from South African Breweries (SAB) to study accounting. We were lucky. Although our generation was the last to be really exposed to apartheid, there were some of us in the township who knew that the only way up was through education; of course, we were aware of the realities around us, but we held onto the idea that school and university would provide an escape from the circumstances we lived in.
During the holidays, we worked in sales at SAB and towards the end of our studies we both got part-time sales jobs at what was then Software Connection. That really gave us the opportunity to develop our passion for technology. Remember that the IT revolution was only just beginning. Java programming language started to catch the attention of the technology world as a platform-independent language. Windows 95 was considered to be a cool thing, so cool that one million copies were purchased by users in four days. Microsoft’s Office 97 was published in December 1996 on CD ROM and also on a set of 45 3,5-inch floppy disks. The Internet did not exist in many countries; neither did email nor mobile phones. Google launched that year, but hardly anyone outside Stanford had heard about it. These were very exciting times for people who had an interest in tech stuff.
Also, by the time we were ready to start our own venture, we had been exposed to many different role models – our parents, our teachers at school, and the highly qualified and talented people we worked with at SAB and Software Connection.
I cannot stress enough how important it was to work while we were studying – it laid the foundation for so much that was to happen later by giving us experience and exposing us to the world of business while we were still students.
Few entrepreneurs get access to funding for their ideas, but it was different for Isaac and me. By 1996, we had worked part-time for Software Connection’s Pretoria branch for 18 months. We got to develop a great relationship with the owners of the chain, a company called the Connection Group and headed by then CEO, Philip Cowles.
They knew us well; we came to work every day, we were always on time, and we were good salesmen. The customers liked us, and we were always ready to put in the hours. So when we came up with an idea for our own business, they loved it. I think they were so drawn to it because they were entrepreneurs themselves; they knew where we were coming from.
We asked them for R4 million to finance a start-up – a computer reseller targeting government departments and parastatals. Procurement policies were changing, and it could not have been a more opportune time for two young black men to stake our claim in what was about to become a booming industry.
Launching the business
When we completed our accounting degrees and got the loan, we were both absolutely determined to make it work. We knew that this was our chance, and I think we made the decision early on that we would build a company that would become a force to be reckoned with.
Our vision was to create a business that was more than just a small IT shop – we wanted it to have longevity and to provide employment for people. We wanted to leave a legacy.
You have to take advantage of the opportunities that life presents. The fact that we got capital meant our aspiration could become a reality. There was risk involved on both sides, but we were almost arrogantly confident in our abilities and, at 23, far too young to be afraid of risk; second, we had built a great relationship with a company that was itself created by entrepreneurs, so they understood. The money was a loan and we had every intention of paying it back, which we did later on. That was how we launched Business Connection. But having the cash did not make it easy. One of the biggest headaches was leasing office space. Nobody believed we had the money to pay. Eventually, we managed to secure 165 m2 in Brooklyn, Pretoria. We hired a secretary and started trading in September 1996. The first clients were the National Parks Board and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Again, our part-time work paid off.
We had met a lot of our future customers when they popped into Software Connection. We had already built quite a large network and by tapping into that we secured our first customers. It sounds simple enough, but it was vital at that stage to prove that we could deliver. Had we failed to do that, the business would not be here today. The Connection Group provided accounting services for us, so we did not have to appoint a financial director in those early days. That level of administrative support from a company that had the know-how meant we really could do more with less. The help and the expertise we had access to made an enormous difference. We focused on gearing up the business for growth so that we could meet our contractual obligations.
The Microsoft differentiator
In that first year, Business Connection earned revenues of R100 000. But we had no intention of remaining small, which is why we realised we would have to move away from being a reseller and become a software integrator. To do that, we had to partner with a big player in the industry. By 1997 we had started to change direction to focus on becoming a specialist Microsoft Certified Solution Provider and one of a small number of local Microsoft Large Account Resellers. Microsoft then was what Apple is today.
Bill Gates was not yet a household name, but his company was young and it was changing the world. We too were young and we wanted to be part of that revolution. Microsoft in South Africa turned out to be an excellent ally and provided us with a lot of support, training and market research expertise, which in turn meant that we became specialists in the technology as the demand for it was escalating.
A big turning point came when Business Connection secured a three-year R100 million contract with Telkom towards the end of 1997.
We had worked ourselves to the bone preparing pitches for business and compiling proposals. We worked 18-hour days and had no weekends.
Winning this deal gave us our big break. We had to supply the entire Telkom user base with Microsoft licences. That deal literally changed the business overnight. Suddenly we were in another league. We had to employ additional experienced staff, which we did quickly. The deal was a success and we did the job well, because we knew we had to get it right.
It was then that we realised how absolutely critical customer service is in the growth of a business. We got the chance to prove that in addition to making the sale, we could deliver on our promise to the client.
The first merger
In 1999, the Connection Group was having troubles and its stock collapsed to around 20 cents. Thankfully though, our local Microsoft proficiency paved the way for a global tie-up with Dutch-based multinational firm Getronix. The company acquired a 50% stake in Business Connection, enabling us to pay back the Connection Group loan and grow our staff to 50. We were now part of an international group which gave us access to new skills, new business and huge exposure to global best practices.
A year later, we were at a Microsoft conference in Seattle where we bumped into Matthew Blewett and Bruce Krebs, founders of Seattle Solutions, a Microsoft business like ours. We hit it off immediately. Meeting them proved to us how important it is to expose your business to the outside world and to attend conferences and expos. That networking element is key. Our presence effectively enabled the next phase of growth. Where Business Connection was largely Gauteng-based, Seattle Solutions had a strong footprint in the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal. The value that a merger could bring to both businesses was a no-brainer. In 2001 we joined forces to form Business Connexion, an integrator of business solutions focused on Microsoft products. I was appointed MD. We rebranded the company with an ‘x’, but kept the name because it was already well known and respected.
By 2003, seven years after we had launched our start-up, our revenue soared to R300 million, we were employing 350 people, and we had offices in Rivonia, Pretoria, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
We also became the only company in South Africa with triple Microsoft Gold Partner status for enterprise systems, e-commerce and support. In addition to that, we were named Microsoft’s channel partner of the year for the Africa region for two years in a row.
The business lived and breathed Microsoft technology.
It was this dedicated focus on one area of specialisation that really paved the way for our early successes. Do one thing and do it right, that’s my advice to young entrepreneurs. That way, you build a reputation for your business in the market that few can compete with. Reputation is extremely important because it makes finding and securing business so much easier. Anyone can start a venture, but it’s how you conduct business that makes an impact on your customers, and on the industry you work in.
There’s no doubt that having a twin brother who shares your vision is a huge advantage.
Isaac and I have worked long and hard hours to build the business.
But we’ve always had the comfort that comes with knowing you are working towards one common goal. We have also constantly had the confidence of believing that we can trust each other and rely on each other when times are hard.
We have played to our individual strengths. Isaac is a people’s person who has great sales ability, which is what he has focused on. My strengths lie in strategy development. I believe my leadership style is balanced and engaging.
I welcome participation and interaction from my team. But I always ask one question and demand a careful, considered response: is this in the best interests of the business? It’s this clear definition of roles and responsibilities – taking into account our different yet complementary abilities – which has made it possible for us to work together so successfully.
The Passing of Benjamin Mophatlane
On 11 June 2014, Benjamin passed away at the age of 41 following a heart attack during negotiations of a possible acquisition by Telkom of BCX for R2.7bn. Isaac has since been appointed as the company’s CEO.
Benjy and Ike as we affectionately used to call them at university built a reputable company from virtually nothing. This proves that eating the big fish in any environment is possible. Startups have no reason to be overwhelmed by competition from the big fish of the industry.
Rest in peace Benjy, your legacy is indelible in the business community.
Story provided by Monique Verduyn, Monique is a freelance writer.