In November 2006, my German neighbor approached me, requesting if he could “borrow” my old Golf for a few days. He offered to pay me R100 per day. I phoned my insurance company and they gave me the thumbs up, with only one condition: “We will not cover you if you make a profit”. I assured them my intention with the R100 per day would only cover expenses. With this news, I handed over the keys.
My friend returned a few weeks later, inquiring for “The Cheapie ...for R100/day.” I thought, “Hmmmmm….Cheapie” . He carried on talking, but I couldn’t hear a word he said. My mind was blurred, in slow motion, in the zone. I was wondering, “Is this a business?” The words, “Cheapie, Cheapie, Cheapie” seemed to echo. Right in front of me, an opportunity was knocking. And then, I saw it. I could rent out cars!
My friend was still negotiating the next deal in German and broken English. And I, with blank stare and half a smile, was dazed with the blur of seeing tomorrow. We shook hands, and my neighbor (and first client) whizzed off in the blue golf with his windsurfing board and equipment loaded on the roof.
I think it was the next day, and I phoned Chris, a German national who co-owned ‘The Surf Hostel’, a guesthouse catering mostly to German wind-surfers. “Hey Chris, can I come over?” We spent an hour talking about his clients and what they needed when it came to car hire. Then the big question. “So Chris, you presently receive 10 % commission on all the rentals you arrange for your clients. If I give your clients cars to rent, pick them up from the airport, treat them fairly and give you 15 %, will you give me ALL your business?” Now, Chris is no fool. He asked me some hard questions and after a longer than normal stare into my eyes, he reached out his hand. Bang! We had a deal. I enthusiastically shared my new ideas with Lorna AND that I had a deal with Chris. Being the responsible one, and a Canadian, she was not initially keen to invest our small pension.
After a few persuasive discussions, she agreed to part with ‘her’ money. We cashed in and purchased 3 Chico Golfs, cleaned out the double garage of all the surfing paraphernalia and, voila, Rentacheapie was born. All three vehicles were rented out to Chris’s clients. I found two other anchor clients like Chris: Thomas, who owned ‘Cape Surf ’, and Shelley, a vivacious South African who loved creating a home for the many tourists enjoying the beauty of Cape Town. Finding out their needs and what their clients wanted was the game changer. Now this sounds like common sense, but still revolutionary. ‘Finding out what people need and meeting that need is a master key to good business.’ We formed our mission statement from asking questions. Seriously. Our clients wanted cost-effective, reliable transport that was straight forward and reasonable. Dolphin Drive and Flamingo Street in Bloubergrandt, home to many guesthouses, would have Golfs with the Rentacheapie sticker on the back window parked everywhere. Always heaped with surfboards and windsurfing equipment, this really put us on the map. The beach area and popular surf spots too were littered with RentaCheapie golfs. Our growth exploded, I bought 17 more golfs in the first year; we were flying. Clients were coming and going. We were delivering, people were happy…mostly. We were doing well, but occasionally dropping the ball in one particular area - “reliability”.
Now, do not get me wrong. We made every effort to be reliable. The vehicles were serviced, checked, test driven. It was just not enough. Man, did we get trouble. The phone calls would come all hours of the day and night. “De car vont start,” in heavy German accent, was a heart stopper. From Elands Bay 200 kms up the West Coast to Witsand a famous windsurfing spot halfway to Port Elizabeth, we did recoveries. I felt like we had become a professional recovery service. This was threatening my reputation and the very life of the business. I needed a ‘proper’ full-time mechanic. Behold...along came Oliver Kabongo. A real knack for fault finding and fluent in French. He fitted in so well with his easy-going friendly style. Our market share in the Nations had grown and the Parisian clients loved him. By the way, did you know that a Chico Golf is a fashion statement of some sorts in Paris? They just love the old Chico. Cheap and reliable was back. We threw in clean cars and friendly “do what you say” ethos and “bang”. We had the winning formula.
Within 24 months we were running 50 cars from a double garage and a 9 meter square office! We loved it. My neighbors did not share our excitement as fondly. However, not one neighbor ever complained! Later we discovered they had quite a bit to say to each other. Probably a blessing in disguise. Never hearing a complaint, gave me time to build a stronger financial base. We worked things out in an amicable way and soon relocated to a suitable premise in Woodstock. My debt to them still is a deep hole. With growth comes new challenges and invisible ceilings to conquer. The administration was a big giant that seemed to have a life of its own, growing bigger, demanding more and more, especially tax and being compliant.
The legalities of becoming Vat registered, returning Vat, paying provisional tax, personal tax, UIF, SDL, submitting EMP201s and EMP501s, and the list goes on and on, was a huge battle...I basically had to learn how to become a mini accountant with a flair for tax. A very steep learning curve for someone who never even understood debit from credit at all during schooling years, never mind balance sheets!
My school years were dominated by surfing. Often I would be seen in class with a blank faraway stare, as I used my accountancy class to fantasize about endless perfect waves, interrupted only by an occasional timely nod, keeping my monotone accounting teacher, Mr. Owen, happy. He had this habit of raising his voice, “Gentlemannnnn...and others!” The way he said “Others!” would suddenly bring me out of a deep blur. Reflecting back, I do now think ‘others’ was actually direct communication….at me! When there is will and desire, anything is possible. My accounting skills now are definitely a modest “A”. Once you understand the basics of debit and credit, you could teach anyone to apply common sense and do accounting well. My accounting teacher, Mr. Owen, I am sure would turn in his grave if he heard me say this!
From accounting and tax to tracking stolen vehicles in Khayelitsha, we learned about negotiating good deals with crafty second-hand car agents, signing property rentals, hiring new staff, encouraging staff and firing staff. Keeping in touch with clients, keeping suppliers in check with prices, paying the bills and salaries on time all were part of the huge learning curve. A mixture of fun, pressure, pain, but eventually new solutions and enjoyment. It is a wonderful experience when there is life on something and it begins to work even beyond your own ability, capacity or input. We are now on the map in Cape Town.
Probably, our greatest accomplishment so far, has been about creating employment for our 40 staff members. It has been a privilege for me to work with our team at Rentacheapie, to grow with them and see them grow as people. Their willingness to increase in capacity and advance their skill level has not ceased to amaze me.
Yolanda is one of our brightest stars. She came to us as a casual cleaner 2 days a week. Her cleaning was so effective, we took her on full time. Soon, the place was glistening clean, and she had time on her hands. I saw in her a trustworthiness and handed her the petty cash to count along with the responsibility of purchasing milk and bread for the business. Her attention to detail was impeccable and we gave her the petty cash to administrate with a small increase. Her hunger to learn opened doors, and invoicing of clients, following up with suppliers and administrating the petty cash became her regular job description. We made a decision, after the pain of hiring and firing more than three bookkeepers, that our new bookkeeper would be Yolanda. We hired the best financial contractor we could find, Victoria Bodley, an expert in financial systems, management and bookkeeping, to mentor and train Yolanda, simultaneously sending Yolanda to a reputable business school to be formally qualified. Our cleaner has now become our Financial Administrator. She is incredible. Loyal, trustworthy and gets the job done with excellence. You have done us good, Yolanda.
I have highlighted Yolanda’s story, as empowering people to learn holistically is so important. Actually, developing a culture of ‘passion to keep learning’ would be the prize. Yolanda is a picture of this. From the Cleaners to the CEO, we need to keep learning, becoming better not only at what we do, but who we are.
One of the big questions I have asked myself is, “What is our purpose?”
Yes, we rent out vehicle after vehicle more cost effectively. More reliability is a given. We value friendship and integrity. But what is our greater purpose and motivation?
Is there a WHY? It took a while to find it. It is Creating Opportunity. In all the many facets
of business, can we create opportunity? This will make it all worthwhile.
Yours in car hire from Cape Town,
Founder and non-executive Director