Johannesburg - Keep your head when others around you are losing theirs. And no, it’s not all about the money. These are two seminal lessons that “serial entrepreneur” and Sorbet founder Ian Fuhr has learnt over nearly 40 wild and eventful years in business.
Fuhr, 59, is the man behind the successful Sorbet beauty salon brand, and it represents his “last burst” of entrepreneurship before he eases into a quieter life. He started it in 2004 and now there are 50 Sorbet salons countrywide.
It comes as a surprise when Fuhr, who laughs about the fact that he looks nothing like a beauty salon owner, tells me that he came close to throwing in the towel.
But tough times come with the terrain, and Fuhr has seen many of those since he started out. Having dropped out of the BCom course at Wits, his first job was at Gallo Records in 1974, earning R120 a month, and in the evenings crooning away in Hillbrow’s cocktail bars to supplement his earnings.
Two years later, at 23, Fuhr and his brother Rodney started a lower-income retail outlet called K-Mart. He admits making money was the overriding objective, but it was 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising, and Fuhr was thrown into a sharp learning curve regarding his staff.
“I was a white Jewish guy in a lower-end retail business and I realised I needed to understand a lot more about the reality of black people if I were to survive,” he says.
Fuhr recalls an eye-opening moment when he was training an employee, Ralph, to be a manager. The stores were being boycotted, and Fuhr discovered Ralph was one of the leaders. Fuhr asked him how he could be involved and Ralph said his life was “so bad outside his job” that he felt he had to act for change.
“It was then that I reformed my management strategy and became more political in my thinking,” says Fuhr. K-Mart became the first company in SA to appoint black directors and shareholders.
Always passionate about music, Fuhr was simultaneously building a relationship with director and composer Caiphus Semenya, which led him to start an underground record company, Priority Records, consisting of a recording studio in a mobile truck in Botswana.
“We used to stay in an ANC safe house that was later attacked by the SADF [SA Defence Force] and eight people were killed. I was getting into trouble.”
The studio closed, but more upheaval was in the pipeline.
In the mid-1980s, K-Mart was hit by the consumer boycotts, and went into liquidation. Fuhr went back into business with his brother and they launched Super Mart. In the run-up to the 1989 elections there would be staff meetings to discuss the political changes.
This led to another twist in Fuhr’s entrepreneurial career. In 1991 he started a race-relations consultancy, leaving Rodney to continue with Super Mart.
“I started with industrial theatre, which was a new concept in those days. I’d develop plays that highlighted issues of the day, and I worked with actors like Sello Maake Ka Ncube and John Maytham.”
His productions took off. Murray & Roberts was his first corporate client and for seven years his plays were performed at big companies all over the country.
“It was a very exciting period. It wasn’t lucrative, but it was then that I realised the importance of touching people’s lives.’’
In 1997, his brother wanted him back at Super Mart, so Fuhr ran the business until 2002. By then hugely successful, Edcon bought it and changed its name to Jet Mart. Fuhr worked with Edcon for 18 months, for the first time learning the ropes of corporate business.
In 2004 the beauty business came knocking. Fuhr was having regular massages at a home salon owned by Liz Goldberg, who previously worked for Dermalogica. She suggested he look into the beauty salon industry.
“I did some research and realised there were no branded chains in this industry, except for Dream Nails. I decided to go for it and I’d soon find out why.”
He brought Goldberg on board and recruited Johnny Marks, a friend and an accountant. The three bought a few existing salons to get the feel of the business. The brand name Sorbet came a year later, first appearing halfway down a list from their marketing consultancy.
“I saw it and loved it right away. I liked its connotations of ice cream, of fresh and upbeat and tantalising,” says Fuhr.
The logo, simple but instantly recognisable, took almost four months to develop. The Sorbet brand, with five salons, was launched in August 2005.
The quick-fix, money-making imperative having long since left him, Fuhr gave Sorbet 15 years to develop and thrive. Seven years later it has found its groove, but the first few years were tough. Fuhr soon found out why the beauty business is fickle.
“Staffing is a problem. This industry is not filled with integrity. People continually leave and take clients with them,” he says.
At first he found himself pumping money into Sorbet to keep it going. “It felt like I was throwing money into a bottomless pit. The banks can be tough and you need the angels in your life to keep coming.”
He remained at the helm until the tide turned.
In 2006, the Sorbet Society loyalty programme was launched, and this has proved to be the backbone of the business, with membership approaching 80 000. By 2009, the business was solid, with 13 stores, and was ready to franchise.
Since then Sorbet has grown to 50, and forged a relationship with Clicks, which sells Sorbet products and is launching Sorbet nail bars in its stores. In Dunkeld shopping centre, Sorbet has just launched the first Sorbet Drybar, a quick in-and-out wash and blow-dry hair salon.
Sorbet, Fuhr concedes, is a “bit of a family business”. He’s brought his children, twins Brent and Jade, 26, on board as operations manager and brand manager, respectively. The MD is Rudi Rudolph, a friend and colleague from the Super Mart days. Fuhr’s niece Debra Beswick is the buyer of all the skincare and nail products for the salons.
Fuhr’s dream is that Sorbet will become a predominant brand catering for the needs and wants of SA women. His philosophy is that service, not money, should be the driver of your work.
“I started out excited about money and power, but after 40 years… the value you see is in the contribution you made,” he says.
As to a more prosaic lesson, Fuhr says he’s learnt to “take care of my skin”.
These days he divides his time between Joburg and Cape Town, where his girlfriend, Sandy Roy, runs the Beauty Therapy Institute. By 65, he plans to spend much of his time in the bush and writing books. The last stretch of a rich and diverse entrepreneurial life, having fathered an iconic SA brand. - The Star