DURBAN: 101212 Founder of the Oxford Freshmarket Brett Lattimer and his business partner Paul Beltramo. PICTURE: GCINA NDWALANE

Brett Latimer has shaken up the food retail business in Durban with a single store, Oxford Freshmarket, in one of the most densely traded streets on the Bluff.

The store is the talk of the town and taking on the competition in Tara Road, including major retailers Checkers, Pick n Pay and Bluff Meats. It has been such a hit that the R75 million that Latimer and his partner, Paul Beltramo, invested in the new venture has already been recouped.

“We bought the old Hanee Fresh store and premises, and upgraded it to a 2 400m2 store under our all-new Oxford Freshmarket brand. We wanted to create a destination store offering the best fresh fruit and veg, meat and other foodstuffs at very competitive prices. Yes, we have created a stir, but we are here to stay,” Latimer said this week.

This is just the start. The duo have bought four sites to open stores in Hillcrest, Chatsworth, Amanzimtoti and Pinetown. These are expected to be opened over the next two years and take turnover of the burgeoning new chain to more than R2 billion.

In an audacious move, Latimer and company have bought the landmark Heritage shopping centre, which is set to undergo a major overhaul to accommodate a new Oxford Freshmarket super store there.

They are also looking for a site in Richards Bay and are eyeing major store sites in the Western Cape, Port Elizabeth and Gauteng.

Cash-flush after completing the sale of his six-store Cambridge Meats business for about R500m to JSE-listed Massmart between 2008 and 2010, Latimer bought a Ferrari and a house in Clifton.

But he was restless and was getting unhappy.

When he sold Cambridge to Massmart, he took his financial director and personal assistant. He knew he and Beltramo would get back into the food retail game, and by last year they were looking at various options, while having to comply with a restraint of trade with Massmart not to open a store within 5km radius of Cambridge outlets.

“There were feelings of bereavement at leaving our staff when we sold Cambridge. We grew that business and became a family. Many of our staff who started there as entry-level packers ‘graduated at Cambridge’ over the years to become supervisors and managers,” said Latimer.

“Not long after the sale, both Beltramo and I were moping around. We needed to get back into what made us most happy – being in business… I get a kick out of being in this business.”

“We’ve had a roller-coaster ride in business… But, this is our life and what we love to do,” added Beltramo.

Latimer has been in the food retail business for more than three decades. His first job was as a trainee butchery manager at a local Spar, earning R65 a week.

He is a colourful and charismatic man who is open and not afraid to speak his mind, often seen on the shop floor interacting with staff and customers.

He unashamedly talks of failing his matric year at Kearsney College. His single mother enrolled him at Damelin, where he did commerce and typing. That got him into university, but he dropped out.

“I’ve learnt more out of the university of life and I have used my businesses to grow many people who have worked for Cambridge and Oxford,” he said.

“One of the people that really made a positive impact on my life was retail heavyweight Johnny Limbouris, who I worked with as an understudy while at Spar.

“Limbouris gave me advice when I decided to go out on my own… I had come into an inheritance of R17 000 and he advised me to buy a butchery in Overport and that was my first business. I built it up and two years later sold it at 100 percent profit.”

Latimer later bought the Induna butchery in Umgeni Road, where he first met Beltramo and started servicing the largely black commuter market. He was later involved in a string of butcheries in Boxer stores before getting an opportunity to buy the Cambridge outlet near the busy Berea and Warwick Junction area. The duo grew the business to six stores, 1 012 staff and a turnover of almost R1bn before the sale to Massmart.

“My success in business and especially with Cambridge and now Oxford is through being hands-on and investing in my staff. At Cambridge we never had a union and staff were paid well compared to the other food retail groups.

“You need to treat your staff well and they will treat your customers well. When we sold the business, I gave R24m to key staff who had been with us for a long time… Today at Oxford, none of my 400 staff earn less than R3 000,” he said.

Without giving away trade secrets, Latimer said Oxford could offer its customers the low prices that it does thanks to its strong network of suppliers, especially in fresh fruit and vegetables and meat.

He said Oxford sold more than R12m in meat monthly, which was probably more than any other supermarket store in the province.

Beltramo said besides having many farmers supplying the store directly, they were usually the earliest at main markets to get the best-quality fresh fruit and vegetables for their store.

“I believe in Raymond Ackerman’s saying that the rich like low prices and the poor people need them,” he said.

“But Oxford is beating the other players in delivering this to customers. That’s why our single store turns over R35m on average monthly.”