Ian Fuhr: 100% focused on helping South African organizations to build strong company cultures
By Charndré Emma Kippie
Serial Entrepreneur and Founder of the Sorbet Group and The Hatch Institute, Ian Fuhr, has come a long way since starting his very first business in the late 1970s. Today, he is a respected serial entrepreneur with seasoned experience in leadership and creating exemplary company cultures. For Ian, culture always comes first; without it a business cannot thrive.
What are your main career objectives?
After more than 5 decades of starting and building successful businesses, I am now 100% focused on helping South African organisations to build strong company cultures. Transformative business cultures treat employees with dignity and respect. They show employees from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds that they are valued, and that their physical, psychological and financial health are important to the business. When a strong company culture is built, in which employees are treated like human beings, and not just units of production, a transformation takes place. Employees have a common purpose, and they feel like they belong. They care about the business, each other, and the customers they serve.
These same employees go out into their communities with this same ethos, which supports South Africa’s growth and transformation, and, because the end-result is obsessive customer service, the business does well. I believe that businesses have an important role to play in addressing systemic racism and racial polarisation in South Africa, and that by helping them to address their company culture from the ground up, we are playing a small but significant role in that growth and development.
Please could you tell us a bit about your background – how did you get to this point?
I launched my first business, K-Mart, with my brother in 1976. We started a discount retail business in Johannesburg. Our employees and customers were all black, and so we quickly realised that we needed to understand people who came from a very different background to us. In those early years, I learnt about the two South Africas that lived side by side, and how devastating the apartheid system was to 90% of South Africa’s population, as well as how businesses served to only further entrench systemic racism.
By 1991, I had built and sold a couple of businesses, and launched a consultancy, Labour Link, to help organisations address racism in the workplace for a new, transformed South Africa. Throughout my career, I had paid close attention to concepts, frameworks and business methodologies that addressed purpose and culture, which I used to develop my own culture framework.
What I experienced through Labour Link filled me with purpose, and when we launched Sorbet in 2005, I was essentially testing out my culture theories. I wanted to transform the local beauty salon sector, but more importantly, I believed that we could build a successful brand by putting our people first and tackling racial polarisation head-on. We didn’t shy away from the issues. We embraced them. We listened to our employees, respected them, and worked together to build a brand that touched people’s lives. I sold Sorbet in 2017 when it had 220 franchised outlets. Today, the Hatch Institute is the culmination of the successes we had with Sorbet. We have formalised a methodology, called Cultureneering, which is the process of creating a strong culture in a diverse workforce which lays the platform for obsessive customer service, and have taken it to South African businesses.
What excites you the most about building company cultures?
We’re changing people’s lives. Our Cultureneering programmes, race relations workshops and even our personal leadership coaching are all designed to help our clients support their staff with dignity and respect, whether they’re dealing with a colleague or customer.
Our democracy is almost 3 decades old, and we’re still struggling with high levels of racial polarisation in the workplace. Customer service levels are sub-par and businesses are struggling to meet their objectives. The right culture solves so many problems.
Everyone understands the purpose of work and employees work together even if views and cultural backgrounds are not shared. It fosters obsessive customer service, which ensures customer loyalty and ultimately better revenue and profit margins. There is so much good that can be done to help businesses achieve and live their purpose.
What life mantra do you live by?
I have two. The first is that “if service is beneath you, leadership is beyond you”. This basically means that the purpose of leadership is to serve – leaders should be serving the people who serve the people. If you expect your employees to serve your needs, they won’t be focused on your customers.
The second is that building a company culture doesn’t help the bottom line – it is the bottom line. Get your culture right, and everything else, including your profit margins, will fall into place. But you can’t expect to succeed if all you’re focused on is making money. The purpose of business should be to serve the needs and wants of your customers. Money is always the reward for good service, it is never the purpose of business.
What 3 tips do you have when it comes to implementing solutions in your field?
- First, understand that culture is built around a set of moral values that puts people first and is entirely focused on customer service.
- Second, understand and navigate the socio-political environment in which we live and work. This is critical to the success of building strong company cultures. Trust, respect, and community building become the foundation of a culture that everyone can believe in.
- Finally, ensure that your employees have a sense of belonging regardless of their group or background. When this is achieved, serving others becomes the common focus of the business and is deeply fulfilling for every member of the organisation.
Have you read any books that have inspired you and your career thus far?
Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead have both been very useful.
What is your ‘why’ i.e. Bottom line? And how do you stay motivated?
My true purpose is to inspire people to make a positive impact on the world. The purpose of humans (and therefore all businesses) is to serve others. Business leaders need to understand this simple truth, which will in turn build better lives for each of their employees.
Who mentored you? And what’s the biggest lesson you took from that experience?
I was mentored by Jerry Schuitema back in the 1990s, who taught me that the purpose of life and work is to serve others. I have also been inspired by Richard Branson and Robbie Brozin of Nandos.
As an expert in your field, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t wait to build the right culture. Many start-ups are so focused on sales and customers and R&D that they forget about their cultures. It’s much, much harder to fix a bad culture than it is to bake it in from the beginning. Make this a priority. You’ll end up building a business with the right people on board who are obsessed with serving your customers, which will increase customer retention and help you to build a better, more sustainable business – plus, you’ll be positively impacting the lives of your employees.