Studying while building a business: hectic but worth it

Breched-de-Kock-February-2013

Breched believes that a significant part of the success of the business has to do with his decision to study B Com honours at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), a four-year undertaking of late nights, fatigue and a hectic juggling of business, family and personal time.
Breched de Kock
Build-It

Breched de Kock wanted to study engineering. He was accepted into university, but like so many South Africans, the family couldn’t afford the fees in the mid 90s, and he joined his father Benjamin’s welding business in Atlantis north of Cape Town.

Today, Breched and Benjamin’s success in building a thriving hardware shop in the town is not just the usual testimony to the strength of family business, but Breched’s story in particular is a powerful example of why business owners should seriously consider formal study.

For a while, the De Kocks’ business consisted of various combinations of manufacturing, run by Benjamin, and trade in engineering supplies, championed by Breched. Eventually, the trade side overshadowed manufacturing, and the two teamed up to establish a Build-It hardware franchise in Atlantis.

Business Partners financed the establishment of the franchise, and again its expansion in the Atlantis CBD. Over the past few years they more than doubled the turnover of the business, and they now employ 24 people, up from 13 when they started.

Breched believes that a significant part of the success of the business has to do with his decision to study B Com honours at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), a four-year undertaking of late nights, fatigue and a hectic juggling of business, family and personal time.

The university recognised his experience, and allowed him onto the honours course after he scored well in some graduate modules that he started with.

Any business owner who has built a fledgling company will certainly marvel at the sheer effort, but many would also question the purpose of formalising the knowledge that he had surely picked up in practice already.

But Breched has no hesitation in recommending a full university course in business studies for anyone running a business. He lists some of the advantages:

  • Everything he learned in the twelve areas of business covered by the course, he was able to apply immediately in his business. It filled in the gaps in his knowledge.
  • Despite all his practical experience, he didn’t find the course too theoretical or out of touch with reality. Rather, the course enriched and broadened his practical knowledge. The course was steeped in corporate thinking, and he sometimes had to work on translating the content to apply to his small business, which does not have things like a CFO, a board or an HR department. But even that is a good exercise for an owner-manager, he reckons.
  • Previously, he focused narrowly on profit and ownership. Now, he sees his business in a much broader context with all the stakeholders, from employees, customers, neighbours, competitors and the community, carefully considered.
  • He built up a wide network of professionals who studied the course with him and finds that he can tap into their expertise.
  • During the four years of his studies, he was able to discuss specific problems in his business with the professors and experts who ran the course.
  • He finds that he had acquired a “lingo” that helps in business debates and negotiations.

For Breched there is no doubt that he got an excellent return on every ounce of sweat he put into his decision, but he makes no bones about how difficult it was.

Twice a week he travelled the 50km to the UWC campus to attend the evening classes. At times he had to miss class because of business crises, and had to redo at least one module because of it. Although the course is designed for working people, Breched says the lecturers tend to forget it, and pile on the work.

The hardest aspect for Breched was giving up hours of family time. When everyone was gathered around the weekend braai fires, he sat in front of his books. Another difficulty was physical fatigue, which crept up on him after about a year of late nights.

Breched said what kept him going was the fact that he was doing it not just for the business improvements that came along with it, but because it meant so much for him personally. Giving up on that deep-seated goal would have been harder than pushing through.

What also helped was the support of his family, and the fact that his father was at the business. Business owners who want to study part-time must be able to rely on solid management to take care of the business while they are working on assignments or preparing for exams, says Breched.

There is one unexpected downside to studying business that Breched found. He wonders if he would have started his business at all if he had first done the BCom, which changed the way he thinks about risk. Now, he is acutely aware of the cash cushion needed in his business whereas previously he would simply not have worried about it.

But it could not have done too much damage to his entrepreneurial spirit. As soon as he gets Build-It Atlantis to run on its own, he wants to start a consultancy aimed at small business owners who can do with some advice from someone with years of practical experience combined with broad business knowledge.