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 Entrepreneur left school for business and never looked back

 

 Entrepreneurs are not known for always following a traditional approach to formal education. When Jose Nunes told his parents that he was going to leave school in Grade 8 to work full-time in the family's take-away restaurant, they were alarmed and upset, but he was adamant.

He grew up in his parent's traditional fish-and-chips shop in Potchefstroom and knew from an early age that school and further studies would only distract him from his dream of owning his own take-aways one day.

Today, the 34-year-old Nunes owns a thriving business called Die Fish en Chips Plek in Moreleta Park, Pretoria East. It provides work for seven people, and makes enough profit so that Nunes was recently able to acquire an investment property – another business premises that he is renting out – not far away from his shop.

Nunes' father immigrated to South Africa from Madeira and opened a family-run fish-and-chips shop, the Rio Cafe in Potchefstroom, typical of the Portuguese immigrant community at the time. From the time they could remember, the shop was central to the life of Nunes and his brother and sister, who worked there from early on and were experts in the trade by the time they reached high school.

Nunes says autonomy was central to his decision to go straight into business without finishing school. He did not want to work for a boss ever, he says, and even though working in the family business is not the same as having your own business, it is still a form of working for yourself.

This proved true when a friend urged the Nunes family to open up the same high-quality fish-and-chips take-aways in the small shopping centre he had bought in Pretoria. Jose, who was 26 at the time, decided that this was the time to step out of the family business and to go it alone.

But having served his family for so long, they all helped him with finance to set up the new shop. Without the family's support, he probably would not have been able to raise the capital. It was shortly after the recession sparked by the financial crash of 2008, and the banks were very hesitant to lend to new businesses.

Although Nunes knew the trade inside out and was fairly confident that the location could sustain a take-away restaurant, it was still a very scary move. Pretoria was dauntingly large compared to Potchefstroom, and there was no previous take-away shop in the premises that could provide any indication of what kind of sales figures would be possible.

The first three months were indeed nerve-racking. Sales figures were way below target, and on some days Nunes sold as few as ten pieces of hake. But Nunes stuck it out, putting everything he had into good customer service and quality control, and soon enough the customers started coming.

The growth in customer numbers was based on word-of-mouth, says Nunes, which in turn was based on his high-quality product.

For years, the family business had built up a relationship with one single Johannesburg-based supplier of fish, which in turn buys the hake from a single fishing operation in Cape Town.

On this ship, each individual fish is graded separately, as opposed to the more common practice of grading whole catches in bulk. The result is that the quality is a lot more consistent than most of the industry.

Nunes was able to extend the supplier relationship to his shop in Pretoria. He says the good-quality fish means that his prices are higher, but it is essential to keep customers coming back. Today, some customers come from far and wide to his shop “for the best fish-and-chips in Pretoria”.

Over the years, Nunes has added meat products to his menu, including burgers, Russians and cheese grillers, but has stuck to the single high-quality fish product.

It took Nunes five years to pay back all the family members who lent him the start-up funding and since then the business has done so well that he had been able to buy a commercial property as an investment last year. Business Partners Limited, who had financed the building for the previous owner, in turn helped Nunes with the finance to buy it. Nunes expects the rental income from the building to overtake the bond repayments in a few years’ time.

Looking forward, Nunes is considering the possibility of replicating his success in new branches, possibly in the form of a franchise group, with an emphasis at first on empowering his staff members.

Looking back at his career, Nunes has no doubt that he took the right decision to leave formal schooling in favour of throwing himself into the family shop, and later his own business. He acknowledges that for many aspirant entrepreneurs who do not know an industry as well as Nunes did, a better path to starting their own business would be to study first and gain work experience. Competition is fierce, he says, especially in an increasingly difficult market struggling with yet another recession.

On the other hand, says Nunes, “there are a lot of business opportunities out there, and if you wait too long before starting your own business, you'll miss them”.

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