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 Love of pioneering drives busy entrepreneur


 It is not unusual for entrepreneurs to have somewhat varied careers, mostly starting off as an employee in the business world somewhere before launching a business or two of their own. But very few entrepreneurs show such a remarkable ability to move in and out of corporate employment, academia and entrepreneurship as JW Swanepoel.

Over the course of his career, the 38-year-old Bloemfontein entrepreneur, husband and father has often had to juggle between more than one work- and culture-related activity at once. Studying animal husbandry, farming part time, running a church-based youth camp, a printing business and an abattoir, doing a MBA and starting a college were all activities that have formed his identity, he says.

He is currently a full-time lecturer and researcher at the University of the Free State. He has led a very successful United Nations research project and is about to complete his PhD. Apart from business and academics, he is also an avid sportsman and recently took part in the duathlon world championship event in Spain.

Swanepoel says it is a love of pioneering that drives him – building something out of nothing, or creating order in a chaotic organisation – and a knack for project management and logical thinking that allows him to pull it off.

Having grown up on a farm in Rouxville in the southern Free State, it is not surprising that he started off studying agriculture, but soon it became clear that his Masters degree in the breeding of livestock would not keep him tied down in one field only.

While completing his masters, he ran a church-based youth camp which gave him his first experience of management. This was followed by managing at a livestock embryo flushing facility.

When a friend asked him to help out at his printing business which had grown too fast, Swanepoel took up the challenge and the business bug bit him. He loved setting up systems in the business which up until that point had grown without much structure.

Feeling that he needed a more solid foundation to pursue his interest in the business world, he embarked on an MBA, a course which he describes as “life changing”. “Everyone suffers from a certain amount of tunnel vision, and an MBA allows you to truly see the big picture of a business,” he says.

Towards the end of his MBA, he and a fellow student, Danie Grobler, saw the need for an affordable post-school training facility in Bloemfontein and decided to open an outlet of MSC Business College.

The MSC group, which is fast becoming one of the largest names in tertiary education in South Africa, is a fully accredited further-education provider offering quality diplomas and certificates using the latest technology. The state-of-the-art teaching methodology and the group's commitment to the holistic development of the student impressed the two entrepreneurs. The partners bought in to the group’s slogan, “Building brighter futures”, since they also believe in investing into and making a difference in people’s lives.

Getting finance to start the franchise proved difficult, with the banks turning down their application as too risky. Nevertheless, Business Partners Limited, in partnership with SA Franchise Warehouse, saw the potential, not only in the business idea, but also in the entrepreneurs behind the franchise, and financed the franchise.

But this was at the end of 2013, and Swanepoel and Grobler had to pull out all the stops to open up the college for the start of the new academic year, which they did with no fewer than 70 students.

Growth has not been easy. Even though the demand for affordable post-matric education is high, the competition from established colleges in that tier of the market is fierce. The MSC Business College campus in Bloemfontein is situated in what has almost become a college district close to the transport hub in the CBD. Fierce competition and difficult economic conditions, which hit MSC's targeted low-income households the hardest, necessitated creative marketing strategies to draw in potential students and corporate clients.

Despite the difficulties, Swanepoel is confident that MSC has now passed its establishment phase and is ready for sustained growth, especially with an increasing emphasis on short courses aimed at corporate employees.

With a motivated team consisting of an excellent principal, five facilitators and two administrative staff members in place, Swanepoel has been able to pursue his other interests while keeping tight control over the college's financials and growth.

Among his many ventures, he currently acts as strategic consultant to a local abattoir and other companies. He is on the point of completing his PhD and fills a position as lecturer and researcher at the University of the Free State's Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

How does he manage to juggle so many projects at the same time? Swanepoel says that he has a solid support system in the form of his physiotherapist wife Karen and his beautiful 6-year-old daughter Jana.

It also helps that his various projects require attention at different times of the month, but very hard work is constantly required to prevent the balls from dropping, he says. He also stays away from time-wasting habits, and maintains a balance through his work and sport with a solid commitment to family life.

Swanepoel’s slogan is: “The devil whispers: ‘You can’t withstand the storm.’ The warrior replied: ‘I am the storm.’”




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