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My father and I - a personal journey into business

My father was a great entrepreneur. He came to South Africa at the age of 20 with £5 pounds in his pocket and went on to build one of Johannesburg's most iconic retail food brands.
When he opened Fontana Highpoint in 1970, it was the first 24-hour convenience store in the southern hemisphere. In keeping with his flair for the dramatic, my father held an opening ceremony at which he threw away the keys, publicly declaring that the store would never close. 45 years later Fontana Highpoint is still open, having closed its doors only once - to commemorate the death of my brother. But retailing was only one chapter in my father's business adventures. He was an international trader dealing in electronic appliances, meat, and crude oil. He invested in a commercial explosives factory in Greece and launched the first scratch-card lottery in South Africa.

Business as dull and boring

Looking back, I now realise that my father's career was defined by his creativity and his courage. But growing up I never quite grasped these things. I viewed business as dull and boring. After a childhood spent working in his stores - packing shelves, checking dates on yoghurts, and serving Cornish Pastries to hardened tradesmen and drunk revelers - I was determined to forge a different path for myself. I did not want to be a businessman like my father, I did not want to compete with his shadow, instead I wanted to be an artist - a writer, or a filmmaker.

After four years studying film and television in New York, I returned to South Africa to make my first movie. Unfortunately, funding proved to be a problem. After two frustrating years, I decided to start a web development company instead. It was an act of desperation, a kind of escape from the disappointment of a failed dream. The company I co-founded, VWV Interactive, rapidly grew to be South Africa's leading web development company and within 18 months we had sold 49% to Primedia and Datatec. It was an unexpected success. And in some ways it was an unwelcomed one as well, because I felt that it had forced me to deviate from my path.

Youngest CEO of a Johannesburg-listed company

I decided to leave VWV and return to my goal of making a movie. But Primedia convinced me to join them instead, allowing me to establish an entertainment division. And so my journey as an "accidental tourist" into the world of business continued. Within six months we had acquired Ster-Kinekor for R1,5 billion and I was sitting on the board of the country's largest film company - but I was still no closer to making a film myself. Within a year, we had launched and listed a new internet group called Metropolis and, at 28 years old, I was the youngest CEO of a Johannesburg-listed company. I woke up every morning, looked in the mirror and in the words of David Byrne I said, "This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful life! How did I get here?" Most people in my position would have celebrated their success, but I felt like a failure because I had abandoned my dream.

When my two-year contract at Metropolis expired, my wife and I packed up our lives in Johannesburg and escaped down to Cape Town. I pulled the script I had written eight years earlier out of the drawer, dusted it off, and went out and made the movie. I had finally battled my way back onto the path I had originally chosen. But over the next 10 years, as I continued to pursue my film career, I also continued to stumble into new business opportunities and, despite myself, I found the process of envisaging and launching new businesses creatively enthralling.

Leverage my creativity as an entrepreneur

I started a creative consultancy, a television commercial production company, and a branded entertainment agency. But they were all small companies, focused primarily on enabling my ambitions as a film director. At some point in 2009 I realised that I was getting more creative fulfilment from building these small companies than I was from making the films and TV commercials that I was using them to produce. And that is when I decided to start a real business - one that would not be limited by my ambitions as a filmmaker but that would leverage my creativity as an entrepreneur instead.

Less than a year later, NATIVE was born. It is, in many ways, the business that I have spent a lifetime working towards. It is a profound embodiment of who I am, and the perfect vehicle through which to continue my development. Thoroughly convinced of that fact, I have had the company logo tattooed onto my wrist. It will be there until the day I die.

After years of stumbling unwittingly into new business opportunities I finally realise three things:

  1. Above all else, my father was an artist;
  2. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur;
  3. Above all else, entrepreneurs are artists who apply their creativity in business.

We were so similar, my father and I, and yet it took me 40 years to reconcile his ambitions for me with my own ambitions for myself. Finally, I go to bed at night comfortable in the knowledge that he would be proud of what I have become... and I fall asleep immensely grateful for all the invaluable lessons that I have learned from him.

NATIVE VML's press office

NATIVE VML is a digitally-led full-service marketing agency that strives to forge deep relationships between its clients and their customers.
Emma Weise
Hey Jason,
Thanks for the article and insights into your very interesting journey! Having only stumbled onto my creativity in the last decade... I can relate to your somewhat windy road!

I too was a tourist in Corporate... and now that I too have chosen to leverage my creativity... I'm amazed at the doors that have opened up!
Posted on 18 Mar 2014 14:37
Paulo Dias
Mr X, you continue to be the most inspiring person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Posted on 18 Mar 2014 16:49
mario diplock
What a refreshing, honest article.

Thanks Jason, enjoyed it.
Posted on 18 Mar 2014 17:10
jonathan peers
Hi there Jason

This is a absolutely beautiful article, you have and are living your truth.

Jonathan X Peers
Posted on 19 Mar 2014 10:08
Daren Wedderburn
cool story
Posted on 19 Mar 2014 10:55
John Sanei
Fantastic Jason - love the fact that you wear your heart and brand on your sleeve (wrist)
Posted on 20 Mar 2014 11:07
Posted on 21 Mar 2014 07:04