After gleaning vast amounts of valuable business acumen and insight during articles at Deloitte, Mariam Tayob Cassim CA(SA), along with her husband, rather serendipitously started a sweet factory called Richester Foods. Mariam has played a core role in growing the company from its novel beginnings to exponential success. Today the business boasts 600 employees and 10 large delivery trucks, and currently produces 7 000 sweets per minute. Success has been the result of sheer hard work, discipline and being business savvy
With her bubbly, down-to-earth personality Mariam − who is also a proud mother of three − candidly declares that she is very much a tomboy at heart and to this very day hates wearing dresses, with her favourite go-to outfit being a pair of designer jeans and sneakers.
One will instantly understand why she has managed to achieve so much in her lifetime. She has the kind of disciplined schedule that many aspire to but few really achieve. Her alarm goes off at 4 am every day (but she confesses that she allows exactly 20 minutes’ snooze), but no more than that. She sets her day off with prayer and some alone time, and at 5 am her personal trainer arrives. She also hardly ever watches TV, considering it a waste of precious time that can be used for more important things.
‘I gym like a crazy person. I feel that people in our profession don’t give enough attention to exercise and clean eating. The average CA is highly stressed, sitting and staring at our laptops for the better part of most days, constantly number crunching. Sitting is the “new smoking”, essentially meaning most CAs are chain smokers! When I didn’t eat correctly nor exercise, I was gritty and mean,’ she laughs, ‘but with a complete lifestyle and diet overhaul I became a calmer leader with laser sharp focus and energy, and once I got a taste of that I never looked back.’
Mariam is the eldest of three daughters of a father who was an extremely successful businessman, and he taught her from a young age (as he would have a son) to do just about anything she put her mind to: right from changing light bulbs to car tires. She even owned her own toolbox.
Mariam’s father began as a fabric wholesaler who sold material country wide and later went on to owning, and eventually selling, the second-largest biscuit factory in the country: Kwality Biscuits to Bokomo Foods.
She gleaned vast amounts on knowledge on how to be a successful entrepreneur from her father who spoke business to his girls around the dinner table every night.
‘My mom also always said, “Mariam, you are not a boy, so you are going to have to prove yourself always,” and from a young age ingrained in me that I was going to be a CA, even thought at that age I hadn’t the slightest idea what a CA(SA) was.’
Mariam met her husband just after she matriculated and got married at 19. They both decided to study at WITS, and while she pursued a career as a CA(SA), he studied dentistry. Shortly after he qualified, he realised that his passion lay in being an entrepreneur, and he decided to explore his talent at Kwality Biscuits focusing on product development, sales and marketing. During this time he also studied part time and completed an MBA through Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
In the meantime, Mariam completed articles at Deloitte. She describes this as a mind-blowing experience, which gave her an incredible amount of insight and skills into other facets of business.
‘The brilliant thing about Deloitte was that it opened my mind to an angle of the corporate world that I had not been exposed to before. I had been exposed to entrepreneurship with my dad, but not to how big businesses run and how office structures are set up and how systems are run so effectively. The exposure was a paradigm shift in my thinking, as only then did I realise how a successful corporation needs to be built from the ground up. While my dad was a really great entrepreneur, he didn’t have those corporate structures in place.’
‘Deloitte trained us on everything from report writing to being a leader, and even taught us about first impressions. They gave us a talk on corporate dressing: what is smart, what is casual, how you need to look and play the part of a CA.’
Mariam passed both her board exams first time round, writing her second board at 36 weeks pregnant with her first child.
She then left Deloitte to join her father at his biscuit factory, but in the very same year of joining her dad, Bokomo Foods made her dad an offer he could not refuse, and he sold and retired.
It was her husband who came up with the novel idea that turned them into sweet makers like Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He figured that because they still had a restraint of trade on biscuits, they could use the same customer base who bought their biscuits to start buying sweets.
‘When we started, we were copying sweets, and we formulated the recipes all by ourselves as we didn’t have the resources to utilise experts. We took a lot of info from the World Wide Web. In fact, till today we rarely use consultants, as my husband is extremely strong in bringing brands to life from concept stage to procurement of machines, all the way to packaging design and final recipe formulation.’
Mariam describes her husband as being a professional dentist who is the most brilliant sweet maker. They also have a third partner, Phani Krishna, who handles all the operational aspects of the business such as plant layout and process flow, machine maintenance and overall production.
’Between the three of us we had every skill and knowledge necessary to form a world-class organisation,’ says Mariam proudly.
Today they have 600 employees and have an installed capacity to produce 15 000 sweets a minute (currently making 6 000 a minute). They started with three small bakkies renting a hall at the Pretoria Show grounds, and now owns a fleet of 15 company vehicles, 10 large delivery trucks and two 55-seater buses, as well as 15 000 m2 of manufacturing facility space and a corporate head office that mimics Google’s look.
Mariam has had to learn to juggle multiple roles: from HR to hygiene, training, yard cleaner, compliance officer, and finally finance.
When they opened their factory in 2005, there was no defined list of the different government departments and regulations one needed to comply with, and one month after their factory opened, they received their first walk-in visit from the Department of Labour.
‘I had to learn really quickly and be agile on my feet, as they come with a checklist and give your four weeks to rectify non-compliances or, they threatened, shut down.’
Mariam decided she would take on the role of official company representative and liaison, so it became standard procedure that every time an inspector arrived at the gate, she would be summoned and handed the compliance checklist from the inspector.
‘I learned very quickly to first request the time to comply and then take it from there. My CA(SA) training of preparing audit files helped me immensely and we were able to pass each inspection easily, especially since I loved auditing as a subject at university.
‘Today I would recommend any new entrepreneur who wants to open an industry that employs lots of people to rather seek out a mentor who is prepared to share all the basic compliance requirements with you, as the pain of learning from failed inspections is mentally draining!’
Despite running a sweet factory, Mariam invests vast amounts into the well-being of employees.
‘I recognised that as a leader you have to make your staff believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to and to motivate them to be the best version of themselves. Once employees believed and felt appreciated and motivated, our company grew exponentially. This leadership skill comes from emotional intelligence, which we as the business owners intensely studied and subtly implemented. We hire a very specific personality to join our company, senior employees take the Gallup strength finder assessment, and we then place them in posts that match their strengths and then we found them to truly thrive.’
we asked Mariam how she stays in such amazing shape, being surrounded with so many sweet treats: ‘I cheat once a week on junk food, but the rest of the week, I have learned, that when I eat clean, wake up early, exercise correctly and treat my body like a temple, I’m a way more productive person. I reap the benefits of unwavering energy with a toned body and excellent skin. I am really diligent in ensuring I drink a minimum of three litres of water a day. A lot of people think they are tired, but they’re actually just thirsty.’
Two of her favourite quotes are ‘No matter how long it takes, it will get better’ and ‘The world does not need your opinion: it needs you to lead by example!’’
10 Tips for becoming a super successful entrepreneur
- Find a good mentor who resonates with you.
- Accept that you going to have to put in the hours and you will have to sacrifice something to work those hours.
- Try to always cut out the middleman; buy direct or do it yourself.
- Make a list of your strengths, then make another list of the strengths you believe you need to build a strong company and look for people who possess those skills.
- Exercise and eat correctly. When you have discipline in your core habits, it permeates through all aspects of your life, and most certainly in the management of your business
- Keep learning and upgrading yourself.
- Look after your employees: treat them like family and recognise that without them you are nothing.
- Maintain a good work/home life balance. Remember, your children are not your employees, and you must be able to separate from being the boss to being a mother and wife or you will never be successful in having both a work and family life.
- Start your day early with a set morning routine. This structured start to your day will set the tone for the rest of your day.
- Recognise that there are going to be some very dark moments and days in building and running a company. Don’t internalise this; rather share these dark moments with your inner circle.