Cuan Chelin believes that anyone can be successful if they have the determination and put in the necessary work and time to achieve whatever they set out to achieve. He also points out that a proper mindset is as important as having the necessary skillset to achieve success. What has propelled Chelin to do well in business is the belief that one has to work harder and smarter than those around them. Furthermore, he has a “question everything” attitude – he sees himself as being very curious, a trait that has him asking “why” a lot. Chelin’s curiosity and hard work has enabled him to build up Super Brands into a leading investment group and one of South Africa’s most recognised and respected brands.
The Making of an Entrepreneur
Chelin’s parents played a big part in molding his entrepreneurial drive. His parents did relatively well for themselves in their corporate jobs: his father being an accountant for a bank and his mother being a bookkeeper – both jobs that deal with numbers, something Chelin would pick up and claim as his own.
As a young boy, his curiosity had him try different money-making schemes. He recalls when his parents operated a running club, and every Tuesday and Thursday he would collect the used tin cans left behind by the runners and would recycle them for some money in return. He would also sell second-hand clothes on the side of the road. At 16, while still in high school, he waitered at a restaurant – an experience which taught him a great deal about sales and serving a customer’s needs. Chelin was always pursuing some “odds and ends” to keep himself busy by making bits of money while feeding his curiosity. Not too long ago, his mother sent him an email where she attached a business card that Chelin had made on her type-writer when he was a young boy, where he advertised his trolley-pushing services. Small and innocent it may be, it is those small things that add up much later and amount to bigger, better things.
In his high school years, Chelin wasn’t exactly sure what kind of career to pursue, but was passionate about both engineering and accounting – two contrasting fields that had him conflicted on which course he should take. He decided to take the Charted Accountant [CA(SA)] route as it offered better grounding for his business pursuits. Even though he has never identified himself as an accountant, he saw the value of the CA (SA) qualification and the opportunities that come with it.
Chelin is an avid reader, and has become even more so when he began his entrepreneurial journey. He reads anything interesting that he can get his hands on – from business and self-help books, to professional magazines such as Forbes and Entrepreneur (which he made front cover in the June 2014 Edition). In his earlier days he found business books and biographies as very helpful sources of inspiration and insight into what it takes to make it big in business and be fulfilled. As of lately, he tries to balance the material he reads (philosophy is a genre he enjoys) and indulges on audio books as well, which are very convenient given his always-on-the-move lifestyle.
Who does Cuan Chelin look up to? First and foremost, he looks up to his parents. Since his parents operated a running club he also got into the habit of running and his mother instilled the belief in him that it’s not about how you start but rather how you finish – a principle that serves him well in business. He admires different people for their unique way of doing things. In terms of public figures, he looks up to Nelson Mandela, for obvious reasons. In business, he admires Jack Welch of General Electric for his sound business principles; Richard Branson of the Virgin Group for his passion and energy, and Steve Jobs of Apple for his sense of design and innovation.
Making it in Business
Despite his relative young age, Chelin has extensive experience in business prior to Super Brands. After he did his articles and became a certified Charted Accountant he worked for Chemical Specialities (Pty) Ltd (Chemspec). While here, he had the fortunate opportunity to enroll in the internationally acclaimed Edinburgh Business School’s MBA program. While doing his MBA in Scotland, he came across an article in a business magazine that dealt with leverage buyouts. This sparked an idea in Chelin: he realized that the chemical specialty business he worked for was primed for a management buyout. It had properties that were undervalued and underutilized, and ticked all the boxes for an acquisition. He then drafted a detailed proposal, which he presented to the management of Chemspec. Management went along with it, and with the backing of private equity bankers, the buyout was a success. As reward for his outstanding work, he was given the position of CEO of one of Chemspec’s subsidiary brands, House of Paint. As a 24-year-old leading a then-R200 million business he felt way out of his depth, but was forced to learn a lot quickly. Chelin only stayed in House of Paint for a year and a half as he knew eventually he had to follow his calling and go out on his own.
Chelin argues that a very important thing to remember is understanding why you’re in business – and that is to serve your customer. His skillset lies in knowing the kind of customers he is targeting and knowing what needs to be done to serve them. He believes that once you know and understand your customer it becomes much easier to know what kind of people, resources and strategies you need to employ, so that your business stands out and you purposefully serve your customer base.
Chelin’s passion, generally speaking, is business. He is driven by all the different mechanisms that make a business function and working towards achieving his “why” for doing business. He enjoys the art of building a business and the process that entails – working with a strong team, deal making, and growing something that he can then sell. A testament to this is the fact that Super Brands went from a team of just 8 people when it started in 2006 to over 400 today!
Chelin sees Super Brands as a family affair – whether they buy into an existing business or build their own, the people involved see themselves as belonging to a cause larger than the holding company itself. Collaboration and knowledge sharing is key to holding Super Brands together and Chelin is very involved in all businesses to ensure that the brand’s flag is held high and everyone is pulling their weight. There’s a strong spirit of entrepreneurship in all the companies/divisions of Super Brands – something that keeps the brand curious and pushing boundaries. As different as the businesses within Super Brands may be, they see themselves as being part of one big family rather than a hierarchy. They are empowered to run their own affairs, yet the companies actively help one another with shared ideas, values, interest and goals.
I was interested to find out from Chelin how he decides on what to invest in. There’s no set criteria for investment for Chelin and Super Brands, as different opportunities need different lenses to identify their viability. But essentially, it has to be a good deal, with more upside than risk. Ideally, he looks for business opportunities that would synergize with the existing businesses of Super Brands. He incorporates a horizontal integration strategy in his business endeavors, particularly when it comes to retail – which basically means having full control of all aspects of the supply chain and getting product into the hands of customers.
Chelin stresses that he doesn’t necessarily run three companies at once, instead, he heads the holding company of those businesses and has competent groups of people running them independently. His role is one of guidance and strategic direction. He has an interesting way of allocating his time: each day of the week he will dedicate to a certain function of business and focus on that particular function across the board. For example, on Mondays he will focus only on numbers for all the businesses; Tuesday will be all about customer acquisition and satisfaction; Wednesday he will shift his focus to marketing; Thursday will be about dealing with suppliers, and Friday he will focus on human resources. However, this does not make Chelin a hands-on leader, but rather shows him playing a support function for the managers of his business who make the day-to-day decisions.
For now Super Brands is a private company, but Chelin doesn’t consider listing the company is off the table. It may be a great way of raising funds for a large acquisition or for expansion in future.
Chelin believes that the best way for business to flourish in South Africa is the removal of barriers to entry. Too many businesses are held back because of the red-tape entailed in starting, running and growing a business. He also believes that in order for the local economy to grow, it is up to us civil society to make our country a place people and businesses outside the country want to invest in. Chelin compliments our banking system, describing it as “top class”, and expresses that South Africa has unique opportunities that most countries don’t have and that it is important to do what we can with what we have. He would like to see manufacturing being a priority – in that way we import less and create and export more. Chelin is well educated and does recognize that the education system doesn’t create enough job-creators such as himself. He believes what needs to done has to start with the syllabus – it needs to be redesigned in such a way that it teaches people how to make good use of the information and resources around them.
Goal-setting is very important for Chelin. He sets goals every year – which he reviews every Monday to remind himself what to focus on. He is most grateful for good health. He exercises everyday to remain fit and remain disciplined. A strong body promotes a strong mind, and with determination and hard work, it culminates to a strong brand.
Written by: Papama Nyati
Images: Sam Bears