Women Unlocked: Business secrets from Margaret Hirsch

Women Unlocked: Business secrets from Margaret Hirsch

Margaret Hirsch is an executive director at one of the biggest appliance and homeware stores in South Africa - a company she helped build from the ground up.

Margaret Hirsch
Margaret Hirsch/ Instagram

Wife. Mother. Boss Lady. Margaret Hirsch holds many titles, but she has another label she holds dear to her heart - "champion of women empowerment". 

The KwaZulu-Natal businesswoman's road to success reads like an inspiring Nicholas Sparks movie that began when she lost her job as a secretary in the 1970s. 

Married, pregnant, and with little money to her name, Margaret and her husband, Allan Hirsch - an appliance repairman - decided to become their own bosses. 

"We started our own business because we didn’t have an option. I lost my job when I got pregnant even though I had been married for five years and at the same stage my husband was just tired of working for a boss who was not progressive. My decision was made for me and he subsequently made the decision himself. 

"We couldn’t be nervous about it not working out because we took the plunge and it was the point of no return. We didn’t have any money to fall back on so it had to work out and I think that’s the best thing – not have plan B. We only had plan A and we had to make it work," she says. 

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Margaret remembers setting up their first store like it was yesterday. 

"When we first started out we had a tiny little shop at 169 Umhlanga Rocks Drive which was probably as big as your toilet. The end result was when I started a cooking school, I had to put all the appliances out onto the pavement and it led to the people coming into the shop. 

"There wasn’t room for us, customers, and a cooking demo as well. So it was really really small. Today we have 22 outlets countrywide including the Samsung stores in Mall of Africa, Sandton, Gateway, and Pavilion, and today I am just as passionate about all the stores as I was over that first little one way back in 1979."

The couple had next to nothing when they began their entrepreneur journey - all they had was a dream, a plan, and less than R1,000 in their bank account. 

"We used up every single cent we had and it was all spent the first day.  The first day's takings were 11c, but in those days a loaf of bread cost 9c, so we had enough for sandwiches for the next day and during the next morning we had to make enough money so we can buy supper the next night. 

"That’s how it started. Very small, then we made money and we ploughed it back into the business and we continue to do that to this day, and that’s why we own all our own properties. All the money we earn we buy our properties and we plough the money back into buying stock, into training our teams, and to making sure that we not only improve our lives but all the lives around us," Margaret tells us. 

More than 40 years after opening their first store, Hirsch's is still going strong and remains one of the most recognisable brands in the country. Hirsch's has a turnover that exceeds R2-billion.

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Margaret has everything she ever dreamed of, but she didn't have the best start in life. Her father died when she was 10, and the family battled to cope. She temporarily lived in a foster home while her mother looked for work. 

"Starting off in the tough years with no money at all, with a single parent and running a child-headed household from when I was 10 years old definitely shaped me to be the woman I am today. It taught me to be resilient, taught me to live on what you have right now and it also taught me that everything is relative. What some people think is a lot of money, other people think is a little money. When we had a little bit of money we thought it was a lot."

Margaret started working on the day she matriculated from Pietermaritzburg's Russell High School and she has been working ever since. 

Her resilience in tough times helped make her a confident woman in the workplace, and she never let anyone step on her toes. 

"I have never found being a woman a challenge, in fact, I always found it as an advantage. People will tell you that I always stand up for my rights and no man has ever tried to take advantage of me because they know I will give them as good as they get. 

"Being female has never held me back and in fact most times in the boardroom I am the only woman and I still do make the tea and coffee and hand it out. As you know you always have to give before you can receive and by being there making the coffee and tea and handing it out, doing what I have to do, I just find that I am on an equal footing with all the men and they know it."

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Margaret is always learning and recently completed her final MBA exam. She has been teaching her children about hard work and entrepreneurship from as young as six years old. 

Her children, Luci and Richard, are a big part of the family business, and you can still find them getting their hands dirty at one of Hirsch's branches. 

"I think every parent should teach their children to work. My son started work aged 8 at the 'home and garden show' and my daughter was aged 6 at the time also coming to work with me every day and they are still working in the business today. I do believe that parents should take their children to work and teach their children to work. 

"There is so much that you can’t actually teach a child, they just absorb it by being around you. There is a lot of things that you can’t learn at Harvard business school that my children learned when they were at my desk watching me deal with customers, build relationships with suppliers. Today, Richard, my son, is the CEO and my daughter Luci is the brand manager and they are both passionate about the company. However, both did work overseas first before they came back and joined the family business."

Giving back is a big part of Margaret's life. She has uplifted her staff, single mothers, entrepreneurs, teenage girls, and so many more.

While both men and women have benefited from the business mogul's efforts, she is passionate about women empowerment. 

"I absolutely love working with women, I work with women all day, every day... The other way that I help women is to start their businesses because a lot of women just haven’t got the confidence to do it on their own so I give them that added boost so they can start a business. Then I help women to run their businesses and grow their businesses through my Women in Business initiatives and also through my Entrepreneur's Club which has grown so much."

Margaret also does a lot of philanthropy work, and recently made a trip to Orange Farm to help women in need. 

"The women are so poor they can’t afford food let alone sanitary pads and we have given out the sanitary pads to them, literally thousands and thousands over the years. I believe that a woman should not be punished for getting her period and she should be able to cope with the situation and it's still something that a lot of women feel is taboo." 

In 2020, women are still trying to break glass ceilings, but Margaret says :"My message to women who are trying to break the glass ceiling, don’t worry about the glass ceiling get out and do it on your own because at the end of the day a man has put that ceiling there. If you get out and do it yourself, nobody can put a ceiling above you without your permission. It is true that as a woman you have to work harder and be better than anybody else but with Kamala Harris coming in now, her speech was the best speech I have ever heard. She was just amazing and with leaders like her women can only go from strength to strength.

"I honestly believe that every women is wonderful, is beautiful and is fantastic and I only have to get them to believe that about themselves. So I think that today a woman has to have a lot of self-confidence, she has to have high self-esteem and if she has these two qualities, nothing can hold her back."

Why has Hirsch's remained successful after all these years? For Margaret, the answer is simple - good customer service.

"We have always put customer service first, second, third, and fourth and we always made sure that we had happy customers who returned often. We have worked through the most difficult customers you can ever imagine."

COVID-19, fires, floods, and four recessions later, Hirsch's is still on top of its game. 

"As Les Brown says, if you can look up, you can get up, so you just get up and keep on going." 

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