“You must select a market, know the product you are selling and you must believe in what you are doing. You have to be single-minded and prepared to work day and night. In other words, you must eat, sleep and drink your business”.

With these words Renier van Rooyen described the recipe from which he created one of the largest retail businesses in South Africa from very humble beginnings. The key ingredients of this recipe were ‘Faith, Positive Thinking, Hard Work, Enthusiasm and Compassion’, combined which formed the building blocks for Pep Stores’ success under Renier’s leadership.

With the founding of the company in the 1950s he combined his personal philosophy for success with a business formula of selling clothing cheaper than anybody else’. The result was that within 25 years, he managed to turn a small concern operating out of a single shop with one employee, into a retail giant with 500 stores, 10 factories, 12,000 employees and a turnover of close to R300 million in 1981. During this period the name Pep became synonymous with quality clothing at discount prices, while the Pep slogans, ‘Always cheaper, always better! ‘We don’t sell cheap clothing: we sell clothing cheaply!’, became household words in South Africa.

Renier van Rooyen entered the business world at the age of 23 and achieved his success without the benefit of capital of his own. He originally borrowed the equivalent of R1,000 to start his business and had no business experience or financial training – this makes his feat all the more remarkable. Together with his humble beginnings in the unlikely entrepreneurial location of Upington in the rural, arid and sparsely-populated Northern Cape, his meteoric rise has reserved him a special place in South African business folklore -  the classic ‘rags-to-riches’ story.

An account of his life is inseparable from the history of Pep Stores, and although Renier retired
from the company in 1981, his reputation as the father of Pep still precedes him wherever he finds himself almost three decades later. Throughout the years he has striven to remain in touch with the firm, which, under leadership of his friend, Christo Wiese, continued to expand from the healthy foundation laid down by its founder to become the largest retailer in the southern hemisphere. 

This blog also deals with the other dimensions of Renier’s personality, such as his charismatic and dynamic personality, his leadership abilities, his legendary tact, enthusiasm and his ability to reach out to even the lowest-ranked of his employees. Like his business acumen, these personal characteristics were not the product of a ‘Harvard-type business education, but, as is often the case with born-leaders, appeared to come naturally to him.

Associated with these personal qualities was his compassion for his fellow man and his constant efforts to extend a helping hand to the needy - in Renier’s case this often was directed at the coloured community, which constituted a large part of Pep’s customer base, partially as a result of Pep’s origins in the Northern Cape and later in the Western Cape, where they constituted a majority of the population. This close link with the coloured community was evident not only from Renier’s financial generosity towards them, but also in his tireless efforts to oppose apartheid legislation which resulted so much hardship for the brown and black people of South Africa. 

Renier’s outspokenness on the injustices of apartheid constantly caused him unpopularity in government circles while his views on the necessity of scrapping apartheid measures such as the Group Areas Act preceded political reform of the De Klerk era by at least 20 years.

On a more personal level, the blog examines Renier’s decision and life-long desire to formally retire at the age of 50 in 1981, to see the world and then to try something different. As could be expected, a person with enier’s dynamism would not spend his retirement in an idle fashion, and a brief overview is provided of his low-key business activities since retirement from Pep, in particular his well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful venture into the medical manufacturing and plastics industries.

Background is also provided to Renier’s decision to emigrate from South Africa in 1985, a decision partly due to his resentment of the direction in which the National Party government was taking the country. Because of the esteem he enjoyed as one of the country’s top Afrikaner entrepreneurs, his move was interpreted at the time, especially by the Afrikaner establishment, as an expression of his lack of faith in the country under white rule. This is contrasted against his enthusiasm for the post-apartheid South Africa and his permanent return to the country in 1996, a display of his faith and commitment to the new non-racial democracy and subsequent recognition for his humanitarian efforts by Nelson Mandela.

Ultimately, however, this is an account of how one man ate, slept and drank his business, of his dreams and vision, and of his ambition and drive to succeed in the business world, and in the process, to elevate himself from a meager and humble existence to head a retail super-company. By giving substance to an idea of selling discount clothing for cash, Renier van Rooyen found a way of achieving his ambition, and his endeavors in this respect during the period 1955 to 1982 form the core of this blog and the book on which it is based.

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