En­trepreneurs III

Meet the “crazy Schoe­mans” from New Hanover who built up a fra­grance em­pire


Jan­nie Schoe­man was a pro­fes­sional rugby player, Afrikaans, with a con­ven­tional Afrikaner up­bring­ing: “You go to the army, you have to be tough, you have to play rugby, you may not cry, and you don’t think out­side the box,” he says. He worked at his fam­ily’s busi­ness, a fuel sta­tion in Um­bilo, Dur­ban, and his wife, El­ize, worked as a fash­ion de­signer and seam­stress who made wed­ding dresses, among oth­ers. Then, in 1999, fate struck. In the third armed rob­bery at the fuel sta­tion, Jan­nie’s fa­ther was shot and killed. They’d had enough.

They moved to Umh­langa, where they turned Jan­nie’s mother’s house into a guest­house. In those years, toi­letries for the hos­pi­tal­ity industry were not read­ily avail­able, so Jan­nie and El­ize put their heads to­gether and be­gan to make soap in their kitchen. Soon they were mak­ing can­dles to match the soap, and be­fore they knew it they were hus­tling with their soaps and can­dles over week­ends. Then, just as their el­dest daugh­ter, Lisa, started pri­mary school, a man phoned out of the blue to ask whether they’d be in­ter­ested in open­ing a soap fac­tory with him on Rose­leigh Farm near Dal­ton. >

“They had the money – which we didn’t – as well as good equip­ment,” Jan­nie says. “It was an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity for us and we felt we could learn a lot. Three weeks af­ter meet­ing them, we packed up ev­ery­thing and moved here to New Hanover.”

The move – and the ca­reer change! – bore fruit. The first break­through was an or­der from Fos­chini for 4 000 gift sets, and then, six months later, they were ap­proached by Mr Price to make soap for the brand.

“Ev­ery­thing was go­ing well,” Jan­nie says, “but then our part­ners wanted to move the fac­tory to Dur­ban. We de­cided not to ac­cept the of­fer, and to re­main here and do our own thing. We were able to rent the premises where we were for very lit­tle, and con­tin­ued to sup­ply Mr Price for an­other 18 months. We learnt a lot – and we’re deeply grate­ful for the ex­pe­ri­ence – but the buy­ers kept com­ing and go­ing, and every­one had his or her own ideas.”

It was time to strike out on their own. They rented a hall near their house for five years in or­der to build their busi­ness.

The Schoe­mans have not looked back. Their en­ter­prise has grown and grown… so much so that they could con­struct a 24m x 24m build­ing – grad­u­ally, as the money came in, 5 000 bricks per week.

To­day, this build­ing is both fac­tory and home to the whole fam­ily: Jan­nie, El­ize and their three daugh­ters, Lisa, Janel and Mia, live in a 6m-wide sec­tion of the build­ing.

Lisa joined the busi­ness about a year ago af­ter work­ing in the wed­ding industry – she and her fi­ancé, Karsten Ort­mann, man­age the shops that the Schoe­mans have opened in Hilton, Parys and Jo­han­nes­burg. El­ize’s mother, Su­san van Wyk, is also in­volved; even at the age of 78 she’s not afraid of hard work. We found her pack­ag­ing prod­ucts, ab­sorbed in the task – not one for idle chat­ter, just like her daugh­ter.

“The best thing about it,” says Jan­nie, “is that you can do your own thing. If you want to make some­thing, you make it. You don’t have to wait for other peo­ple or for ap­proval; there is no red tape. And with our shops we quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. To­day you con­ceive of the prod­uct and you make it; to­mor­row you print the labels; and four days later it’s in the shops and you start get­ting feed­back.”

There seem to be no brakes on this busi­ness. “Ac­tu­ally, it’s get­ting too big. We have 3 500 prod­ucts, of which the names, pack­ag­ing and mar­ket­ing all dif­fer. That’s how we’re able to of­fer dif­fer­ent gift shops in the same town ex­clu­sive rights on cer­tain ranges.”

The Schoe­mans even make their own wooden boxes, and or­der 5 000m of rib­bon at a time for their pack­ag­ing. And now they’ve ven­tured into the sweets mar­ket.

This lack of brakes is the rea­son why Lisa is get­ting strict with her par­ents: “We now even have scarves, cush­ions and beaded neck­laces… The scarves in par­tic­u­lar I find hard to un­der­stand, but, oh, well, we try ev­ery­thing.”

The “crazy Schoe­mans”, as they call them­selves, try to go over­seas once a year, in a quest for in­spi­ra­tion, to trade fairs such as Mai­son&Ob­jet in Paris, Am­bi­ente in Frankfurt and the Delhi Fair in In­dia. The one thing they learn there, apart from the many ideas they bring back, is that the qual­ity here in South Africa is first-rate.

We’re look­ing for­ward to see­ing the heights this busi­ness will yet achieve.

CON­TACT je­liv­ing.co.za info@je­liv­ing. co.za 033 940 0468 or 082 540 0982

Sindiswe Nzama, busy in­sert­ing can­dle wicks in sand-blasted glasses. (Even the sand-blast­ing is done on the premises.) Be­low is Su­san van Wyk, El­ize’s mother, busy pack­ag­ing prod­ucts, and be­low right are prod­ucts with fra­grances that the Schoe­mans’...

This is what the in­side of the square build­ing looks like where the Schoe­mans and their em­ploy­ees work. Be­hind the wall with the flags is their home. De­spite all the ac­tiv­ity, it’s a tran­quil space.

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