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’ three daughters devised.
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.