Owning a small business is not easy: you need to have faith, resilience and a very strong desire to survive .
Through the courage of sharing difficult challenges, trials and tribulations others may find inspiration to face the hard experiences that are part and parcel of the small business owners journey.
Angus and Lyn, the owners of White Mountain Guest Farm in the 70’s, share their journey.
photo by Gromule
Angus and I met over a game of Monopoly in 1962 whilst I was on holiday with my aunt and uncle in Newcastle. I was fifteen and Angus twenty years old. So began a six year courtship, most of it was long distance but the last few years were spent in close proximity to each other. W e were married on the 4th November 1967 and spent three glorious weeks on honeymoon at the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel. Our first home was a quaint little flat in Ridge Road and this is where our new life began.
A year later we built a house in Westville and after much planning and organising we moved into our first home. The organisation required to run a house was sure different from keeping a flat and our skills were honed .
After we settled down and took on the huge job of landscaping a garden we welcomed our first child into our home, Debra was a contented little girl who brought us a new sense of purpose. This new little human being relied on us for everything. As the days and weeks went by she became so much a part of our life that we could not imagine our lives without her.
All too soon we realized that our family was going to grow once again. We welcomed Bruce into our family. A pigeon pair, God had blessed us abundantly now our family was complete. Debs was fascinated with this new intruder but soon realised that he was taking up far too much time which had previously been given to her. But all in all she accepted her brother and new playmate.
As Bruce had developed chronic asthma we tried everything available to help our poor son who spent so much time with bronchial ailments and such harsh medication. The cortisone gave him a moon face and the digitalis heart pills seemed such harsh treatment for one so young. We were advised to get him up into the mountains where the air was clear with the hope that his health would improve.
So began the search for a place in the Berg. We originally searched the Underberg area and found an ideal place, only to be told it was designated for a future dam site. So we changed direction in our search and were shown a guest farm at Ntabamhlope called White Mountain. It was a a thirty four room farm with a large main building with two lounges, large diningroom, kitchen, pub and two communal bathrooms. It was situated beneath the Inhlosane mountain and was fifty four acres in extent. We decided to buy the guest farm but my parents decided to sell up their home and join us, a family run guest farm sounded like heaven on earth.
We arrived at White Mountain on the 1st April 1972 with such excitement and a bucketful of apprehension. We had never run a business before, Angus was a medical technician and I was a hairdresser what could we possibly know about business. My dad was a clerk with the good old SAR and my mum ran the stores in a clothing factory. So with our limited business knowledge we set out to run our guest farm.
Angus and I moved into a room in the main hotel building with the children across the passage, The bathroom was along an open veranda, and provided that ”Joe Dlamini “ our Nduna, had a roaring fire going in the boiler room, we had hot water. But it only provided hot water for four baths after that you waited an hour then it was ready to go again. Electricity was supplied by a Lister generator which ran on diesoline, so a good stock of diesoline was always on hand. Lights out was usually at ten o’clock and if you didn`t make it you hoped like mad that the moon was out. So candle power took over in guest rooms and those that had to share a bathroom had the usual potty under the bed.
The chef was a wonderful man called Charlie who reigned supreme in the kitchen with it’s huge Aga stove full of pots and pans and kettles all in various stages of cooking, frying and boiling, The pantry filled with tinned tomatoes, beetroot, sweetcorn and boxes of cereals. Milk came in twenty litre milk cans topped with six inches of thick cream, wonderful poured over Rice Crispies with heaps of sugar.
Yum! …………..hello Weigh Less!
As we were introduced to the staff members in the various departments , the enormity of running the farm became apparent . Separating ourselves into areas of ability was critical. I took over reception and my mom over saw the kitchen. Housekeeping and laundry was a combined effort. Angus and my dad ran the pub but we were still left with maintenance, general running of the grounds and machinery.
But being in the hotel business meant giving all your time and yourself to your valued guests. I can remember letting our last cottage prior to the three week Christmas holidays and realising that I had promised the guests a two bed room en suite cottage and what we had was a two bed cottage with a potty under the bed. I rushed around the hotel yelling for Angus’s help, we had five days to come up with a bathroom.
Between my dad and Angus they set about measuring and designing the new bathroom. The maintenance staff set about digging a foundation in preparation for the men to return for this miracle bathroom .The guests arrived at reception , all excited about their holiday, and I ordered them a tray of tea and some of ” Charlies”, delicious ginger biscuits as they were early. If they could have a glimpse into my mind, in reality their bathroom was being painted and the final plumbing was being connected. How would I explain to these guests that the cement between the blocks was still wet and if they leaned on the wall too hard they would end up in the garden.
The hotel business was very seasonal so it became feast or famine. The end of the month became a nightmare. We would write out the cheque for salaries , then stand in the bank hiding behind the rubber plant hoping not to draw too much attention. Then breathe a sigh of relief when the teller glanced at her requisition note and started counting out the cash.
We had formed a Pty Ltd Company , so we learned about all sorts of new terminology, like Articles of Association, voting rights of shareholders etc. It was total gibberish to us but we soon learnt how important those terms would become and how they would protect us.
In 1972 bookings were made by telephone or a letter,reception answered all phone enquiries from a party line, our ring was three shorts and a long. The only disadvantage was that anybody on your line could listen in. The next step was to type a letter on your trusty typewriter, put it in an envelope, lick a stamp and paste it on your letter, then drive thirty four kilometres and post your letter.
The guest would post their deposit cheque to you, you would receipt it and then write a letter of confirmation put it in an envelope and repeat the whole procedure again. Banking was quite a lengthy affair entering all the cheques into a deposit book and counting out all the cash and entering into the book.
In our pub we had an honesty bar !! The idea was to take whatever liquor or cool drinks you wanted and enter it on a card. Yea right!! That lasted a month or two as the stock just didn’t balance. The business grew and Angus kept building new bathrooms, new rooms, even a pig stye. My sister in her wisdom bought us four piglets at the Marianhill Monastry. Our sweet little piglets grew into enormous Landrace pigs. So we sent them to the Estcourt’s bacon factory. I think they were too fat for public consumption so they became soap bars.
In 1984 we had been trading for twelve years and Angus and I booked our very first overseas trip to the U K. We left the hotel in the hands of my mom and dad who looked after our two children who were fifteen and fourteen respectively.
One of our regular guests from Essex gave us their business flat in London, which was a true blessing. We went and saw “Cats”, the wonderful stage production what an unforgettable performance. Elaine Page was the lead singer . We visited all the normal visited tourist sights and wonders that London has to offer. On our fourth day we caught a train from Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh where we met the Fuller Car Hire folk. We noticed that they seemed uneasy as they welcomed us and asked us to take a seat in the car we had hired. They started to explain that our hotel in South Africa had a big fire and the entire main building had burnt to the ground. They assured us that our children and my parents were all fine and no staff member had been injured and that our travel agent wanted us to make contact with her immediately. We sat there in stunned silence hardly breathing , trying to take in what had just been said.
It was suggested we book into our hotel and make contact with South Africa . The one kilometre journey to the Roxburgh Hotel, seemed like an eternity. We booked into the hotel and immediately phoned South Africa from the reception. We got through to our agent and she told us that a paraffin fridge had started the fire in the pub. Everyone was fine but my little dog Snowball had died, as well as my cat. After dinner we walked the streets of Edinburgh as if to exhale all the shock in one breath. It was Angus’s forty second birthday , we had so many plans for the evening, this was certainly not one of them.
Shocked but thankful to our heavenly Father that our family was fine we derived whatever solace from each other we could muster up. Phone calls started the next morning trying to cancel our one month stay in the UK and try and avoid penalties. With the help of many kind people we were booked onto a Midlands flight to Heathrow then back to Louis Botha Airport. We sat in silence on the flight back, devoid of any feelings , trying to be strong for each other and crying out to God to help us to absorb the situation. To add insult to injury we were sprayed with an awful smelling aerosol when we landed at Brazzaville.
A teary reunion met us at Louis Botha as we hugged our children in relief and thanksgiving. My mom and dad were clearly relieved that we were back.
It had snowed the night before at the guest farm, we stared up at the eerie roofless buildings with charred black remains of what was once our hotel. We walked through the entrance of the reception room in silence, the wind whistling through the windowless walls, the beautiful yellowwood planks that once formed the floors ,were gone. The kitchen was a pile of shattered continental china plates, bent silverware, warped pots and pans and the shells of what were once fridges.
Fortunately the accommodation buildings, scattered cottages all over the hotel grounds, were untouched by the fire, so our house was fine and we all had a place to sleep.
The next morning we visited our bank to discuss the insurance details which would be key to
re-establishing the hotel. The bank manager was very helpful , as we had no papers and he had the copies, we read through them carefully. Our Insurance Company, A A Mutual, which we discovered had gone bust, was unable to make any meaningful payout.
The shocking news kept flowing, what could possibly be our way forward, but our God makes a way where there is no way.
The final payout of R70,000.00 meant we could get the windows, doors and a roof put on the main building. The floors would be cemented and the walls plastered but that was it. Two months after the fire we were visited by a group called Club Caraville. They were a marketing group who had many resorts under their umbrella. The value of joining a group got you mass marketing, buying power and financial backing, all of which we desperately needed. However we would have to change the hotel to a self catering resort and all existing accommodation would have to be changed to self catering units. We joined the group but still needed to raise a second bond to continue with the completion and extension of more accommodation.
Angus walked the streets of Pietermaritzburg trying to get a bond. Finally someone was prepared to give us a chance. We were on the starting block again. Our window of opportunity was to re-open the resort by the 7th December 1984.
In human terms our task was impossible but with God all things are possible. So on the 15th August 1984 mission impossible started. We had two blocks of self catering cottages to build, each block having six units, plus eighteen kitchen additions on to existing cottages.
Building contractors finished the main building and sub contractors installed a beautiful new kitchen, but we needed to manage the rest. Our staff were wonderful, they volunteered to work for food only until the resort reopened. The maintenance staff worked under the direction of Angus. I can remember one night working straight through. I kept the coffee and rusks coming and the staff and Angus kept working.
By December huge progress had been made but deadlines were looming as we were fully booked for the three week Christmas period.
The bombshell dropped just two weeks before Christmas when a guest phoned to confirm a booking for six people and we realised we were already fully booked. We had lost our booking sheet during the fire and had no backup, so we had reconstructed the booking sheet from memory and when guests phoned to confirm.
Left with one option, to move out of our house, we phoned around the surrounding farming community asking if anyone had a place to rent. Finally we heard about a derelict cottage just one kilometre from the resort, which we took. We moved into our breezy home with six inch cracks in the walls, a long drop and wood fired boiler, in the garden, to heat our bath water. Bathing took great care as the bath stood on bricks and sand accompanied the water from the taps.
Nevertheless we decided to have fun, a Christmas tree was decorated and we enjoyed the peace of our new home. A very successful Christmas season followed and everyone rebooked for the following Christmas.
During the months that followed we realised we needed more income streams and in true Clelland style we built a fifty site caravan park, each site electrified , two ablution blocks, a new reception and trading store.
We had raised a bond at 15% which was now 28% and the interest was killing us, so in 1987 we decided to sell a 50% share in the business to two sleeping partners. We had run the place as a family for sixteen years and we were now in a totally different position. The new business plan lasted for little under two years, we needed to move on, and we sold out completely.
Moving on, we made our new home in Chase Valley Heights in Pietermaritzburg. Our daughter Debbie was studying at the Durban Technikon and was sharing a flat with a girl friend and Bruce was in the Parabats in Bloemfontein doing his military service.
As my days were really too long and uneventful I started frequenting a beautiful decorating shop in the Cascades Shopping Centre. The Biggie Best Shop came up for sale and that was that, we bought it. Soon the entire family was involved, Debbie now a qualified production manager and Bruce back from Bloem. Debbie took over the curtain making workshop and Bruce started to learn the ropes.
We had five decorators working in the shop and the curtain and upholstery business was booming, so weI bought some land and Angus oversaw the building of our dream home. A double story Anne Hathaway thatch house in Muswell Hill. All too soon the children were married and we rattled around in our large home.
Eight years into trading our rentals had trebled turnover was down and we had a bigger stockholding than ever before. We tried to negotiate a lower rental in order to survive but our pleas fell on deaf ears and we had no option but to move our shop to one we could afford. The move was a disaster and I was put into liquidation. We had made a bad decision.
I had made a fatal mistake and that was to trade as a Sole Proprietor , we lost everything: our home, our vehicles, our furniture. After ten years of trading it was all over. We walked out with our clothing and a few items of furniture allowed by the court. Our children and staff lost their jobs, it was a feeling of utter devastation. We moved in with my daughter and son in law and our grandkids. Then started the tedious time of job seeking, we simply had to earn a salary.
Kind friends in the Berg offered us a job but they could only give us a menial wage. We jumped at the chance to get out of Pietermaritzburg. Our new home was a beautiful cottage in the Berg, with fresh air and a new direction. Our simple jobs gave us time to heal and time to readjust. Interacting with new people and new conversations changed our thoughts and concerns.
As we had no vehicle I remember thumbing to work, a nice man driving a truck stopped, offered us a lift and took us right to the doorstep. We thanked him profusely. That same day Angus was given a company vehicle and our transport problems were over. But God didn’t stop there: a very kind family member gave us a new bakkie, how marvellous does God work and how people open their hearts in time of trouble.
We simply could not survive on the money we had and Angus became an opportunist of note. One day he came home with a box of food. Apparently folk who stayed at the time share units often left food in the kitchens, so he took the items that cleaning staff would not like, but we would love and we lived like this for a year .
We needed to move on, to plan and try and start a new life. We returned to Pietermaritzburg and found a room on someone’s property. Angus managed to get a job with a signage company which took him all over South Africa. I worked for my son in his decorating business and once again we were financially stable.
During that time a new Casino was being built and we picked up the enormous contract to curtain the whole place. A daunting task to say the least, one hundred and three bedrooms to curtain, quilts to be made, cushions , murals to be painted on the executive suites ceilings and complicated four poster beds to erect. Debbie and Angus went on site to measure and plan, hard hats on climbing up scaffolding as there were no stairs built yet. Trucks arrived loaded with bolts of fabric, lining and curtains tapes. Seamstresses were soon stitching , ironing and gathering curtains by the hundred. After many sleepless nights and planning, the day came to start installing track and hanging the curtains. This mammoth job set both our children back on the decorating track again and as parents we felt a sense that all was well with the world again.
The country kept calling as that was where our hearts lay. Friends offered Angus a position on a beef farm, with a cottage to live in. The farm had self catering cottages. So we moved once again, this was becoming an art form for us. Angus had a bunch of new stuff to learn, ear tagging, dehorning, injecting, castrating and tubing cattle to manage the three hundred herd of Bonsmara cattle, a scary thought at the best of times. I got stuck into building up the client base in the cottages, managing the housekeeping and laundry and welcoming clients on arrival. Angus talked the owner into letting him build a restaurant and pub as well as reception room with the idea of using progressive shuttering and rocks from the area which cut the cost of putting up walls and farm houses in the area had much to offer, from beautiful windows and yellowwood planks which were used to create counter tops, to ox wagon wheels.
The completed building offered a gathering place where guests and locals gathered for drinks, meals and a lot of local chit chat. The thatch roof finished off the country pub and the outside patio with umbrellas shading the outside diners finished off this wonderful space.
Two years went by quickly and the itchy feet started again. We were offered a position to run a self catering trout resort near the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel. It was a magnificent place with picture post card scenery, flanked by the mighty mountains of the Drakensberg. As with most places the route to keep adding new and better accommodate with this new position the thread was the same. At first a small cottage was converted into accommodation and then three double story cottages were built, all with beautiful views of the lake and the Berg. The enlargement of a dam followed with wooden piers jutting into the water for eager trout fishermen.
An interesting development was the arrival of a large movie crew for the filming of a Roland Emmerich film called 10,000 BC. Meeting all these innovative and interesting people with such a passion for their trade was a once in a lifetime occasion for us. Meeting the Director himself was amazing. It was a five month period and then they all moved on to New Zealand to continue filming.
We were there for 10 months when we were approached by the owner of a hotel who was looking for a management couple to manage his hotel in the Kwa Zulu Natal Midlands. The position attracted us and once more we were on the move. We were given a large house next to the hotel which cut our commute. This was a different animal , it was a conference hotel, the staff compliment of fifty plus all lived on site, were fed and were all unionised. As there were four conference venues we liaised with conference organisers to meet their function requirements and team building needs. Team effort was essential and cross referencing over and over again became the order of the day.
As we did not have a property management computer system we resorted to old fashioned files. The management of the bar without an efficient computer system was a nightmare. Relying on guests signatures when the evening wore on, lead to many queries, arguments and frayed nerves but staff were wonderful and pulled together to create a successful evening for all.
Dealing with union bosses and shop stewards in those days was an experience all on its own, but labour lawyers eased the situation and made life a little easier. Clock cards was a system made in heaven for time thieves, so the alternative, a thumb recognition system was installed. There was a mass demonstration, the staff were unhappy, the union called a meeting which was over ridden and the machine was installed, and our wage bill reduced.
Maintenance and building started from day one, uncompleted accommodation needed to be finished on time to house conferences. Electrical problems were a daily occurrence, the DB board lit up like Christmas crackers. Overloads and shorts,-words that soon became part of my vocabulary.
As hot water was heated with coal the quality of coal determined our results. Soon Angus was busy ripping out old bathrooms and installing glass door showers. Replacing electrical wires, replacing plumbing , toilets, leaking roofs, the list goes on.
One week end we went trout fishing in the Swartberg area with our family, what a lovely relaxing time.
On arriving back we discovered there had been a huge robbery at the hotel. A large pantechnikon of hotel furniture and TV’s were stolen and as we employed a security company we had questions. The police were called, questions asked, statements taken, and visits to staff homes made. Furniture was retrieved and eight staff jailed pending their court case. Two days later Angus and I arrived for work to find a death threat pasted on the hotel door. That was it , we were definitely not hanging around to be taken out. We handed in our notice and moved to Assegay. I got a job as the GM of a hotel and we ran a stall at the Shongweni market. We stayed there for sixteen months and then we were asked to come back and manage the same hotel in the midlands.
Back we went and this time we moved into a cottage right in the middle of the hotel buildings where we could have a handle on the operations of the business. There had been nine robberies in our absence and this had to stop. Extra checks and balances were implemented. We noticed a substantial downturn in occupancy figures. Our advertising strategy was geared to specials to attract customers to cover running costs with many other attractive offers as extra streams of income. With figures still down and salaries going up we were left with no option but to retrench staff which broke our heart as many had been there for years. Eventually we decided to leave our own salaries unpaid only taking occasional salaries when funds allowed. We started paying essential hotel accounts to keep the ship afloat.
The accountants set up a loan account for us as a safeguard. In the past funds were transferred by the owner to cover shortfalls. These became less and less but even in the face of pending bankruptcy new plans were made to start a residential development. No planning or budgets were done, no funding was arranged, however we were expected to move forward. The owner had never attempted anything like this before and we were not property developers and did not profess to be. Our loan account with the company grew and grew, the development costs were growing day by day,c learly things were out of control. We were told to start selling existing units, but the sectional title had not been completed or gone through the deeds office.
Buyers were interested but soon picked up on the fact that all was not well with their pending purchases. The pressure to sell continued and soon the company was put under provisional liquidation. The owner applied for six months business rescue which was a relief for us because the liquidating attorneys took over the accounts payments.
But we had a new dilemma on our hands, our loan account was submitted to the High Court as a creditor.
Would we ever get paid out the million rand owed to us. Or would we be listed with all the other creditors. Further three months business rescue was applied for and granted.
Managing this unbelievable mess got completely out of hand. I had major back surgery in the middle of all this, the six hour operation took it’s toll, and I had a heart attack during surgery and nearly died. Excellent surgeons pulled me through but my recuperation was slow and I needed help.
Even though we had resigned from our positions three times, it was pointless as there were no funds to pay us out. The company was too far gone. I employed someone to train up and possibly take over my position, however, my replacement became romantically involved with the overseas owner.
The position became impossible, I needed aid to walk, Angus and I were treated as complete outsiders as the partnership between owner and new employee became one. We walked out and told the owner we would be staying on site until we were paid.
We engaged legal counsel and were told not to move out of our accommodation until we were paid.
That was fifteen months ago and we are literally living from hand to mouth. With the generosity of friends and neighbours we have been able to hang in here.
But in the interim the hotel has been put under final liquidation and was auctioned a few weeks ago.
We sit here every day wondering what will happen next and as the offer accepted by the bank is extremely low we wonder what we do next.
While the dust settles and the legal team deal with the liquidation, Angus and Lyn are seeking an establishment that require a husband and wife management team.