If business lessons are about failure as much as they are about success, then Choene has a PhD.
His Obriani brand – launched in partnership with his wife, Vinny, in Mabopane’s (Gauteng) Central City Shopping Centre in 1987 – boomed, went bust and is now thriving again, 30 years later.
Choene was working for a fashion retail chain in Pretoria as a store manager, and was inspired by local and overseas buying trips. The opportunity to open his first store was seized on the back of disappointment, when he was retrenched from his dream job after his boss decided to close the business because of persistent consumer boycotts and political circumstances at the time.
“A close friend suggested that we form a company with two other friends and open a store in Ga-Rankuwa, [Gauteng] called St Aubrey’s, which was when things started to happen,” he says.
But the call to make the business his own was strong and he left the group, deciding instead to open Obriani with Vinny.
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The store flourished as a result of less restrictive homeland legislation, which made business convenient.
“The shopping centres were designed to compete with those in big cities and we were adequately prepared to be competitive, and got used to trading in line with bigger shopping centre standards,” he says.
“We didn’t feel any legislative restrictions at the time, as cities were gradually relaxing prohibitive laws to allow us access to trading spaces.”
By the early ’90s, the chain had expanded to eight stores across two provinces.
“In those days, most of our merchandise was made locally by efficient, well-resourced clothing manufacturers who had capacity and were located around SA,” says Choene.
“A host of them left our shores just before 1994, and this has since led to a massive importation drive and culture.”
The family celebrated their prosperity by moving to Midrand in Gauteng and building a lavish home, using money from the business to fund their dream lifestyle. The chain started to suffer and once they’d lost four of the eight stores, the writing was on the wall. The business was forced to close its doors and the family had to abandon their fabulous lifestyle.
I learnt the importance of integrity, keeping your word to creditors, humility, a strong familial bond and appreciating my wife – without which I would have perished. Most importantly, I learnt to avoid unnecessary debt at all costs
Devastated, but not defeated, Choene acknowledged his role in the family’s change in fortune and set about finding gainful employment to help keep them afloat.
“My wife and I made joint decisions, which helped us accept our situation and resolve to fix it. We went back into employment – she worked for Standard Bank as a teller and I became a store manager for Truworths in downtown Joburg,” he says. After 18 months, he moved to Edgars and took up a role as a menswear buyer.
During that time, Choene says he continued to learn.
“I learnt the importance of integrity, keeping your word to creditors, humility, a strong familial bond and appreciating my wife – without which I would have perished,” he says.
“Most importantly, I learnt to avoid unnecessary debt at all costs.”