50 Not out

50 Not out

From a teenage junior clerk at an international protective workwear company to taking over that very business and turning it into one of South Africa’s most prominent ventures of its kind – that is the story of John Jacobs, CEO of Sweet-Orr & Lybro.

While things haven’t always been smooth sailing,  John Jacobs smiles as he reflects on the past 50 years with the business. “As a team, we have managed to navigate whatever storms came our way, from economic crises to pandemics,” he says.

Born and bred in Kraaifontein, Cape Town, Jacobs openly talks about the challenges that faced him, coming as he did from a blue-collar family that was disadvantaged by a system based on racial segregation. “We were six kids, and my father worked for the railways. So, as you can imagine, there were some tough times along the way.”

When asked how his Sweet-Orr journey started, he chuckles. “I was barely 18 when I joined the company in 1971 as a junior clerk, two years after having to leave high school. I was by far the youngest in the team back then. My key responsibility was dealing with all incoming orders in exchange for a salary of R55 per month. This was considerably more than I was earning as a post office messenger, my first job after leaving school to help my parents and siblings make ends meet.”

Now that 50 years have elapsed since those early days, a lot has changed for Jacobs. He recalls how he took every opportunity to rise through the ranks of the company, which was founded in 1871 in the United States and has been operational in Cape Town since 1931.

His efforts eventually allowed him to buy his first company shares. Ultimately, that led to him and his family owning the company outright. “To think that when I joined Sweet-Orr, I didn’t even have a matric certificate,” he says, noting that going back to school was always on his agenda in those first years after starting at Sweet-Orr.

“Education has always been important to me. I went back to night school when I had the chance in the late seventies, aged 24. I wanted to finish what I started in the sixties. Of course, it was tricky to combine school and a full-time job, but I felt I had to walk that journey. I stayed the course and eventually completed a BCom Honours degree at UWC.”

There is more that Jacobs is proud of, and that is his workforce. “To me, our employees – who come from all walks of life – are our most important assets, and I have made it a standard policy to treat them as such. We make a point of continuously investing in and adding value to our staff’s skill sets and abilities,” he explains. “I want those who work for us to have the same opportunities to grow professionally and personally as I did when I joined Sweet-Orr.”

This is especially important in a country like South Africa. He says, “There are so many people who want to work but do not have the right skills. Elsies River, not one of the most affluent areas in Cape Town, is a case in point. Companies can change the status quo by helping people acquire skills that get them into jobs and allow them to climb the ladder. Our staff are like our family, and we treat them as such.”

Investing in employees has benefits for the company as well, he says. “Helping the people who work for us improve their abilities and talents, thus working towards a skilled workforce, makes your operation run more smoothly and more efficiently. In addition, staff members who feel valued and cared for are loyal and will stand by you in good and bad times. Sweet-Orr has an extremely low staff turnover. The average employee stays with us for 25 years. One of our operational managers was with us for 40 years before he retired!”

While celebrating his milestone of 50 years with the business, Jacobs is confident about the future: “This company once started with a dream to manufacture superior quality workwear for those who needed it most. While the dream became a reality years ago, we continue to evolve and build – one stitch, one garment and one satisfied client at a time. Our story is far from finished!”

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