INNOVATION

Creative chemistry

Mariaan du Plessis, Co-founder of the MNI
photo 3.JPG

Sometimes a healthy dose of good old-fashioned passion and a sprinkling of courage are enough to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Just ask Innovator of the Year in the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year competition, Mariaan du Plessis – co-founder and owner of the Medical Nutritional Institute (MNI) (Pty) Ltd.

With the International Women’s Day theme, Inspiring Change, the awards seek to celebrate the social, political and economic achievements of women, while focusing the world’s attention on areas requiring further action.

According to Nimo Naidoo, spokesperson for the Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year wards, this theme is particularly applicable to South Africa’s female entrepreneurs.

“Female entrepreneurs signify a vast untapped source of innovation, job creation and economic growth in the country. Over the years of the competition, now in its 26th year, we have noticed a steady increase in female-owned businesses, which is extremely encouraging and we hope that this number continues to grow.”

Du Plessis says it is encouraging that female entrepreneurs are on a more even playing field. “The success of MNI is as a result of a very compatible partnership with my business partner, Dr Conrad Smith.

In order to promote female entrepreneurship and reduce the gender gap in the workplace, it is important that female leaders and entrepreneurs are celebrated and presented as role models to aspiring female entrepreneurs.”

Prevention rather than cure

Due to their passion in the area of disease prevention rather than cure, Smith and Du Plessis were recognised for their groundbreaking research and development within the pharmaceutical industry.

Established in 2002, the company specialises in the development of non-prescription medication made from organic molecules. All products are manufactured to the specifications of local and international medicine regulatory boards including the Medical Control Council (MCC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

According to Ferose Oaten, a judge at the awards, MNI’s wide product range and consistent product development contributed toward the company being recognised.

“The company has successfully developed new products in an environment the pharmaceutical industry has become sceptical about, and is persistent in their research and development of new and innovative products. The business has been successful in making their products credible in this sometimes cynical environment,” says Oaten.

Du Plessis, who is currently the company’s CEO, says although the reputation of complementary medicine has been under continued scrutiny due to a lack of regulated quality products, MNI has continued to prosper.

Scientifically sound

“For the past decade, our company has developed top-quality products that are scientifically sound and able to withstand the scrutiny and scepticism of the mainstream pharmaceutical and medical world,” she says.

She adds that the success of the business was as a result of a very compatible partnership, and the company has now set its sights on specific international markets.
“When entering into a business partnership, budding entrepreneurs need to properly scrutinise their partner and be certain of their competencies.

In addition to a strong entrepreneurial flair, the success of our business in the medical industry was complemented by a good mindset for business strategy and system development,” she says.

Du Plessis firmly believes that this award will play a key role in the expansion of the company. “An award such as this has the ability to add tremendous value to any business. There is no doubt that this accolade will open the doors to many new business ventures,” she says.

Doing her own thing

She says it all began a couple of years ago when she worked as a pharmacy manager and was one of the finalists for the Pharmacist of the Year competition.
“After that, I realised I had achieved what I always wanted to achieve, and that my days as a pharmacist were over. I always wanted more. I love business and I have always had a desire in me to do my own thing,” says Du Plessis.

Smith and herself started talking about opportunities in the pharmaceutical environment, where there had traditionally always been a choice only between natural products and orthodox products, with nothing in between.

The business began in 2002 and Du Plessis says the pair had to fund themselves.“We didn’t know anything about business, but we just had a great passion for business and this was a huge opportunity.

“We come from a medical background, and the fact that we have a very unique and fresh approach to complementary medicine is part of our success story,” she says.She says it took her and her partner a couple of years to get the business onto the right path and start showing growth.

“In the past four years, we’ve had really phenomenal growth year on year, despite the pressures inherent in the economic environment, in which consumers were not spending because they did not have extra income. I think that just proves the quality of our product and our approach, which is quite unique in many ways”.

Cash flow, says Du Plessis, is one of the biggest problems facing new businesses in South Africa. “People only start to believe in you when you’re successful. Then everybody wants to give you money, and that’s when you don’t need it anymore. So I think cash flow (or the lack thereof) is the biggest hurdle”.

She says great opportunities abound in South Africa. “There are so many people who don’t have work, and I think we as a country are very entrepreneurial. I think people, especially women, must just believe in themselves.

We have to innovate and even encourage our kids and young people to be very entrepreneurial, because the opportunities are just phenomenal.”

Positive people

Du Plessis says there is a lot of negativity around when you want to start a business. “People tell you it will never work, but there are people who see opportunities and there are people who obviously see problems. We have to help those people.”

It’s important, she says, to surround yourself with positive people, and with people who support you, in order to retain your focus. “If you surround yourself with people who are negative, and who can only focus on all the problems, you are going to have problems”.

One of the important qualities necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur is the ability to adapt to change. “Change is a good thing, and entrepreneurs have to be able to change quickly, and adapt to a changing environment”.

Women, says Du Plessis, bring things to business that men often do not. “They tend to focus more on the emotional aspects, and the finer details when it comes to building a brand.

“I think men are very systems-driven – and that’s a good thing – but at the end of the day, there’s a certain emotion when dealing with a brand and I think women can actually add a lot of benefit in this regard.”

She says her support system at home enables her to keep her business moving forward, while at the same time being a wife and mother (to twins). “When I’m at home, I really try to spend my time and my energy and my focus on my kids and my family. We understand one another’s roles and we try to support one another.”

David Capel

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