André Els has always been passionate about food and people. His career started in 1980 when he joined Pick n Pay as a trainee manager. He remained with Pick n Pay until 2003 when he moved to AFGRI until 2005. In March 2005, André acquired his own Pick n Pay Family Supermarket in Pretoria which he ran until October 2010. In November of the same year, André joined the then Mvela Serve group of companies. The next year, he went to Massmart where he headed the Cambridge Food Division, before re-joining Mvela in 2012 as the CEO of King Pie.
André describes himself as ‘a retailer by nature’. From procurement to management, André says that he just likes the hustle and bustle of the retail sector, adding that there is never a dull day on this quick-paced side of business.
‘You’ve got to be on your toes all day. You’ve got to be able to read customers and respond to their needs. And you must deliver to the stakeholders of the business’, he explains.
‘I was taught at a very early stage of my retail career that if you look after the customers, the customers will look after your profitability. So I operate on the premise that satisfying the consumer’s needs consistently well is key to success. Look after your customers and continue to do the basics right.’
When André joined King Pie in 2012, the company was facing several challenges that required him and his team to embark on a critical evaluation of the brand. Through research, they tried to construct a brand personality based on brand perceptions at the time. The picture that emerged was of an aging, slouching baker dragging his feet in the kitchen – not at all what the brand wanted to be. André and his team then began developing an ideal brand personality and found that King Pie could be revived as an energetic, vibrant and attractive brand.
‘The conclusion was that we see the brand looking like Angelina Jolie’, André jokes. ‘As a management team, we had to get the franchisees and the staff on board and put the systems and procedures in place to ensure that the brand emulated those desirable characteristics on a daily basis in all its activities.’
In order to do this, the team comprehensively reassessed the brand, from its customer profile and the customer needs to the product offerings and in-store experience. This allowed them to re-establish the vital connection between brand and customer. Elaborating on this process, André notes that facts and findings must be followed by implementation, and that implementation is only possible when you have the right people.
‘I think one of my biggest jobs was assembling the team that could do that. People with a shared vision, shared values and the same work ethic. One person alone couldn’t have done this. It was a team effort.’
André says that he and the company were, by and large, fortunate to have picked the right team from the start. With very few swaps and disruptions, this continuity has been a major contributor to the turnaround success. He adds that the team grew and matured together, supplement and support one another. Though sharing the same agenda, they are vastly different and bring together a rich diversity of skills and strengths.
André acknowledges that the prevailing economic situation is a major challenge. Loadshedding, poor exchange rates and high ingredient costs, the rising cost of living and shrinking disposable income all have an impact on the company’s ability to grow and provide value to all its stakeholders.
‘You have to be creative and innovative, but fortunately those are the typical traits of a South African. We are very creative, we are very resilient, and we manage.’
André does not see problems. He sees challenges – challenges that are actually opportunities to reassess parts of the business, to become more efficient and more effective, and to strengthen the business in ways that may not have been considered otherwise. Remaining realistic but positive during such times is very important to André, who points out that you cannot lead a team with a negative attitude.
‘Whether in business or life, see a challenge as an opportunity to learn, improve and emerge better on the other side.’
André highlights resonance with the public as one of his favourite aspects of the King Pie brand. In meeting different people, he often encounters an immediate recognition of what the brand stands for and he loves being associated with a brand that is a true South African tradition. André is proud of the work his team has done to maintain that and takes great joy in the affection that people still hold for the brand today.
People are important to André and he is very happy about the contributions the company has made to the professional and personal growth and development of both franchisees and employees. The company’s ability to provide opportunities is something he celebrates. These opportunities extend beyond the commercial sphere with CSI initiatives such as the Denis van Olst Fund. The Fund raises money in aid of life-changing and life-saving surgeries for disadvantaged children. Seeing the transformation of the children helped by the Fund is a matter close to André’s heart and a reward he deems priceless.
‘What we have been able to do for our franchisees, our employees and the public gives me great satisfaction. We want to give back in a way that makes a permanent, valuable difference in people’s lives.’
After 12 years as CEO, André still enjoys getting up every morning and coming to work. For him, every day at King Pie has been and continues to be a highlight. Achievements big and small give him joy. He steadfastly believes in the strength of the company’s consistency, simplicity of operations, and innovation. Innovation excites him and he and his team are always looking for ways to remain relevant and increase the value King Pie can offer to all its stakeholders.
André is positive about the new year and the future of King Pie generally. By continuing to follow the strong principle he and his team have entrenched in the business, he is confident that King Pie will remain a favoured choice for franchisees and customers alike.