IN the 1980s, all Laura knew about barcodes was it wasn’t wise to visit a rowdy pub barefoot. But all that changed when, at her holiday hotel in Düsseldorf, she happened upon a Swedish company, UBI, which was launching a new branch to great fanfare. Intrigued, she lingered long enough to be flagged as a go-getter and be offered its South African agency.
With barcoding unheard of back home, but with the prospect of conquering an unchartered learning curve, Laura made her decision. ‘I started my small business with the blessing of my then-boss and mentor, Dr Phillip van der Merwe, the MD of Bayer,’ she shares. ‘It was risky as I relied on a fixed salary to raise my girls and, more to the point, I had zero business skills.’ To boot, the world and its dog were staring down their snouts at South Africa-anything.’
Undeterred, Laura grabbed the press by its printhead with all the tenacity she could muster (which was a great deal). What really drove her, she divulges, was fear of failure. ‘I was never going to fail – that I knew. I had four great mentors – or blessings as I called them – who were a phone call away and whose input, advice and encouragement I took full advantage of. People are so willing to see another succeed on the strength of their counsel.’
ADE evolved into a true family affair, with the daughters now co-owners of the company – Julie Carello in Johannesburg and Viki Radford in Cape Town.
‘They rode the waves with me,’ Laura states. ’From an early age, they helped me prepare for conferences and sales presentations, learning while being my sounding board for talks and speeches.’
Thankfully for the pair, mum is not a micromanager.
Both daughters started packing boxes, then worked their way up from the basement to learn the business inside and out. Around 2008, Laura, having bought a yacht was sailing into the sunset for what would be a nine-year around-the-world odyssey as the girls prepared to take over management of the company. Laura admits to quaking a little at the thought of leaving them in charge but says: ‘A friend, James Coppens, told me that as long as they reached the intended goal, I shouldn’t worry how they got there. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received.’
That’s not to say that Laura tolerated those who didn’t cut it over the years. ‘Some staff are exceptional, some average and some are just a really bad fit,’ she maintains. ‘Managing people was one of my biggest worries; that and integration with customers’ information systems as technology evolved.’
Knowing when to bin a brainchild served Laura well, such as when she realised that her innovative value-add, customised software for barcode integration, although lucrative, was an aftersales service nightmare. ‘Our reputation was far more valuable than the revenue that idea brought in,’ she recalls.
Now, as semi-retired co-owner, Laura is so supremely confident about the future of ADE in the hands of her ethical and driven girls that she recently gave her entrepreneurial bent permission to flirt with a new venture. ‘I have met so many women whose husbands have either died or left them for someone younger,’ she explains. ‘They are deflated from carrying their baggage and their confidence has been pounded into the ground, so I joined up with a psychologist to develop a midlife confidence-boosting course. It’s almost ready for market.’
Laura’s glee is palpable – just one more happy ending in what she describes as her ‘fairytale existence’.
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