As one of South Africa’s fastest-growing businesses, the Innovative Solutions Group shares its lessons learned on endurance

    South Africa’s economic landscape has remained fairly bleak over the past decade, marked by infamous energy issues, crumbling infrastructure, a heavy regulatory burden, and persistently high unemployment. It is little wonder then, that according to research from the University of the Western Cape, as many as 70% to 80% of start-ups fail within their first five years. Against this backdrop, however, one company has defied the odds to blaze an impressive trail across the business scene, with phenomenal growth largely unheard of outside the technology space – the Innovative Solutions Group (ISG).

    Founded by serial entrepreneur and business maverick Arnoux Maré, ISG’s journey began with an investment in a single subsidiary in 2011. Since then, the company has rapidly expanded its portfolio to accumulate several highly lucrative subsidiaries across a range of industries. These include a combination of profitable start-ups as well as strategic acquisitions in high-potential businesses, all guided by Maré’s forward-thinking, sure-handed approach to business and keen eye for opportunities. Eleven years later, and the company has transformed from a ZAR500 enterprise and team of five into a multibillion-rand empire with more than 38 000 staff employed across its operations.

    The secret to its success? ‘First and foremost, ISG has always stayed true to the philosophy that you need to be willing to embrace change in order to successfully adapt to your environment,’ says Maré.

    Arnoux Maré, founder and CEO of the Innovative Solutions Group

    ‘The greatest innovations are developed in response to a specific need or gap in the market, which means that you need to keep a pulse on any shifts in trends and remain flexible in your approach.’

    ISG’s first subsidiary, Innovative Staffing Solutions (ISS), exemplifies the point. While the business was initially founded as a labour consultancy, Maré quickly recognised the inherent drawbacks of the industry for businesses and staff.

    Instead, he saw the opportunity to pioneer a model that would allow companies to outsource their entire operational management function to a strategic business partner, while offering permanent employment and much-needed job security to employees. So, in 2013 – just two years after the company was launched – he completely overhauled its strategy and service offering.

    ‘ISS offers substantial cost savings to clients, as we employ a range of leading specialists and personnel full-time to manage their non-core operations and administrative functions rather than forcing them to accommodate these skills in-house,’ he says.

    ‘This works to reduce their overheads while allowing them to focus on honing their strengths and on growing their businesses, and gives them peace of mind that their companies will continue to run smoothly. We provide comprehensive support services including project management, regulatory compliance, operational planning and even employee screening – whatever is needed for companies to achieve peak performance.’

    Maré’s risk paid off, and between 2013 and 2017, the company more than doubled its turnover, attracting in excess of 400 clients across a wide range of industries from mining, engineering, construction and agriculture to transportation and logistics, hospitality, retail, and manufacturing.

    Crisis creates opportunity
    Despite the meteoric rise of Innovative Staffing Solutions, Maré refuses to rest on his laurels, having unveiled several other ventures over the past decade.

    One such venture, Innovative Learning Solutions, was launched during the first few stressful months of the pandemic in 2020. While South Africans waited anxiously for lockdowns and the resultant economic downturn to ease, he instead noticed a gap in the market – and pounced. ‘With people working from home and avoiding public spaces, the boom in online shopping saw the logistics industry and, particularly, road-freight services come under enormous pressure. This then aggravated the already dire shortage of qualified truck drivers, placing existing drivers under enormous strain, and raising the risk of delays, accidents and losses for businesses.’ And so Innovative Learning Solutions (ILS) was born.

    As the continent’s largest truck-driver training and testing centre, ILS quickly solved the issue by providing drivers with accredited programmes to hone their skills and further their careers, while providing businesses with professionally trained and certified staff.

    Within the space of just 12 months, ILS had already trained more than 8 800 novice and expert drivers and, now in its second year, it has welcomed some 9 200 drivers through its doors.

    ‘The lesson from ILS’ case is the importance of courage, and refusing to allow yourself to become paralysed by crises or uncertainty. By keeping a cool head, you will often be able to notice opportunities that others may have overlooked, with the potential for great rewards,’ says Maré.

    Diamonds in the rough
    Finally, Maré emphasises that one of the greatest threats to businesses and entrepreneurs is falling prey to myopia, or losing sight of the bigger picture.

    Instead, by adopting a contrary mindset, leaders can identify and reap the rewards of so-called diamonds in the rough – businesses that may need some short-term support or guidance, but carry significant long-term growth potential.

    ‘For example, the pandemic and lockdowns inflicted severe pain on a number of industries, but especially restaurants, hospitality and tourism,’ he says.

    ‘Yet in ISG’s view, where this has made many investors wary, now is actually the perfect time to invest in these industries, and to create mutual value by assisting businesses to survive tough times while benefiting from their recoveries and diversifying our income stream.’

    It is this mindset that saw ISG invest in the acclaimed Priva Restaurant and Cigar Lounge, the recent recipient of the Best Fine-Dining Restaurant title by Pretoria News, Best Luxury Restaurant by Pretoria Magazine, and Best Restaurant of Pretoria 2022 by Restaurant Week. ‘Priva immediately drew our attention, as it has a phenomenal location with stunning views of Waterkloof Heights, a highly skilled management team and superb food. It had most of the tools needed to succeed – all it needed was some support and guidance to see it through the pandemic.’

    Likewise, ISG’s latest strategic acquisition, Leisure & Adventure, has left the company perfectly positioned to reap the rewards of South Africans’ return to the great outdoors, with several stores across the country offering well-known outdoor and adventure labels such as First Ascent, K-Way and Hi-Tec as well as luxury brand Swarovski.

    ‘There are always opportunities waiting for you if you are willing to be open to them rather than waiting for the so-called right time,’ according to Maré. ‘Take the leap, and be willing to pivot and adapt – whatever it takes to succeed.’

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