Ina Paarman was born in Beaufort West
, and on the death of her father at age ten her mother moved Ina and her brother to her parents dairy farm just outside of Germiston. She learned about food from her grandmother, and about business from her mother. It was only when Ina got married that she moved to the Cape and has been there ever since.
She trained as a home economics teacher before travelling extensively and discovering the joy of different cultures and specifically food. These experiences started Ina on a journey to create a “good food” culture in South Africa and beginning with opening a cookery school in 1982, and now 37 years later, her humble start from a converted garage in Constantia has grown into an empire.
Ina sees herself as the champion of family built businesses, the proof is a family owned and managed business that started as a cookery school. Paarman Foods now boasts a state if the art manufacturing facility and a product development facilities, an extensive range of high quality convenience products. Besides employing roughly 250 people, Paarman Foods supports a supply chain of sub-contractors, herb and vegetable growers, designers, printers and then, of course, goes on to give back through charity work. Ina and her son Graham started the business, and together they have grown the good food culture in South Africa and their company into the well-loved South African brand it is today. We are delighted that Ina agreed to give us an interview to catch up with her and find out her thoughts on business and how she has achieved what she has.
The Great Guide (TGG): I have read that your mother was your most important business mentor, what was the most important thing she taught you?
When my father died and we moved to the Transvaal, my mother obviously needed to get out and support the family. My mother was a shining example of somebody who told me “Ina, just work harder than the men and if you are better at what you are doing, you will get there.”
My mother started her own business at 56 years old with two partners, and they built the business to the biggest South African company in that sector. She came home with office stories, and those office stories taught me more about business than anything else did. So if you have a family, tell them what happened at work – children learn at the dinner table. If you develop the connection between business and family, it’s very educational and beneficial for children. I am a passionate champion for family businesses, the possibility of involving your family to build a business as a team.
TGG: Please tell us where you are in your journey today.
IP: I am still working very, very hard. I am well past retirement age, but I love what I do. Because of the family structure, I am able to do the things that I enjoy and that I’m good at. I can also now delegate the things I didn’t enjoy in the first place. I am responsible for our website and the recipes on the website and taking care of the most important thing – the customer.
TGG: Are there any special projects you are busy with right now?
We are putting together projects
for the upcoming festive season. A fabulous range of chargrilled vegetables packed in olive oil vinaigrette.
We find that it’
s the time of year when women are baking alot, so we are busy with a baking supplement and book. We are also finalising a beautiful Christmas menu. Make sure that you get on to our website mailing list Michelle so that you will get to see what we are creating. The web address is www.inapaarman.co.za
TGG: Who do you admire as a female in business?
IP: I’m quite a fan of Helen Zille. She might not be in business per se, but she is intelligent, she is a hard worker, and she has made fantastic changes for education. I believe the way to take the country forward is with education, its an essential thing.
TGG: What do you think was your most important lesson as the founder and one-time leader of Paarman Foods?
IP: I think Perseverance – not to give up. We went through tough times like most businesses do, and if you can weather those storms and learn from then, you will be fine. You must also let the best person for the job take the lead, in the area where they are the best.
TGG: If there was anything in business you could do differently, what would it be?
IP: Our biggest setback was in 2000 when we started getting massive export orders, and suddenly it was just too easy. The over the top ordering from our agents came back to bite us. That year they had a bad summer in the UK. Salad dressings and summer related products didn’t sell, and at the end of the season they sent most of the products back to us. There we were with containers full of expired stock, more staff than we needed, heavy debt and commitments we had no choice but to weather that storm. At that stage, we also had an offer from the Mars company in America to buy our business. Jackie Mars came to visit, and as we walked through our small factory, I said to her “Jackie what do you see in this little business at the other end of the world?” She said, ‘Ina, I have never tasted homemade food that is made in a factory. I would like you to travel the world and teach our other factories around the world how to do this.” When I told my son Graham this, he said to me “We will be mad to sell, we have an obvious advantage that all the money in the world can’t buy. Let’s weather the storm, turn every cent over twice and bite the bullet and push through.” Fortunately, we did.
TGG: The question before this speaks to the life work balance – do you think it is possible to have a life-work balance in business especially small business, like when you started with the cookery school?
IP: Women are always judged on the ability to handle family and business together. You have to sort out how you can balance things. I knew all along that I was a workaholic, but in the beginning, I chose easier options like part-time teaching until the stage that my children needed less of my time. If you have a family, unless they are ready for you to immerse yourself in business, the neglect will come back to bite you.
TGG: As South Africans, in your opinion, what should we be focusing on for our business future?
IP: I think we must focus on doing what we know is right. The workplace is tough, and you can’t really produce or deliver or give creative input then you aren’t respected by your co-workers. Taking the easy route is not always the right way. It’s important that appointments are made for the right reasons.
TGG: What business advice would you give younger women starting out today?
IP: Firstly, your own personal value system must resonate with the business you have. Don’t copy others, try to be the best that you can be. You shouldn’t go into business thinking I am going to make money, money will come when you are yourself and do what you are passionate about.
Secondly, I also believe in complementary skills. If you appoint people like yourself, you will be competing with each other. You need to work with people with complementary skills, if you are very creative you need people who are sound on an administrative basis, and you need people who can sell things. Thirdly,especiallyfor women, it’s essential to make peace with how you can balance work and family.
TGG: I read an interview where you said you would like some time to smell the roses. Have you managed to carve out that time for yourself?
IP: I have a friend who lives in Stilbaai and really enjoy taking a break away from work every now and again. I get an enormous amount of joy out of reading, that is my drug of choice.
TGG: Having travelled a long, busy path filled with so much what would you say has been your highlight achievement or achievements to date?
IP: Quite frankly, it’s quite ordinary, it’s that I have kept the family together. What is the point of being successful if you have nobody to cheer for you? Through the business we also created a better life for the people working for us and hopefully inspired many people to enjoy cooking and eat healthier meals.
TGG: Ina, thank you for your time today, and when I am next in Cape Town I will pop by to have a coffee with you.
IP: Do that. I will show you around, and you will see that outside my window I have roses and I do take the time to smell them!
And all too soon the interview was over. As I sit and write this interview up, I am smiling at the jokes and laughter, but mostly I feel an appreciation of Ina Paarman who has managed to keep her roots and values in place while travelling the tough road of business. I would never have guessed, looking at how that iconic brand represents itself in the world, at how the Paarmans stuck it out through thick and thin, led by Graham and Ina, into a prosperous age with family still at the helm.
A beacon of hope for the Womantrepreneur’s journey.
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