An inspirational woman growing a powerful brand in the male-dominated automotive sector
Melicia Labuschagne is not your usual business director. From leading team line-dancing celebrations, to writing a book titled ‘Life lessons through mountain-biking’, to establishing the Liqui Moly Superhero Academy for children in need, her earnest energy makes you want to follow her lead. An authentic and feisty female entrepreneur, she has successfully launched a world-renowned brand and has spent the last 11 years building it in South Africa.
Growing up in small mining and farming towns, this energetic young tomboy had a great passion for Formula One and idolized Michael Schumacher. When a car accident put paid to the banking job that was paying the bills in her twenties, Melicia used the insurance payout to take her first entrepreneurial leap and started trading in the automotive sector. This was her first career link to her personal passion for vehicles and a welcome step out of structured employment.
Debilitating health challenges then led her to seek out specialist nutrition from Herbalife from her hospital bed. Healthy again, she quickly rose up the ranks of the direct marketing organization in South Africa – building her own team, travelling internationally and inspiring others through her absolute passion for a product that had changed her life. “Herbalife was my introduction helping people with Crohn’s disease and also to the importance of personal development. I learned to work harder on myself than my career, and this led to my growth in Herbalife and my journey today. I now take my health very seriously and work hard to be better today than what I was yesterday…every day.”
It was through her Herbalife exposure that Melicia grew to become just the person to bring German lubricant brand Liqui Moly to South Africa. True to her principles, Melicia researched the brand, even visiting Germany, to ensure she would be able to believe in the brand and back the product. She took 6 months to research the competition and define the correct approach to launch and grow the brand. “I’ve always believed in selling the advantages and value of a product, not the price, to build a loyal customer base who know and trust what they’re getting. That way, you never have to protect your business,” says Melicia.
Melicia certainly had to rely on this philosophy as she launched the Liqui Moly premium engine oils and additives in South Africa in 2008, in the midst of a global recession. “I was determined to build the brand based on trust with some consistent fundamentals in place – one price increase a year, superb service delivery and always adding value to the customer,” says Melicia.
In the early days, she worked out of a one-room office and played every role in the company – receptionist, packer, order taker, salesperson. “It was tough at first as I felt so many doors slamming shut. We had to build credibility, sell our products based on the value that supports a premium price point, build relationships and just keep going back! It’s a delayed growth strategy, but it’s the strongest. The corporate customers that took the longest to buy in are now our most loyal supporters.”
Her determined approach paid off and Liqui Moly has been on a steady growth path over the last 11 years, with a recent major uptick smashing the annual 10% annual target with 37% growth year on year. “We’re excited and humbled to see major retail partners now knocking on our door to carry the Liqui Moly range. It’s quite a turnaround.”
As a woman walking into male-dominated boardrooms and workshops of the automotive, industrial and mining industries, Melicia has had some challenges to face. “I learnt early on that I had to turn my difference into a real differentiator. While men can also perceive you as less knowledgeable or strong in these traditionally male-dominated industries, your gender also makes you distinctive and makes the value you can add that much more memorable. You just have to make sure you really come to the table by knowing your subject inside-out. There’s no faking it when you already have to work that much harder to be credible.”
Melicia learnt from all the experts she could, whether they were buying the Liqui Moly products or not, and found a receptive audience. A top mining tribologist in fact provided training to Melicia and her Liqui Moly sales representatives at no cost. “Being a female in a world where men are used to working and bonding with men is challenging, but I also find in some ways it’s easier to build a relationship, as men are more willing to share knowledge and answer your questions. There is less of a competitive edge and less ego in the interactions. This can be a huge advantage.”
While Melicia draws inspiration from international figures, particularly those who have taken a big knock before achieving great things, she’d like to see more connection and support between female South African business leaders, particularly in her industry. “Female directors are still thin on the ground and it would be great to develop more synergies, sounding boards and interaction as we evolve out loud together. I’d like to see women believe they have the right to be equally seen and respected, making themselves heard, rather than standing back. Be proud of being female – it’s not an obstacle but a useful advantage. You don’t need to change to fit in, rather use it to stand out!”
Melicia radiates the personal development philosophies she lives by and is determined to retain a positive outlook in the midst of another economic downturn. “Africa is full of opportunity and we’ve barely scraped the surface of what’s possible. It’s all about your mindset. I believe that how you do anything is how you do everything, and, irrespective of your gender, make sure you do everything well.”