About 9,000 miles from American shores, Georgia native Mary L. Harris calls the shots. As CEO of J.M. Products SA (Pty) Ltd., with 21 full-time employees and 100 sales and merchandising agents, Harris heads up a company that manufactures and distributes ethnic haircare products in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Ghana, and other African nations.
Harris came to South Africa on a temporary work assignment in 1994, to help turn around the company she was working for. A decade later Harris would own 100% of that business. “The first 10 years were slow, and it was a hard sell, but I was committed to staying and building this business, bottle by bottle,” Harris recalls.
The haircare industry in the United States is crowded. But in Africa, with its estimated 1 billion residents, not only is demand there, the competitive field is wide open. As a result, J.M. Products’ 2009 sales reached 60.3 million rand, the currency of South Africa (roughly $8.1 million U.S.), and Harris projects 2010 revenues at the Industria, South Africa-based company to reach R72 million (about $9.7 million).
Some 16 years after apartheid, it’s an interesting time to be in South Africa. This month, the country becomes the first African nation to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The beautiful country of nearly 50 million people is not without its share of political, social, and economic problems. While about 90% of the country is either black or “coloured” (an inoffensive term for a multiethnic person of some African ancestry but not enough to be considered black under South African law), the vast majority of wealth is still controlled by whites, who make up less than 10% of the population.