Textbook savvy pays off

Cindy Preller

BY THE BOOK: Ross Johnston with some of the books and a laptop sold by Rehab Books and Technology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) South campus cafeteria. Picture: MARK WEST

SELLING books out of cardboard boxes in res led to a thriving book and technology store at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).

Employing almost 30 staff members in the first six weeks of this academic year, and growing Rehab Books and Technology by 40% in 2013 and 83% in 2012, the company has come a long way from its humble beginnings at the Unitas and Melodi residences on the university’s South campus.

While Rehab books and technology owner Ross Johnston was completing his B.Com degree, which he graduated from in 1998, he started his love of business with running tuck shops at the residences, and later also making and selling popcorn at a digs where he lived in Summerstrand.

He left a promising job with South African Breweries as a brand manager after just six months, to go “back to his tuck shops” because he valued his independence more than the salary he was getting at the time.

In 2001 he branched out from his tuck shops to selling second-hand books, and later sold books from the South campus library, but was “kicked off” campus as he was not allowed to sell new books because of a service agreement the university has with another book store.

“We moved into a truck in University Way and started selling from there. It has not been an easy ride. About four years ago we almost closed down because we had theft of R300 000 worth of stock,” Johnston said.

In 2012 Rehab Books and Technology was invited back on campus and started operating from the South campus cafeteria after just two weeks of setting up shop. The truck is still parked in the back of the shop, where it is used as a storeroom.

About 40% of the company’s book sales is for second-hand books, where the company acts as a go-between sellers and buyers. As per an agreement with the university, they are only allowed to sell new books for B.Com and Law students.

“We sold about 6 000 second hand books last year and 10 000 new books. We will be opening a new shop on campus at Fort Hare University in March and also started operating from the auditorium of NMMU Second Avenue campus,” Johnston said.

Rehab Books and Technology supplied 16 schools in the Bay with textbooks last year and eight schools with E-books.

Technology is another important part of the business and they have sold over 300 laptops and 800 tablets at the university thus far. “I believe we are moving more towards linking future educational requirements to E-books,” he said.

“Digital books are more cost-effective instead of carting seven tons of books around. Making any business successful is achievable –- it just takes hard work and persistence. Taking things step-by-step is important,” Johnston said.

He said it was equally important to value and balance all four pillars of a company – customers, staff, suppliers and the business itself – instead of favouring one above another.

Another side-business of Johnston’s, which is based in North End, is Popping Delicious which he started in 2000.

“We deliver flavoured popcorn to East London, Grahamstown and Port Alfred and supply 30 schools, 27 Spars and 80 shops with popcorn. I started this business in a digs in Summerstrand, popping popcorn on a two-plate stove,” Johnston said.

Rehab Books and Technology also sells airtime, stationery and bus tickets.

Johnston said the company is at its busiest in the first six weeks of the academic year, doing 50% of its sales within this time-period. The stores trade until 8pm at night and he said his staff put in a lot of hard work during this time but “believe in what they do” and get rewarded for this.


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