Sister act gets the business off the ground

Marula Berry Trading provides amenities to some of the province’s best hotels and guesthouses

When she moved to Port Elizabeth from East London, Michelle Drewry started her business with her sister and five boxes of stock in a garage.
Six years later, she is still the proud owner of Marula Berry Trading, a company that provides amenities to some of the province’s best hotels and guesthouses from their premises in Walmer.
We started in 2012, my sister Helen and myself.
We were pretty much a sister act.
Most of my family are from a hotel background – my sister, my husband and I are all former hoteliers.
I had another business at the time before I moved to Port Elizabeth.
I owned a wedding stationery business, called Moments Wedding Stationery for 10 years in East London.
When I moved to PE, the wheels fell off the bus because nobody knew me here.
At that stage I was thinking about doing something else because I needed to.
It came about that one of the guesthouse suppliers literally closed their doors overnight here in PE and a lot of the guesthouses were left in the lurch.
My husband got wind of that, came home and said to me: ‘Why don’t you start this, because there is a need for it?’
So that’s what we did.
My sister moved to PE as well and we decided to get it going. My sister left about two years ago, and is now living in Thailand.
I was quite sad about her leaving because we did a lot of groundwork together.
What is your core service?
We are predominantly distributors for the hospitality trade, though we do sell to the public as well.
We sell everything from bathroom amenities all the way through to bed linen, cleaning products, food and beverage items and room accessories. We do everything and anything related to hotels.
What makes your business unique?
If we don’t have the items, we will always source it. I think that is quite unique.
There are other companies that provide amenities but we do pride ourselves on being able to source items for clients.
We were also the first distributors for Bespoke Amenities, a proudly South African company based in Johannesburg.
We’ve grown with them, though they are much bigger than us and are supplying to the whole of the Eastern Cape and neighbouring countries.
If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they go about it?
Firstly, as with most businesses, you’d have to make sure you do your marketing.
You have to know there is a need for it because there are a lot of competitors.
You have to make sure your pricing is right because pricing is so fickle in the Eastern Cape.
It’s all about price and service. If you deliver good service, you already have a step up.
What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced when you started out?
Changing people’s minds was a huge one. We saw so many people, and so many people said ‘no thank you’.
I think it’s purely because when you start out people think you might be closed six months later, so they don’t want to make that change and go from having a supplier they’re happy with, to a supplier that maybe will or maybe won’t still be open at the end of the day.
Finding different sources was another challenge, as that takes forever and you need to find suppliers that can do the job properly.
How did you fund the business in the beginning?
My husband has a business and he actually gave a cash input and became a bit of a silent partner.
I put the same amount of money in and my sister put money in as well.
What is your target market?
Hotels, guesthouses, B & Bs, Airbnb establishments and game lodges.
How many people do you employ?
We have two employees, and a freelancer who does all our web pages and newsletters.
How important is social media and an online presence for your business?
It is very big for us. Our website is really our marketing tool now.
We’ve spent a lot of time on the website and we refer our clients to it.
What are some of your biggest challenges day-to-day?
I don’t think we have big challenges.
I have great staff so everybody knows what they’re doing.
If we have a challenge, we generally overcome it.
There are everyday challenges but it makes things a lot easier if you have good staff.
How do you keep your staff motivated?
I think if you’re fair with your staff, which I hope I am, your staff will stay motivated.
What are some of your highlights in running your business?
Being able to work with some of the really well-known established hotels and seeing the beautiful places we have to offer in the Eastern Cape.
Working with the different grading councils is a highlight as well.
It’s a privilege to work with them; they have the faith in us to do the job properly.
Do you have any plans for expanding the business?
We’d love to expand. There are a number of different items we’d like to add.
I’d love to open another branch somewhere, but I’ve always believed in small steps because if you take a big step, sometimes you can jump into a big hole.
We’re also interested in consulting, especially with some Airbnb establishments.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a business owner?
The biggest lesson is not to grow too fast, but to take it steadily.
We’ve taken a couple of wrong decisions and we’ve learned from that.
What are the greatest challenges of running your business in a city like PE?
You have to be careful because in quiet seasons like winter you will hit a low, and you need to cover yourself.
That’s always a challenge.
What do you think are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur?
Be motivated, definitely don’t give up and do your homework...

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