The teenage years are the trickiest in one’s life as you’re still trying to find yourself – and sometimes you mix up with the wrong crowd. A Cape Town teenager, now an entrepreneur, did just that. He left home when he was only sixteen and lived on the street – for five years!
“I wanted to be out there with friends and live big as them. We partied every weekend and I realised that my behaviour was making troubles at home so I left. I had education. My parents provided everything I needed but I just wanted to live out there with the ouens.”
But Suroe Abrahams from Mitchells Plain in Cape Town is thirty-six now and owner of an aluminium business, ARSF Aluminium Works.
Metalworkers use heat to join frames together, but Suroe soon learnt that the difference with friends is that they detach from you once the heat turns up.
“After a while, friends started disappearing. The more you go down the gutter, the more the people around you don’t want to associate themselves with you. I soon didn’t have any friends.”
He found himself knocking on people’s doors and windows, in his desperation, little knowing that he’d be manufacturing them himself in few years. For example, Suroe says, “I went to this church lady and asked for food. I said I didn’t want meat. I wanted anything – even dry rice – just to fill up my stomach.”
Suroe had passed his matric in 1995 with flying colours. Now he bumped into one of his old friends, one who used to look up to him in high school. “He asked me, ‘Suroe what’s going on? Why do you look like this?’ He said I should approach him if I needed any help. I told him, ‘I have a business idea but I don’t want to implement it while I’m still on drugs. Give me two weeks.’”
Suroe knew it was now or never and this could be the opportunity that set him straight. He managed to get clean. He went back to his generous and trusting friend who agreed to fund his business, plus offered him a place to sleep.
“By 2001 I had all the machinery and built windows with this other guy. Just when the business was picking up – he started doing drugs.”
Suroe knew very well the effect of drugs on a person. He says he had no choice except to remove all his machines, but the hustle to build a business continued.
“This other guy told me that he’d teach me how to make windows and doors. He said a lot of people would be unhappy because the competition was very high at that time and they didn’t want more people in the industry. Five years later I affiliated with another company. I had invested a lot of money into it. To everyone’s surprise, the company flopped!”
He says he was then faced with two options, to either close down the business or pick himself up. “I had twenty people that worked for me but only two remained after the business collapsed.” Suroe says he then made lots of calls and offered his resources. “People waste a lot of time contemplating about the problem, instead of coming with solutions to it.”
He eventually weathered that crisis and established ARSF in 2005, and has kept it going until today.
“I’m passionate about people because I know how it is out there. I always tell my employees they can leave if a better opportunity comes up. Who knows, they might be my employers tomorrow!” he says, jokingly.
He says he draws his inspiration from his family; he has four children. For example, “My six year old daughter will force a huge ball to go inside a small bottle. She says it doesn’t matter how it goes in but she wants to see it inside, because nothing is impossible.
Her words inspire me every day. Eventually she cuts the ball into pieces and shoves it inside the bottle. At the end, the ball is exactly where she needs it – inside!” says Suroe laughing.
He does caution that his business is not doing well at the moment due to inflation. “Government should ask for public opinion on how they can resolve the social issues they’re faced with. People have brilliant ideas but nobody listens to them.”
His aluminium windows and doors provide high security to his customers and he sees it as his responsibility to ‘secure’ the future of his family as well. “I can’t go down like this, this is not the end of Suroe. I have a lovely family to look after. I have other businesses and shops I’m running. I never sit still.”
In a bid to keep learning and build on his small successes, Suroe is currently upskilling further by doing a course at Stellenbosch University’s Small Business Academy.
Suroe says that people in his community tell him to leave the area and live somewhere ‘better’ now that he is a businessman. “That’s wrong. Who’s going to be a role model in the area? Drug-dealers? Children are going to look up to them because there’s no one who’s doing any better. All the inspirational people have left.”
Suroe surely is a living example that you can build your today from yesterday’s mistakes.