Le Creuset

From your car to your holiday-home couch, ShowMax is your perfect vacation companion. Whether it’s Hollywood movies or full seasons of the best series, you can watch what you want, when you want on your smart TV, tablet, laptop or smartphone. Marathon watch your favourite shows online back-to-back whenever you want. The best advice I ever got,’ says Paul van Zuydam, is: Do a few things, well.’ This may be true, but judging by the fascinating and varied things Paul himself has accomplished in his life, it’s not clear that this is advice he ever personally took. Born on a farm in Zululand (It said Zululand in my passport, not South Africa,’ Paul, now 77, says proudly), he briefly studied agriculture before moving into accountancy Le Creuset is known as much for their glorious rainbow colours as they are for the magnificence of their pots. What many people don’t know is that the man behind the famous French brand is ” a South African.

which, for a farm boy who attended the local farm school for a few years before going to boarding school in Nongoma, KZN, can hardly be called sticking with what you know. The move towards accountancy, however, was a good one: Paul loved the discipline and clarity of it, and some of what he learnt there has informed the way he operates in business. For instance, Le Creuset, the company he bought in 1988 and has since steered to global success, has no debt. No debt at all. This, at that level of business, is astounding. Paul has never borrowed money Paul has never borrowed money to expand the company (and the business has grown dramatically with him at the helm) – everything he does, is paid for with cash flow to expand the company (and the business has grown dramatically with him at the helm) – everything he does, is paid for with cash flow.

All my new stores for five years ahead are all already catered for,’ he says. All of this is jumping ahead, though; the first thing Paul did with his accountancy qualification, as one would, was start a tour company offering an overland odyssey from London to Cape Town. A friend and I went to London to continue our studies,’ he says, and we really wanted to see Europe, but didn’t have the money to travel. We knew there were a lot of people who were in the same boat as we were.’ One day, while walking down Piccadilly, he saw a new Volkswagen Kombi for sale for £600. Of course we didn’t have the money to buy it, but with a 10% deposit, we put up an advertisement at the overseas visitors club selling places in the Kombi for an overland tour through Europe and across Africa, to Durban. Within a week we were sold out! So we bought the Kombi, got the food sponsored and set off. Then when I got to Durban, I organised another tour and sent it back.’ He laughs.

I saw the whole of Europe like that, but I also learnt a lot about running a business and the importance of advertising. I learnt that if you work hard and are organised, you can do things – there is no magic to it.’ After four years in Toronto working for a modern retail group (where he became the chief accountant at the age of 26), Paul returned to South Africa to help out one of his uncles. His uncle had signed a guarantee for a German homeware business that was in trouble. Get my money back for me,’ he told Paul, and I’ll give you half.’ In an effort to save money, Paul took on everything himself – from production to engineering to sales, marketing, accounting and restructuring. In the process, he not only succeeded in recouping his uncle’s money, but also turned the business into such a success that The Prestige Group of London – the world’s largest homeware manufacturer outside the US at the time – recognised the threat to their business and offered to buy a controlling interest.

By 1980 Paul had sold all his shares and was invited to become MD of Prestige in London, and in 1983 he became chairman and CEO of Prestige worldwide. Three years later, a colleague called Paul to tell him about a wonderful enamel cast iron pot company he had found. Le Creuset was a third-generation family business,’ says Paul. Every single pot was individually made and handcrafted. Every single pot came from a Le Creuset foundry in France. I was very interested – I thought it had something unique.’ Paul suggested that Prestige buy the business, but the chairman of American Brands, Prestige’s holding company, was put off by the weight of the pots (ironically, this is partly what makes them so fabulous to cook in). Reluctant to approve Paul’s plan, he flew him to New York – via Concorde! – to try to talk him out of it, but in the end Paul succeeded in talking him around to the idea. The deal took months to negotiate,’ he says, and then finally, right at the last minute, the workers went on strike. There was a strike clause in the agreement which meant Prestige could pull out of the sale, and they told me to kill the deal indefinitely.’

I learnt a lot about running a business and the importance of advertising. I learnt that if you work hard and are organised, you can do things – there is no magic to it’ But something about Le Creuset still spoke to Paul. It had all the hallmarks of a good business to him literally hands-on, in that every piece was handcrafted – and he saw enormous potential in it. When Prestige were put under political pressure to sell their South African business, Paul insisted that 10% of the sale be given to all the South African employees (it was unprecedented, but my American bosses were very understanding’). And he used the money he got as a result to buy Le Creuset himself. That was my big break in life,’ he says. Maybe so, but it was also a huge chance to take; again, not typical of the cautious man he professes to be. I liked the product,’ Paul says simply. Enamel on steel is easy, but enamel on cast iron is very different. VAN ZUYDAM 1. Don’t get distracted, even if you’re lucky for a while. You need to focus all the time.’ 2. Management is about letting people do what they’re good at and leaving them alone.’ 3. The most crucial interface in any business is the one between the product and the people who are parting with their money.’ 4. Start from a position of trust rather than suspicion, and always give the customer the benefit of the doubt.’ 5. I believe in the inevitability of gradual-ness. The most dangerous thing for manufacturers is boom or bust.’ 6. People have tried to buy me out many times – I always turn them down. I don’t want them to start saving money by lowering standards.’ 7. I believe in planning, but I am also an optimist. Sometimes at my own expense, but that’s fine.’ 8. I’m proudest of the fact that what I’ve achieved was never at anyone else’s expense.’ I liked that all the pots were made by Le Creuset in France, and that the manufacturing standards were so high.

The French are such excellent engineers.’ 2015 marks Le Creuset’s 90th anniversary – and its cast iron pots are all still made in one place in France, albeit, now, in a multitude of glorious colours. The French plant has since been rebuilt and a new state-of-the-art facility has been completed, more than doubling the capacity in order to feed the increasing demand for Le Creuset products worldwide. Paul has remained steadfastly loyal to the heritage of the original cast iron brand and says he will never move that part of the business away from France, although a billion rand modern ceramic plant in Northern Thailand has been approved and should be in production in 18 months’ time. This will take the total group employees to over 3 000 people.

There are now 300 standalone Le Creuset stores, 180 stores-in-stores and over 20 internet stores worldwide. Paul prefers to have his own stores as he can then control the quality of the service. Worldwide, Le Creuset is currently opening more than one store a week and Paul is planning for 1000 stores worldwide within five years. It’s not only the size of the customer base that has rocketed; the variety of products on offer has grown from the original range of pans to incorporate everything from glassware to cooking knives – all made to the same exacting standards. The global success of the Le Creuset brand is a remarkable achievement for anyone, but for a self-professed cautious farm boy from Zululand, it is extraordinary.

Le Creuset Photo Gallery

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