Meet John Jacobs – the man, the myth, the legend who is here to inspire us all with his story of how he went from earning R55 per month to becoming a CEO. And let’s face it, there’s nothing more heartwarming than a story about overcoming adversity.
Jacobs was born and bred in Kraaifontein, Cape Town and went from a teenage junior clerk at an international protective workwear company to taking over that very business and turning it into one of South Africa’s most prominent ventures of its kind.
Sweet-Orr & Lybro is headquartered in Cape Town and is arguably one of the world’s oldest workwear brands. The company provides PPE to critical economic sectors across the region, including the mining and engineering, combat and disaster, automotive, medical and the petrochemical industry amongst others.
As the CEO of Sweet-Orr & Lybro, Jacobs reflects on his 50-year journey, navigating through a few rough patches along the way, expressing that “The situation has not always been easy, but as a team, we have managed to navigate whatever storms came our way, from economic crises to pandemics.”
He openly addresses the challenges he had to face namely coming from a blue-collar family. “We were six kids, and my father worked for the railway. So, as you can imagine, there were some tough times along the way” Jacobs explains. As he got older, he eventually had to leave school to help his parents and siblings make ends meet as a post office messenger – his first job.
Jacobs goes on to explain that he was barely 18 when he first joined Sweet-Orr in 1971 as a junior clerk and his key responsibility was “dealing with all incoming orders in exchange for a salary of R55 per month.”
Jacobs recalls how he seized every opportunity to climb the ladder in the company… The great news? His efforts were not in vain. Grabbing the opportunities that came his way allowed him to buy his first company shares. And even though he didn’t even have a matric certificate back when he first started at the company, going back to school was always on his agenda.
“Education has always been important to me. That is why I went back to night school when I had the chance in the late seventies, aged 24. I wanted to finish what I started in the sixties. Of course, it was tricky to combine school and a full-time job, but I felt I had to walk this journey. I stayed the path and eventually completed a BCom Honours degree at UWC,” he says. What an achievement!
His drive not only reflects in his education, but also in his ability to keep his company at the forefront of South Africa’s protective workwear scene, bearing in mind that it’s been operational in Cape Town since 1931. “Thanks to continuous and proper planning, saving for a rainy day, being agile… we have stood the test of time. We did so together as a team, and it is something I am incredibly proud of,” Jacobs expressed.
“To me, our employees – who hail from all walks of life – are our most important asset, and I have made it standard policy to treat them as such. We make a point of continuously investing in and adding value to our staff’s skills sets and abilities,” he explains as he emphasises on the importance of valuing and caring for your employees.
“Staff members who feel valued and cared for are loyal and will stand by you in good and bad times. This shows as Sweet Orr has an extremely low staff turnover. The average employee stays with us for 25 years. One of our operational managers has been with us for 40 years before he retired!”
This is notion especially important in a country like South Africa, Jacobs says: “There are so many people who want to work but who do not have the right skills… Companies can change the status quo by helping people acquire skills that get them into jobs and allow them to climb the ladder.”
After celebrating this milestone of 50 years with the organisation, Jacobs is still confident about the future. “This company once started with a dream… [and] we continue to evolve and build,” says Jacobs. “Our story is far from finished!”