When Faan van der Walt, CEO of WeBuyCars, started the business, he neither imagined nor envisioned WeBuyCars to be the size it is today. Twenty years later, WeBuyCars is the largest second-hand car dealership in South Africa, with eight warehouses nationwide, 1 300 employees, and more than 1 000 registered dealers on its database.
“When we started WeBuyCars back in 2001, our goal was to establish a business that would help us to sustain ourselves. We never looked too far ahead, maybe a year or two at most,” says Van der Walt. “I loved working with cars growing up, which was a big motivator for me starting the business. It brought me great satisfaction to be successful at ‘wheeling and dealing’ and I soon realised that this could become something bigger which helped us to focus on continuing to grow the business.”
Working hands-on in the business allowed Faan and his brother Dirk to lay a solid foundation for WeBuyCars. For the first ten years, the brothers deliberately took the time to understand the workings of the business, so when it was time to hand more responsibility to trusted employees, they knew that they could take a step back to improve systems and functionalities within the business, rather than handling everything themselves.
“A lot of people say you should not work in your business, but you should work on your business. For us both statements were very meaningful and participating in both exercises has been a winning factor in success,” says Van der Walt.
Their ability to keep up with industry advances has also helped WeBuyCars evolve over the last twenty years. Where dealers used to rely on print advertisements and physical visits from clients to sell their vehicles, digital transformation catapulted the second-hand car industry to an era of clients coming into the dealerships with an intent and readiness to purchase. The WeBuyCars’ online car auction and purchasing functionality has led the way for the second-hand industry. “All aspects of the industry, not just the advertising, but the decision making and information gathering now all happens online, meaning dealerships have fewer visitors,” says Van der Walt.
Addressing personality characteristics that are key for any modern entrepreneur, Faan believes that eagerness and focus have been a driver in their success. “We have always remained focused on our core business and never been distracted from that. We are enthusiastic and driven and speed is of the essence in terms of innovation and growth. It is in our natures that both Dirk and I are somewhat dissatisfied with the status quo, and we have always had the ability to identify areas for improvement within the business and then act on it.”
When employing people to work in the business, Faan looks to appoint those who are not afraid of challenging the status quo or decisions influencing the direction of the business. Having big personalities with big ideas sitting around a table has played a vital role in growing WeBuyCars to where it is today. However, a delicate balance between hiring big personalities and people who will fit into the corporate culture without rocking the boat has been a lesson learnt along the way.
One of the successes of WeBuyCars has been on the financial front. The Van der Walt brothers grew WeBuyCars without ever borrowing money. The business has grown organically over the years, achieved by retaining profits within the business which are then reinvested – either financially or with time. “We always stayed focused on the business. The downside of borrowing is the risk of growing too quickly and losing the culture inherent in the business as a result. It can also put additional burdens on the business which could be a great risk for any start up,” says Faan.
It is safe to say that over the last twenty years, WeBuyCars has become a powerhouse second-hand car retailer that is streets ahead of its competitors. Thanks to a combination of smart decisions, passion, tangible learning and quick action, WeBuyCars is now majority owned by JSE-listed Transaction Capital.
“Transaction Capital is a formidable business which we respect greatly. We believe that they will certainly help us grow in the future and discussions around possible international expansion and diversified offerings are not off the table. At the same time, we believe the used car industry will continue to evolve and car ownership will certainly change over time for the foreseeable future. I don’t think that long term vehicle ownership will change dramatically but models such as subscription models or medium-term rentals certainly have a role to play to fit in between car ownership and ride-hailing companies.”
Watch this space.