Seven years ago Nicole Kersh, a South African–born and Sydney-raised entrepreneur, was leading two lives. The then 21-year-old was studying interior architecture at the University of New South Wales by day and learning everything she could about running an online cabling business by night. The line between her dual lives became increasingly blurred as business picked up.
“Each time the website received an order I would get a text message and, because it was before smart phones, to access the internet I would have to dash to the nearest computer to process it, head home to pack it up and then race to the post office to send the order off,” Kersh says.
There were only so many lectures and tutorials from which she could escape before she had to choose between continuing her education and building her business 4Cabling. She went with the latter and hasn’t looked back. “My parents were cautious about me dropping out of university and that made me resolute that if I took the risk I had to make it a really good choice,” Kersh says
4Cabling is the only direct-to-consumer manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of cabling and IT management accessories in Australia. They sell everything from server racks to network cabinets to cables for voice, data and electricity to uninterruptible power supplies. “Every office has a computer network that feeds back to a central point where information is housed and shared and that is facilitated through cables,” Kersh says. “My business supplies all the bits and pieces to support that infrastructure.
Cloud computing means demand for these bits and pieces is at an all-time high. “We’re seeing a resurgence with cloud technology because it means people are investing in data infrastructure,” Kersh says. “It’s almost like a dot.com boom.”
In her first year Kersh sold $200,000 worth of equipment. Six years on the business she started with $9000 capital, operates from a 1600 square metre warehouse in Sydney’s Alexandria, is set to turn over $8 million this year and was named one of BRW’s Fast 100 companies for 2012. It has a strong distribution network throughout Asia–Pacific and will open a large new base in Hong Kong by the end of the year, all before its founder turns 30.
So what prompted this bright young woman to tackle the business of cables?
“I went to university but I wasn’t really one for that style of education,” she says. “If you’re not 100 per cent sure about what you want to do, it seems pointless.”
So Kersh’s mind was open to different possibilities while studying and working part-time in her parents’ cabling installation business, Elecdata. She soon spotted a gap in the market for a cabling supplier and decided to pursue it. Initially she set up 4Cabling within Elecdata but there was an inherent conflict of interest between the two enterprises. “You can't be a supplier and an installer in this industry,” Kersh says. “As 4Cabling gained momentum that became clear and we needed to make a choice.” She chose to go out on her own. Leaving the family business was a significant move but one Kersh did with her family’s blessing.
“I didn’t want to work for the family business forever,” she says. “Mum actually works with me now which is really lovely.” Her elder brother has since taken the reins at Elecdata and despite running businesses in the same field Kersh says they never talk shop.
“He’s my brother and I’m his younger sister,” she says. “At work I am as serious and focused as I possibly can be but when I’m outside of that I need to be able to switch off.” She wouldn’t change it for the world but Kersh readily admits that 4Cabling has been all consuming since the day she started it.
“It ate my life for many years and finding balance is something of an obstacle,” she says. “It is only recently really that it has calmed down. I have to force myself to stop, put my phone away and close my laptop at night otherwise I’m a constant mobile office and it never ends.”
The success of 4Cabling is undoubtedly a product of Kersh’s natural, and unrelenting, work ethic. While cables and cable accessories were familiar to Kersh, e-commerce and web development were completely foreign. “I read books on cabling, HTML and building websites,” she says. “At that time there was nothing in the e-commerce space in this industry. It was very hard to build a local website without having a development degree behind you.” Unperturbed, Kersh taught herself to code and built the 4Cabling website from scratch. “I wanted to be price competitive so I didn’t use a web developer which saved a lot and we had a really small margin at first because we were sourcing everything we sold,” she says. “It’s improved now because we manufacture the majority of products we sell.”
When it comes to business, Kersh is open to risks and likes to think big. “World cable domination is the joke in the office, which sounds sad, but it is the plan,” she says. Over the years she has built a solid, loyal team of 17, whom Kersh is quick to credit with helping her bring her grand ideas to fruition, including the launch of a new consumer-facing enterprise called Cablemanagement (cablemanagement.com.au).
Having that unwavering support inside the business has also helped Kersh deal with the challenges of being a young female chief executive in the male-dominated field of manufacturing. “My age has definitely been an issue at times,” she says. “I look quite young so I have dealt with lots of people who haven’t taken me seriously.”
Men aged 60 and over tend to be the worst offenders at dismissing her out of hand. “There are older men who just don’t like dealing with women my age. They think ‘What could she possibly understand?’” says Kersh. “I used to take my dad along to certain meetings because he is of that generation and we started hiring male sales staff to avoid any problems.”
She finds it frustrating that that is the reality. “It irritates me that there is such a divide and that for some people it’s not just about what your business offers but who you are, how you look and how you fit the mould,” she says. “One thing I enjoy about being online is that people find you because they’re searching for a particular product and it really is just about what you offer.”
Despite the difficulties Kersh has encountered as a young female entrepreneur, she has never contemplated giving in and encourages other young women to adopt a similar attitude.
“I would say to other young women in business to be completely honest about who they are and not let their age or gender serve as a barrier,” she says. “Sometimes being a complete outsider can be the best thing for a situation. I came into this industry with a completely fresh perspective and didn’t have any concept of how much I was challenging the status quo.”
Kersh has persisted in circumstances others, even adults double her age, might find overwhelming; touring manufacturing facilities in regional China on her own without speaking a word of the local language was particularly tough.
“In hindsight it was awful,” she says. “I was 24 and alone and I was in a car full of men visiting factories that looked close on the map but were three hours’ drive apart. I couldn’t speak any Mandarin and they couldn’t speak English but they were still pushy.”
She persevered and her business endeavours in China became infinitely easier after striking up a conversation, through an interpreter, with a local at a trade show in Beijing in 2008. “He was the only person there who talked to me,” she says. “His English was appalling and my Mandarin was nonexistent but we connected. He was working for a large manufacturer but he was looking for a better way and I needed someone to help me.”
He moved to Hong Kong, attended an intensive English language school and now runs 4Cabling’s operations in Asia. “We talk every day and meet once a year in Singapore,” she says. “It’s invaluable to have that trust over there and it’s also been amazing to watch how happy he is in his new life.”
As she chats about the various aspects of her business it is hard to imagine many other 28-year-old women in her shoes. “It’s not something I’d change but in some ways it feels like my life is in reverse, that I’m switching off more now than I was in my early twenties,” she says. “My friends have no idea what I really do which is actually great because I appreciate that distinction in my life.”
At least some of Kersh’s resilience and self-reliance is almost inevitably a result of her childhood in South Africa. “I grew up in Johannesburg during the apartheid which was terrible. It was a weird place to grow up,” she says. “We moved to Sydney in 1994 and I was 10 going on about 40. Our lives were very isolated and we had to entertain ourselves.”
She had never been to a park on her own until landing in Australia and had never seen a dog off its leash. “I kept looking behind and in front because I was worried that something could happen to the dog.”
These days, apart from tackling world cable domination and finding some balance between work and life, Kersh has very little to worry about.
Nicole Kersh was recently awarded the Australian Institute of Management’s NSW/ACT Young Manager of the Year 2012.