Roberto CoelhoBy Roberto Coelho|April 6, 2022|10 Minutes|In Entrepreneur


How an Auschwitz survivor inspired an African entrepreneur

This is an African entrepreneur story encompassing two tales. The first, is the formation of a South African conglomerate with eight businesses operating across the African continent. The second, the man behind the conglomerate, Liran Assness, and his inspiration, his grandfather - a hero, fighter and Auschwitz survivor.

The city of Johannesburg houses thousands of different office buildings, housing the innovative entrepreneurs and aspiring businesses of South Africa. In the booming area of Waterfall, an unassuming office complex is home to The Sekta Group, a proudly South African consortium of eight organizations, with subsidiaries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Sekta Group is co-founded and led by Liran Assness, a tall gentleman with a rocky build and a well-informed air about him. It operates from Saldanha Bay to Sasolburg, from Namibia to Tanzania, a truly African business utilizing African expertise and African resources to generate over one billion Rand in revenue.

When looking at the fast growth of The Sekta Group – from 10 employees to over 2500 employees -one wonders where Assness grew his business acumen.

In the halls of an MBA classroom?  under the wing of a billionaire mentor? In this case, neither.

His business savvy roots can be found in the unexpected area of physical commodity trading.

Selling commodities like iron ore and manganese to Brazilian traders and Chinese industrialists, he built a strong base on the foundations of the commodity boom and crash cycle of the 2000s. “I got great experience, learned a lot of what to do and a huge amount of what not to do when the business crashed.”

After the business failed, despair could have taken over; instead, he saw an opportunity and purchased a company called Redec. At the time, it was a small industrial business with 10 employees; yet, Assness turned this small startup industrial paint service into a high growth business with over 500 employees within a few years. Growing quickly, Assness searched for further potential acquisitions. As the deals followed, The Sekta Group grew.

Fast forward to 2022 and The Sekta Group provides industry-leading services to the energy, mining, marine, and construction sectors. But before exploring the growth of The Sekta Group, and Assness’s ability to take businesses to the next level, he shares his core inspiration. Inspiration in business, for him, springs from his roots.  Sadly, and proudly, he speaks of his grandfather, Ervin Schlesinger, was born in the former Yugoslavia nearly 100 years ago.

Schlesinger turned 16, as Europe suffered under the terror of World War Two. His country was headed for chaos and destruction as people tried to flee.

Without money or hope, Schlesinger was unable to escape Europe. What happened next is a bitter tale of the evils of humankind. I find myself hanging on his every word; the devastation, the fury, the heartbreak, it is riveting. As the Nazis advance across eastern Europe in 1939, the land is not all they take. Schlesinger, as a Jew, is taken captive by the Nazis at the age of 16.

The Germans took him to Auschwitz concentration camp – a name forever blackened by death. There were 1.3 million people who arrived at Auschwitz; the camp commanders oversaw the slaughter of 1.1 million of them.  The teenager was a man of much strength and resilience, who never gave into oppression and fought for life against the worst the world can offer. “My grandfather, a holocaust survivor, is my inspiration.”

When the war ended, Schlesinger went home to a broken Yugoslavia, looking to pick up his life. It wasn’t going to happen. He left Europe, like many refugees from the holocaust, for the growing new state of Israel. He didn’t settle and headed for South Africa. Schlesinger saw a home on the tip of Africa. He became a diamond dealer and built a strong business and family and achieved his goal of living a wonderful life. Surviving the worst of humanity with the resilience to push on and create an incredible life, Schlesinger is Assness’s inspiration to continue expanding his business; in honor of his grandfather and hero.

“There is tremendous opportunity here, there are a lot of people looking elsewhere which just opens more opportunities here,” he says.  As his grandfather did, he built his business on the coattails of the South African mining sector but is disappointed by the bureaucracy preventing the true potential.

“South Africa has everything, 70% of global chrome ore reserves, 80% of global platinum reserves, if South Africa was smart, we could be world leaders,” he says.

Without unrealistic thoughts, Assness understands the challenges of operating in South Africa, including high regulation, slow departments, and little efficiency. He believes, that with an entrepreneurial mindset, anyone can overcome these challenges.

“If you’re an entrepreneur and have access to capital, you can buy well-priced businesses and invest in projects at a lower risk.” This has been his formula for success, Assness has consistently identified undervalued businesses with the potential for high growth. 2021 saw a continuation of this formula as a further two businesses were added to the current portfolio.

It may seem as though Assness has given away his secret formula for success for others to copy, but the true secret is not found in the acquisitions, but in successful mergers. Wall Street carries wary tales of failed mergers and acquisitions. Often, parties end worse off than before the acquisition as cultures clash and newly grouped employees compete. “It is very challenging; every company has its own culture and it’s really key to get existing management to buy into a new vision.”

Assness shares principles he uses to ensure new acquisitions merge into the existing group successfully. “Create an environment where everyone is happy to get other people’s point of view and guidance and opinion on the matter.” Usually, when a business is acquired, the management team of that business have their own goals. Assness, as the group CEO, plays the part of intermediary.

Encouraging the management team to reach those goals while reaching the goals of the group as a whole is imperative. Once the leadership overcomes the qualitative aspects of new cultures and teams interacting, the final hurdle is any inefficiencies in the system. “There is a lot of focus on system and governance, which allows us to grow.”

Sekta is prepared to efficiently onboard any new subsidiary and assist with the implementation of complex yet vital systems.  The focus on efficient systems and governance does not only apply to new subsidiaries, it is ingrained in the entire Sekta Group.

The business is prepared for scale and able to efficiently purchase new businesses on both the qualitative and quantitative sides. Assness continues, “Even with all these processes in place, there is still a limit to what I am able to do.” The execution of new plans and utilization of new systems must be completed by the individuals in the management teams of those businesses.

“The leadership team of the business must have the right mindset. For example, focusing long term goals instead of thinking about how to avoid short term tax expenses.” Assness provides the base and the formula together with mentorship and capital, yet the execution is not directly in his control.

This is the risk taken in his form of entrepreneurship, as the responsibility for profits falls on his shoulders. So far, his formula has worked well, and he hopes to continue this success. With South African business offering great value and new construction tenders coming online, The Sekta Group has a bright future.

To conclude our unique discussion, Assness tells me the meaning of the word Sekta – a word born in Africa. “Sekta means industry in Swahili, embracing our purpose.” Grandpa Schlesinger would surely have approved.