Johannesburg, Reputation is a key differentiator in the marketplace. It’s a value centre for brands and businesses. It drives competitive advantage and business growth, and is a key strategic asset. But it wasn’t always like that.
In 2005, when Janine Hills founded Vuma Reputation Management, South Africa’s first reputation management consultancy, she was a seasoned communications specialist who among other roles, had headed group communications at First National Bank, and also launched eBucks.com, FNB’s ground-breaking e-commerce initiative.
“I had been on sabbatical and I remember in the 11th month, sitting bolt upright one night, and thinking ‘I have to start a business focused on corporate reputation’. I was in Knysna at the time, and I immediately contacted top leaders like Wendy Lucas-Bull, Paul Harris, and Shameel Joosub asking for their comments on the idea. Their response was immediate; they wanted to know how fast I could get back to Johannesburg. While I was registering the company, a leading South Africa company listed in Johannesburg and London appointed a reputation management director at board level. I knew then that I was on the right track.”
Her mission to help clients do the right thing and then to communicate it effectively has paid off. Today, the company is celebrating its 12th birthday, and lists some of South Africa’s most prominent public figures, celebrities, top business leaders, entrepreneurial companies, global brands, and blue-chip corporations in all sectors among its clients.
“There are major benefits to being an igniter in your market,” Hills says. “There was a burgeoning understanding that reputation either leads to opportunities and prosperity, or sends customers to your competitors. Strategic corporate communication was becoming increasingly important, and it is still on a growth trajectory. In the past, communications was hidden within the business structure of the organisation; forward-thinking companies now have a communications director with a seat in the boardroom. There is a greater awareness than ever before that reputation can make or break a company, increasingly so in a social media-saturated world. Being an early adopter of this approach to communications was of huge benefit for a start-up.”
Hills has made it her mission to earn respect for the role of communication in organisations, and to close the gap between the CMO and the CEO.
From the beginning, Hills was also committed to building a company that would set the standard in the industry in terms of transformation. “I was a political activist in Port Elizabeth in the early 80s. Those were formative years and I wanted to ensure that my business would be representative of our population.”
Vuma has achieved Level 1 B-BBEE status and has grown into a truly transformed company, measured by economic empowerment, procurement, skills transfer, and future growth and development. Gender parity and pay parity have been a given from the outset.
“I will be forever grateful for being part of the greatest reputation management company in Africa,” says intern Lesego Zikhali. “As an intern, I have grown a lot, thanks to colleagues and the company. Vuma is a place of learning, gaining experience and building knowledge.”
These factors have all added up to Vuma being the company it is today. “My advice to young entrepreneurs is that starting your business with the right objectives, built on sound principles, makes it easier to achieve growth,” Hills says.
She adds that she is proud of Vuma’s solid team of people, which includes some of the most experienced communication professionals in the country. She describes them as highly skilled, humble and decent people, with a dedication and commitment to the company’s clients and employees that is unquestioning.
“It is indeed a privilege to be part of Vuma Reputation Management’s journey and success as we continue to shift lives through the work we do daily,” says Business Director Roshnee Pillay. “More than any other aspect of the business, our team embodies what we have created over time.”
The company has been doing business throughout Africa for more than a decade. It recently signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) with four African communications agencies, expanding Vuma’s footprint on the continent as part of its strategy to become a truly African reputation management specialist. “I am excited to be a part of Vuma’s growth story, particularly when it comes to enhancing brand reputation in Africa, working with dynamic clients and a passionate team,” says Nonye Omotola, the company’s Africa Business Director.
“With economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa projected by the World Bank to rebound over the next three years, we want to be part of this growth story and contribute to the advancement of our beautiful continent,” says Hills.
“Looking to the future, our objectives are to continue to grow, while retaining our existing quality clients which are a source of immense pride for us, as are every one of those we have worked with over the past 12 years. I am beyond grateful for the work we have been given and it is thanks to them that we are celebrating this milestone. Our clients – including individuals, professionals, brands and companies of all sizes – have helped us build a South African company that is respected, and that has been responsible for many projects that have had a major impact on our society and country.”