Building blocks to success: From post office messenger to CEO

From a teenage junior clerk at an international protective workwear company, to eventually becoming the CEO of that very business and turning it into one of South Africa’s most prominent ventures of its kind. John Jacobs, CEO of Sweet-Orr has a story that is truly inspirational.

Born and bred in Kraaifontein, Cape Town, Jacobs grew up in a down to earth blue-collar family under a political system designed to disadvantage non-white South Africans. Jacob’s father worked for the railway, and everyone in the household was expected to pull their weight, Jacobs and his five siblings included.

John Jacobs Sweet Orr
John Jacobs CEO of Sweet-Orr

Seizing every opportunity

To assist the family, Jacobs had to leave school in 1969 at the tender age of 16, managing to find a part-time holiday job as a messenger at the Kraaifontein post office. “I was earning R50 per month at the time,” he says.

Jacobs was determined to prove himself and seized every opportunity he could to better himself and improve his standing. A hard and dedicated worker, his resume grew quickly regarding employers and different work experiences. “Over the next two years, I worked for about nine different companies, including taking up a position as a debt collector, of which one of the benefits included the use of a 50CC motorcycle. I also worked for Sanlam and Everite, and even briefly as a plumber!”

Little did Jacobs know his life was about to change when he, in 1971, stepped into a branch of the department of labour, looking for work. He was 18 at the time and had just resigned from his previous job. “They told me a large workwear manufacturer, Sweet-Orr & Lybro, needed a junior clerk. I went for an interview on the 31st of August that year. They liked me and took me on at R55 per month.” The rest is, as they say, history.

The value of education

In the years that followed, Jacobs climbed up within the company, eventually allowing him to purchase his first company shares. As time passed and with many endeavours, his share grew, resulting in Jacobs and his family eventually buying the business outright.

“To think that when I joined, I didn’t even have a matric certificate,” he says, adding he went back to night school in 1979 at the age of 24 to complete that chapter. “I have always placed great value on education. That is why, in 2005, I completed a BCom Honours Degree at the University of the Western Cape. I believe that from the moment you stop learning, you stop living.”

In 2021, Jacobs celebrates a milestone of 50 years with Sweet Orr & Lybro, arguably one of the world’s oldest workwear brands providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and specialised workwear to critical economic sectors across the country.

Looking back at his successes and challenges over the past half a century, he is a testimony of hard work paying off. In the meantime, he continues to evolve and build the organisation, one stitch, one garment, and one satisfied client at a time.

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