Family Boyhood Zimbabwe Entrepreneurship
My dad, Daniel Joseph Rooney, was affectionally called “Mickey” by some, simply “D.J.” by others. Back then, he would have best been described as adventurous, hard working, short tempered, entrepreneurial, and a “heavy drinker,” a not-uncommon trait among folks in those hard-driving pioneering days. He had a kind heart for the people he liked and was said to be someone who would “give you the shirt off his back.”
He came to southern Africa by a circuitous route from his home in Northern Ireland, where his father worked as a blacksmith. Dad first moved to Australia, where he tried his hand at sheep and cattle farming. He then moved onto Kenya to work at Lord Delamere’s farm. That farm, interestingly enough, played a small part in the film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Steep and Robert Redford. Delamere spent enormous amounts of money unsuccessfully trying to introduce imported sheep and cattle into Kenya. Dad’s experience in cattle and sheep farming in Australia may explain why he headed to Kenya to work for Delamere. It may also explain why he left Kenya for new opportunities in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) when those efforts ultimately failed.
In Rhodesia, he met and married my mother, Mary Evelyn Gorringe-Smith. They had four children, the youngest of whom was me. In her later years, my mother was fondly referred to as “Trout,” a name first given to her in a light-hearted moment at the dinner table by my brother Pat, who was eight years my senior. Mother was one of many nurses, or “sunshine girls,” who came out to Africa after the war. In Rhodesia, Dad initially worked as a self-employed accountant as well as a small part-time property developer before getting into the secondhand furniture business.
Dad’s entrepreneurial spirit meant he was a fixture at the local auction market, always on the lookout for a bargain. He had a keen eye for a deal, even if the purchase was not immediately suitable for the business.
I can well remember many of those purchases.
One time, Dad transformed our backyard into something of a fridge factory, dozens of secondhand fridges patiently sitting out, waiting for refurbishment and resale.
The secondhand family car was also something that changed on a regular basis, sometimes every six months or less.
Another time, a ridiculously large block of ripe Stilton cheese was purchased, some of it oozing its way out of the packaging as we transported it home in my mother’s car. For a long while afterwards, Mum’s poor little Morris Minor stank of overripe cheese.
Perhaps the most embarrassing purchase was a refurbished yacht, whose mast snapped almost immediately after a stiff breeze blew in. Of course, this incident took place right before a crowd of onlookers seated on the veranda of the snobby Mazowe Sailing Club.
I’m not sure how Dad got his hands on it, but he also owned and flew a legendary Tiger Moth biplane.
Dad even hit the jackpot after one of his many impulse buys. He converted several enormous industrial-sized rolls of aluminium piping into hula hoops, of all things. Most hula hoops were made from plastic, but dad’s hula hoops were a premium brand selling at twice the price of the plastic ones. Sales were only limited by how fast he could produce them. These hula hoops become hot sellers at Fulton & Evans, the main sporting goods store in Salisbury, where we lived. Nearly every kid had one!
Then there was the time he purchased umpteen secondhand tents, some of which he donated to our church scout group, the 22nd St. Mary’s. On our first outing at Ruwa Scouting Park, we were basking in the glory of the donated tents, which were looking quite impressive set up in the blazing sun. Our moment of glory came to an ignominious ending, however, when an unexpectedly violent thunderstorm descended on us and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that these tents were not waterproof!
One Christmas, we knew dad’s secondhand furniture business was in serious trouble when Mum warned us not to expect any Christmas presents. With the economy tanking, customers could not afford to pay us in cash, even though the furniture was second hand.
At this juncture, Dad proved his mettle and made the decision to pivot, turning the struggling secondhand furniture business into a thriving hire service (or rental business, in North American terms). Dad’s slogan at that time was “we hire anything and everything!” With time, he carved out a much more focused and lucrative niche, supplying anything needed for any event, from a simple punch bowl for a wedding to a collection of massive marquees for a presidential inauguration. That business is still going strong to this day, three generations later.
I’ll be sharing more of this part of the story in my next blog post, but I wanted to give you a feel for my dad’s business sense first.
Despite the many embarrassing moments growing up with an entrepreneurially spirited dad, I learned at a young age what it takes to be an entrepreneur—an undertaking that’s not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be:
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