PROFILE: Gerry Thomas, the man behind Krispy Kreme SA
Thomas went into the food business straight after graduating, gaining just the kind of experience that helped him land a global franchise
An aversion to wearing a suit and tie every day is what propelled Krispy Kreme SA MD Gerry Thomas into entrepreneurship. "I am a jeans and sneakers sort of character," he says.
The doughnut company’s business model has been a success in 30 countries, and the SA operation is among its top 10 performers after just three years. Thomas attributes Krispy Kreme SA’s success to localising the global strategy — adopting SA flavours and coffee brewed in this country — as well as customer experience.
Analysts know little about the company’s finances as it is a private entity. Thomas, not surprisingly, declines to say how many doughnuts he sells.
Its main global competitor, Dunkin’, has 11 stores and one drive-through in SA, where the franchise is owned by Grand Parade Investments. Dunkin’, which opened in SA in 2016, posted a R29m loss in the 2018 financial year, after selling over 1.4-million doughnuts.
Thomas started his first cafés, with funding from Nedbank, after graduating in the 1990s with a BA in law and English from Wits University. He says his passion for the food business dates back to his youth. "That’s what my father did." He also worked in clothing retail at big shopping centres, which led to an obsession for finding the best location for his own stores.
US-based Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc entered the SA market via the US International Trade Commission, says Thomas. With their experience in food retail, Thomas and his partners landed exclusive rights to operate the franchise in SA, opening in Rosebank in November 2015.
Before that he was part of a group that sold two businesses to Famous Brands, Europa and Fego Caffé, which they had run for 14 years. After serving out a one-year restraint of trade, Thomas was raring to go with yet another venture.
Books by business leaders like Jack Welch and Dale Carnegie have guided him in his career. He says he’s had no particular mentors, and learnt most from his daily experiences on the job. "My biggest mentor from a hard work point of view was my father."
For leisure he enjoys reading books on politics, though next on his list is the autobiography of English footballer Kevin Keegan, a present from his sister. He hasn’t thought about writing a book himself, but says he’d be keen to give talks to young people on leadership and business.
Thomas is a family man, married with two sons. It’s clear that his family is his pillar of support. Would he encourage his boys (both "quite smart") to go into business? The elder, he says, "already wants to be an entrepreneur". While Thomas is pleased to see that the word "entrepreneurship" is used a lot at his children’s school, he believes that "nothing beats being at the coalface".
He says: "Building a business is risky, it can be hit or miss. You have to be in the right place at the right time. And have the acumen to execute."
Krispy Kreme SA has a number of people who have been there from the start.
Staff retention is tracked closely. "That’s a big one for us," says Thomas. "The main aim is to train people and retain them."
Charity Nkomo, an icing supervisor at the company’s Linbro Park headquarters, says: "I’ve been here since day one." She relishes making special orders for occasions like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Heather Cameron has worked with Thomas for 10 years and been with Krispy Kreme for six months as an administrator. "We strive for excellence. That’s our soul," she says. She describes Thomas as a motivating force in the office, with daily staff meetings used for team bonding, company updates and rewarding performance.
Thomas says people are at the heart of the operation. With its 380-strong workforce, Krispy Kreme is responsible for thousands of people around SA. Protecting people’s jobs is what keeps him up at night, he says.