He proudly wears the green and gold when the Springboks play, he listens to Afrikaans music in his car in Holland, and when his cellphone rings it plays Kurt Darren’s Kaptein, span die seile.
Dutch entrepreneur Frank van Wezel, founder of Hi-Tec, loves South Africa and especially Hermanus. He owns a guest house here and his company sponsors the Hi-Tec Walkerbay Xtreme, a multi-day sports festival that is hosted in April every year.
“I love the town. I’ve been coming here for many, many years and I’ve seen it grow. When Rick (Oosthuyzen, owner of Tapas) first mentioned the Xtreme to me, I said I wanted to help with sponsorship because I see that Hermanus needs this impetus of sport tourism – it would be good for the town.”
Frank’s love affair with Africa began many years ago when he worked for a Dutch fertilizer company in Kenya and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). After the company was bought by American investors, he was transferred to England, where he decided that he rather wanted to work for himself. “But what would I do?” he remembers thinking.
“Now, everyone at my squash club in those days was moaning about their shoes. They were too heavy, they slipped, they tore. So, I thought I’d make squash shoes. Now, I knew nothing about squash shoes, but if you don’t know anything, you can learn.”
In 1974, Frank designed a squash shoe that he thought would address all the complaints. That shoe is still part of the Hi-Tec collection today – 23 million pairs have been sold over the years and it has been included in the Athletic Hall of Fame in New York.
Ten years later, he received a letter from Cape Town, sent by Wilfrey Lemkus of Lemkus Sport. He had heard that Hi-Tec had a very good squash shoe and he wanted to become the distributor in South Africa.
“I was so happy that someone from Africa wanted my shoes. Wonderful, wonderful!” remembers Frank.
“Then he told me that if I wanted to sell more shoes in Africa, I should pay him a visit and he could tell my what kind of shoes Africa wanted. And I thought: Wonderful, now I can go to Africa on company business.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Frank and Wilfrey’s son, Brad became good friends and founded Hi-Tec South Africa.
In 2016, 42 years after he had founded the company, Frank received an offer from an American company to buy Hi-Tec that he could not refuse. However, after hearing that Africa as a market didn’t really interest them and that they would probably close down the Hi-Tec subsidiary here, he decided to sell the rest of the company, but to keep Hi-Tec South Africa.
“My heart is here – it goes far beyond bookkeeping,” says Frank. And his decision has paid dividends.
“We have a very good management team here. I have a wonderful group of eight directors and about 80 staff and we are doing great. In 2018 there was supposed to be a recession but we grew by 31% last year. At the moment, it’s a dream company to be the leader of.”
Frank appreciates history, and an example of this – the Hi-Tec shoes former president Nelson Mandela wore when he was taken from Robben Island for his first meeting with the Apartheid regime – are displayed in the Hi-Tec store in Stellenbosch.
“They were bought for him by Winnie Mandela and they were our tennis shoes called Wimbledon,” recalls Frank.
Later, when the Nelson Mandela Foundation was created, they had an auction where they sold memorabilia from his time in prison.
“On the auction table arrived this pair of tennis shoes. Now, by hook or by crook, we as a company had to acquire these shoes, because they have history. So, we bought the shoes at the auction and we displayed them in our head office in Amsterdam,” says Frank.
After the company was sold, Frank decided to bring the shoes back to South Africa. “They are proudly displayed in our store in Stellenbosch, where they really belong.”
The more Frank comes to South Africa, the more he loves the country. After founding Hi-Tec South Africa, he bought a house in Camps Bay so that he could bring his family with him when he visited the country.
It was his Camps Bay neighbour who brought him to Hermanus, and he fell in love with the town. “The air is different here. Fortunately, my wife also loves Hermanus.”
He has a message for the organisers and participants in the Hi-Tec Walkerbay Xtreme:
“Hi-Tec is behind you in this event. We believe the sportier you are – the more you test your body – the better it is for you eventually because health is the most important thing in life. By participating, you are improving your bodies and you are being healthy. And the air in Hermanus is champagne air so you have the combination of physical exercise, clean air and hopefully beautiful weather. Guys, you are so lucky that you can be here.
“On behalf of Hi-Tec, I wish you all very well. It doesn’t matter whether you come first or last, just participate! I hope you will all have a lot of fun.”