Kraaifontein clerk rises to become CEO of company

John Jacobs worked his way up from a junior clerk at the company he now runs.

From earning a paltry R50 a month as a clerk at a protective-workwear company to now running the company – that is the inspirational story of John Jacobs, who hails from Kraaifontein.

Mr Jacobs, now the chief executive officer at Sweet-Orr and Lybro, started as a teenage junior clerk at the firm in the 1970s and rose through the hierarchy of the company that now makes workwear for, among others, the mining, engineering, combat, disaster, medical and petrochemical industries.

He beat the odds that apartheid dealt people of colour.

“I was barely 18 when I joined the company in 1971 as a junior clerk, two years after having to leave high school,” he recalls. “I was, by far, the youngest in the team back then. My key responsibility was dealing with all incoming orders in exchange for a salary of R55 per month. This was considerably more than what I was earning as a post-office messenger, my first job after leaving school to help my parents and siblings make ends meet.”

Without matric, he worked his way up the company, acquiring some shares before he and his family bought the firm in 2015.

“To think that when I joined Sweet-Orr, I didn’t even have a matric certificate,” he says. “Education has always been important to me. That is why I went back to night school when I had the chance in the late 70s, aged 24. I wanted to finish what I started in the 60s. Of course, it was tricky to combine school and a full-time job, but I felt I had to walk this journey. I stayed the path and eventually completed a BCom Honours degree at UWC.”

He told Northern News the company had taken a knock due to the pandemic.

Asked what he has done to help others who are in a similar position to where he was in the 1970s, Mr Jacobs says the company has registered with the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education and Training Authority together with Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

“We’ve set up and run our own in-house training as part of our corporate social responsibility initiative for family members and staff of the community.

“Graduates of this programme are employed by us in a variety of positions, such as sewing machine operators. This programme also facilitates capacity, and some graduates have already progressed to set-leaders and supervisor positions.”