The last SENS release in September disclosed that agreements with all three networks have been concluded and that Autopage's subscriber bases will be transferred to Cell C, MTN and Vodacom respectively, through the adjudication of the Competition Commission. In a declining industry with the only other independent service provider, Nashua Mobile, announcing its closure in April, it must have come as little surprise to Autopage's partners.
Autopage staff was notified first by MD Boyd Chislett, followed by a presentation to its 80 business partners. The next day saw the start of a nationwide roadshow to present various options to business partners by Consumer Executive, Eleanor Mitrovich Potter who has regularly met and supported them throughout the process. "Our business partners have a few options," she says. "We had a look across the industry and found an alternative business that we feel has potential. If they choose to shut down their businesses, however, we'll support them through that, both logistically and otherwise."
The biggest costs in retail are the leases on premises and staff. Autopage has agreed to cover the costs of any outstanding leases post-termination if an arrangement with landlords cannot be made. "We are also endeavouring to assist them to retain their staff until closure with performance-based incentives for the business partners and their employees. This will enable them to compensate staff more than the statutory labour requirement," says Mitrovich Potter. The employee assistance programme (EAP) which Autopage ramped up for its own staff through the closure, is also available to staff of business partners. It offers trauma counselling, legal and financial advice, assistance with CV drafting and interview skills.
Financial experts were also brought in to explain the options to business partners in terms of their own operations, says says Mitrovich Potter. "It's a complicated process: a business is a legal entity and there are tax implications when assets are sold."We provided this information to enable the business partners to make the decision that would be in their best interests.
"Autopage has really handled this in the best way possible," says Graham Leach, one of Autopage's longest-standing business partners and owner of three Autopage stores in Johannesburg. "The retention strategy has been huge; they've put enormous effort and money into the promotional deals to ensure our customers upgrade." This retention strategy aims to keep customers on the base to avoid erosion of shareholder value during the legislative processes that precede the agreement.
"I believe they've communicated well to clients and have been open with us [business partners], assisting where possible," says Leach. Understanding industry pressures and having over 14 years' experience, he says he was not surprised at the announcement that Autopage would sell its GSM bases back to the networks. Leach and his partner will keep two of the three retail spaces and are looking into new business ventures to fill them.
"We believe it's fair," says Leach. "They've done everything they can to assist us. We know the industry well and when you've been in the industry for this long, you realise that you have an asset in the form of experience."
Autopage will continue to support and engage with its business partners until the last day of trade, whether that is starting a fresh business or closing down their current operations completely.