Twenty-year-old is one of South Africa’s youngest success stories
Awarded the title of world’s youngest CEO of an international pharmaceutical company at the 2019 ARAB Health Conference held in Dubai, 20-year-old Tony McPherson has already achieved more success and accolades than many his age or even older. Having learnt the value of money at a very young age, McPherson is today group CEO of McPherson Holdings which oversees the running of companies specialising in pharmaceuticals, marketing, logistics and philanthropy, and has achieved this without any outside investment.
Based in Somerset West in the Western Cape, McPherson attributes much of his entrepreneurial prowess to that of a long lineage of businessmen and women. His grandfather, Ivor Duncan, founder and inventor of EmOx™ Oxygen, started grooming McPherson – then aged 17 – to eventually take over his pharmaceutical company. From working on the factory floor to overseeing product marketing, McPherson already demonstrated acute knowledge of how to run the business when his grandfather suddenly passed away in September 2017.
Without a leader, battling dwindling profit margins, and accruing debt, the company board members appointed McPherson as their interim CEO for a six-month period. “Understanding and knowing the company like the back of my hand meant that I was a natural candidate despite only being 18-years-old at the time,” says McPherson. In six months, the company recovered from all its debt, profitability was increased by 38%, development plans for new product lines were underway, and a worldwide sales force was implemented. It goes without saying that McPherson’s business acumen won him the permanent title of CEO.
Over the past two years, EmOx International, which manufactures the world’s only emergency powder-based oxygen, has sought to continuously improve upon its non-pressurised products, which are activated by mixing two chemicals with water to generate 99,98% pure oxygen. The company is also working on developing and marketing products McPherson’s grandfather was unable to complete due to his illness. Today the company works closely with international entities such as the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, Marie Stopes International, and various relief programmes across the world. Within South Africa, portable EmOx™ oxygen units are utilised by miners, the NSRI and the Mountain Club South Africa search and rescue teams.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, McPherson and his team are operating together with various relief programmes around the world to supply them with portable EmOx™ oxygen units for use on patients that require oxygen on a non-invasive or high flow basis. The team is also assisting governments across Africa and Europe with planning for predicted shortages of pressurised oxygen supplies.
Holiday job that started an empire
Starting an empire needs to start somewhere and for McPherson it was atop an overturned milk crate behind the till at his grandparent’s store in Malgas along the Breede River. “I was six years old and I could barely see over the till,” recalls McPherson. “But that’s when I started to learn the value of money, and how saving and investing it over time would reap rewards.”
Academically, McPherson excelled at primary school and equally so as he started his scholastic career in high school. In Grade 9, the then 15-year-old took an interest in computer programming and web development so when asked to create a website for his grandfather’s real estate company, McPherson jumped at the opportunity to programme, develop, optimise and market the website. In the process he realised that there was a growing demand for those types of services. “With one completed website under my belt, I decided to pitch for more work.”
It took over six months of unsuccessful pitching until McPherson landed a monthly retainer with a local security company in Somerset West who were so impressed with his pitch, they signed him on the spot. “No one wanted to entrust their money to a 15-year-old with little experience, but I never gave up and I kept on pitching,” adds McPherson. Less than a year later, McPherson Consultancy had over 25 clients on retainer and was turning a reasonable profit.
Trading with the world
In January 2019 – and with a wealth of experience in shipping oxygen products around the world – McPherson launched McPherson Trading; a tender based procurement consultancy that sources and ships medical consumables and disposables to difficult-to-deliver regions and rural communities across Africa such as Mali, Malawi, Tanzania, the DRC, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. Within only 11 months of founding the company, McPherson won the 2019 NSBC Youth Entrepreneur Champion Award, and McPherson Trading was placed among the top 20 SMMEs in South Africa.
Through his advisory work with South Africa’s current government, McPherson has developed strong ties with the United Nations. In July 2020, he was named Youth Representative for South Africa to the Model United Nations (MUN), which is an educational simulation in which delegates can learn about diplomacy, international relations, and the United Nations. MUN delegates are taught key leadership and diplomacy skills and are introduced to delegates from the world over.
“I have always taken a fond interest in diplomacy and international relations and am extremely intrigued by the inner workings of governments,” adds McPherson. “The opportunity I have been entrusted with makes me incredibly excited. Not only will I be interacting with various likeminded delegates and intellectuals from all over the world, but I will also be contributing to our society; discussing the issues South Africa faces to an international platform.”
Recipe for success
McPherson admits that taking his business prowess from his bedroom – where he started his consultancy in 2015 – to the boardroom – where he now oversees 52 staff locally and internationally – was a big shift for him. “I went from being a sole proprietor to running two international companies,” he adds. “My success is owed largely in part to the unwavering support my family and friends give me.”
McPherson also cites focus as a key characteristic he has honed over the years. “I would rather give one hundred percent to a few endeavours than twenty percent to many.”
Amongst his accolades, McPherson holds several titles. In 2018, he was awarded the Investec Bank Out of the Ordinary Award and received a Forbes 30under30 fellowship in the USA. He was also runner up at the 2017 Small and Medium Enterprise Association of South Africa’s (SMESA) Youth Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.
In 2018, McPherson understood that he was in an unusually privileged position at such a young age, and so at 18 he founded the McPherson Foundation as a charity aid organisation. Through strategic investments, donations, and government funding, the foundation strives to uplift through empowerment. Rather than just donating money, the foundation puts programmes in place to uplift communities by working closely with their local ward counsellors, the municipal and provincial government, as well as various other NGO’s within the areas.
From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation – together with the help of the Rotary Organisation and Helderberg Ubuntu Feeds – reallocated its funding and has been able to distribute, to date, over 6,000 food parcels, and has provided protective masks, sanitisers and soaps to families who had been overlooked by the government.
The foundation also supports local organisations such as the Hali Trust, The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, and Heartlands Baby Sanctuary.
Hitting the books
Despite an incredibly busy schedule, the young entrepreneur and Parel Vallei High School alum is currently in his second year of an LLB degree via Unisa.
When not running successful companies or doing good for others, McPherson can be seen flexing his political muscles advising on inter-ministerial committees for procurement in South Africa and Angola. And when not travelling for leisure or playing water sports, McPherson can be found indulging in the culinary arts and oenology.