I grew up in Sekhukhune in Limpopo, the third child in a family of seven – four boys and three girls. Our mother took care of us and we were supported by our father who was a migrant labourer in Johannesburg. We were poor and there were many hardships.
Our school was ten kilometres from where we lived, and every day we had to hike up and down rocky paths and through a river to get there. It was very difficult in winter when we had to wake up in the dark, at 4.00am, to make sure we got to class on time.
I know that my thinking as a child was different. From the age of about eight, back in 1973, I remember being concerned about taking care of the family. I was nine when I started getting temp jobs, either gardening or doing piece work at the local factories.
I would earn R20 and take it to my mother. Children usually think of buying things for themselves, but I bought curtains for the house at a jumble sale. I liked shopping at jumble sales because I saw that I could buy so much more there than at a regular shop. I bought clothes for myself which was a big thing for us because we would otherwise only get clothes once a year at Christmas, when my father came home with clothing and a school uniform for each of us.
Poverty was a strong driving force for me and it pushed me to work harder. I became committed to ensuring that somehow I would build a better future for my family and continue to be a giving person. In high school, I continued to do part-time work to help the family with the basic necessities.
I would give some money to the local bus driver when he was on his way into town. He bought boxes of apples for me which I sold at school for a small profit. These things started to help me develop a business mind over time.
A little later I started selling Putco bus tickets. I used to buy about five weekly tickets, as well as one for myself, and go to the bus stop before sunrise to catch the commuters who were going from Kwa-Ndebele to Marabastad.
The weekly tickets were convenient and good value for the bus passengers, as they were cheaper than the daily fare. I would find the commuters who needed only a single ticket, and would allow them to use one of the weekly tickets at the reduced price, but I would travel with them so that I could take my tickets back once they reached their destination. I would then do the same thing with commuters travelling from Marabastad to KwaNdebele.
I managed to earn about R800 a month this way.
Becoming a teacher
When I finished high school, my parents chose teaching as a career for me. It was a highly respectable profession at the time, and education was seen as a good field to go into. My parents had saved the money to pay for my tuition, but there was little left for anything else.
We had second-rate schooling, no facilities, and huge discrepancies between rural and urban education. In addition, the high fees made it almost impossible for people from my background to study. I became an activist and a student leader at college and I was committed to fighting the education system that was being imposed on us by the apartheid government.
I was fighting for equality and aiming to change the rules so that they could be more favourable to the needy. But I managed to keep focused on my studies too, and graduated with a secondary school teaching qualification.
I got my first teaching job in Tembisa in 1989, but I continued to be an activist and I helped to organise the operation of banned organisations in the schools. I paid dearly for that. At the beginning of the next school year, I discovered that the Department of Education had fired me from my position – I still remember it was post number 14.
They employed somebody else and no-one had bothered to tell me. I then discovered I had been banned in Gauteng, and in my home province of Limpopo. I remained unemployed for four months and I went into arrears on the payment for the first thing I had bought on my teacher’s salary – a bed from Price and Pride. Being unemployed led to numerous financial difficulties.
I lived on half a loaf of bread a day and a 5-litre bottle of Oros which would last me two weeks.
Luckily, there was a shortage of teachers in Mpumalanga at the time and I managed to get a job in KwaNdebele. But the salary was low; I was making R16 000 a year, and I needed to earn more money just to survive. I started selling insurance part-time almost immediately. I was selling to teachers who knew and trusted me and I did very well. Within a few months I became the top part-time rep in my region and I was earning 12 times my teaching salary every month.
The move to insurance
In 1992 I decided that enough was enough and I went into insurance full-time. I worked for Sanlam and soon became one of their top reps in Mpumalanga. A year later I moved back to Polokwane because I wanted to be closer to my family, but I continued to work for Sanlam until 1995.
In my time there I learnt that when you sell, you’re selling yourself first, and then the product. People are buying you, which is why it is so important to build good relationships and have strong networks.
In 1995, I took the leap and decided to open my own brokerage. By then, the ANC Government had been in place for a year. New opportunities became available to black people for the first time. It was a good time to take advantage of this business opportunity as Government was employing public servants across various departments and new public service organisations that had been established. This gave me access to a whole new market.
I also wanted to start my own business because when you are employed by a company, you can only sell their products – I wanted the freedom to sell other insurance products and I also wanted to be independent. I had done really well and I didn’t see the need to report to anyone else anymore.
My own business strategy was to target pensioners and the uninsured low end of the market who were not being serviced by the big companies. I financed the launch of a brokerage firm – Morethi Insurance Brokers – with the commission I had been making.
For that type of business, all you need is a desk, a laptop, four walls and a PA. I basically continued to do what I had been doing, just for myself. But there are major challenges involved in shifting from one gear to the next – I went from the security and recognition that comes with a big insurance company to a small independent brokerage.
That kind of move can really mess you up emotionally and financially. Cash flow needs required me to recapitalise the business from time to time, which was stressful. I was alone and I suffered for the first few months as I built my client base, but I was determined not to borrow money.
As a result, some of my credit accounts were compromised. Everything I was paying on instalments, like my house and car, was in arrears. The sheriff was threatening to attach all my possessions. But I knew that if I borrowed money from the loan sharks, I would then be threatened from both sides, so I paid what little I could when I could, and starved and suffered my way through. The determination not to borrow money became a fundamental part of my business philosophy. I said to myself, “I’m down now, but I’ll push to bring in the business and then I’ll be up again.”
And that’s what I did. Because insurance is about relationships, I would wake up at 3.00am, go to my office, and prepare breakfast for my clients with bread I had bought the night before. I packed the sandwiches in my car and spent the mornings on the road selling. I knew this would work as a value add because when people do not have a lot of money, they are hungry and food is received like a gift. By midday I would be back at my desk doing admin.
At the end of the day I went straight home and I would go to sleep early because I had to be up again before dawn. I travelled vast distances between Limpopo and Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the hinterlands of KwaZulu Natal. Challenging as it was, my efforts paid off. Within six months the business was doing well and I had proved my ability to sell once again by acquiring many new clients.
At this point, my vision began to unfold and I started believing that something really great was going to happen. I had been learning every step of the way and my hard work was starting to pay off. It was then that I knew I wanted to create a meaningful and sustainable business that would enable me to help lots of people in my community.
Building on opportunities
In 1996 I took advantage of Government’s drive to empower previously disadvantaged people and I established a company called Tebeila Building Construction, today known as Tebcon Developers, which does building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.
The provincial governments were faced with massive infrastructure backlogs that needed to be addressed. They invited companies to help roll out the development of government buildings and housing. As a result, between 1997 and 1998 Tebcon became the biggest black construction company in Limpopo.
I ran the business alongside the brokerage firm very successfully for a few years, but then I got bored and I started investigating opportunities to take on new challenges and find ways to contribute meaningfully to the mainstream economy. That was how I moved into the mining sector.
The new Government had started opening up the country’s mineral resources and the Mining Charter had come into being. The Limpopo provincial government was selling shares in Anglo Platinum. They called for bids and I put in an offer. In December 2002, I led Sekoko Platinum, a company that successfully bid for the acquisition of 480 000 shares in Anglo American Platinum through a public tender process. This laid the foundation for Sekoko Resources.
But I also realised that I wanted to find a sustainable way to create new wealth from resources, and not just to own shares. I saw that in mining when you buy into an existing opportunity, the interest is very high. I wanted to build my own Anglo American in a way that would enable local communities to profit too. I had courage because I had already become a successful businessman, and the time was ripe to seize the opportunities that were being made available.
I developed an interest in resources and started to read and learn about the industry. I still had many political connections from my days as a student leader and trade unionist, but I refused to build my business on political connections. I wanted to do it by taking advantage of my own talents, skills and credibility. I am a firm believer in the fact that a business is built on the strengths of its founder.
Learning some tough lessons
I decided that the best way forward was to buy my own mineral rights. To do that, I consulted a geologist who helped me to identify various areas in Limpopo. Because the construction business had been so successful, I had managed to save R100 000.
I used this to pay the geologist’s fees and to cover the cost of submitting the application. I then put forward my application for mineral rights to Government. Not all prospecting rights requests submitted were successful, however, and mine was rejected.
That day, I was devastated. It was all the money I had saved; I had worked very long hours for it and there was nothing left. I spent the day alone, locked in my office. But by the end of that day I had reflected long and hard and I was resolute that there was no way I was going to let everything go down the drain.
The process of putting the application together had taught me a lot, and I had been doing my own research into the mining and exploration sectors as well. I sat with my PA and we put together another application. This time it was successful, and I secured my first prospecting rights in the Soutpansberg.
Of course, once you have rights you have to use them or you lose them. But I had no money to develop the land I had acquired the rights to, so I went back to my community and I approached the local chiefs, women’s groups and disabled groups to become shareholders in the business.
We went on a two-day bosberaad during which we discussed ways to raise the money to enable exploration of the area I had secured. Within ten months, we managed to raise R1,5 million between us all, with me as the major investor and shareholder. The money came in dribs and drabs, a few thousand here and a few thousand there. But we got it.
Next, I appointed a consulting company to do the exploration. This is where I made the biggest mistake of my life. Money was so limited and as a new business I had no resources with which to do research into the contractors and their business history.
Needless to say, there was an internal dispute among the consultants and one of them disappeared overseas with the money I had raised from the community. To this day, he has never been found. It had been difficult enough for me to deal with losing my own money early on in the game, but now I had to go back to a group of vulnerable people who had invested everything they owned in the business and tell them I had lost their money. There was just no way I was going to admit defeat. I could not let them down.
Building a mining empire
By this time, I had become very hands-on in the business and I was participating physically in all the site visits and going to the labs.
I had collected all the lab test results and kept copies of them in my own files. These pieces of information turned out to be a lifesaver. I started meeting with prospective investors and showing them that although I had no formal reports, I had the test results proving that there were vast coal deposits in the area.
The first company to understand the value of what I was holding in my hands was mining operator, Coal of Africa, which invested R55 million in the business there and then, laying the foundation for growth for Sekoko Resources.
The investment was amazing because it not only enabled the company to begin exploration, but it also meant that we had the capital to start on other exploration projects too. Today we have projects on the go in the Soutpansberg, the Waterberg, Capricorn and the Eastern and Western Bushveld complexes in Limpopo. We have gone on to acquire the rights to vast holdings of the country’s rich coal, platinum and iron ore deposits.
Our shareholding, which includes the original members who continued to believe even after the loss of their R1,5 million, ensures that local communities in the area also benefit from the natural wealth of South Africa. This is a key consideration for me. Sekoko also promotes empowerment through preferred procurement and we work extensively with local businesses wherever possible. It’s vital to include local communities in this business so that they too can benefit.
My father is a priest and he taught us that on dry soil, no-one can reap a harvest. You have to provide people with opportunity if you want them to succeed. Our empowerment model was developed because I did not want the ordinary people living in and around the mining areas to be excluded from our mining empowerment transactions.
I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, or that I would be part of such a big mining company, but as the business opportunities unfolded my vision grew and I followed the dream. I am driven by a sprit of entrepreneurship and by my faith, both of which have enabled me to look beyond what people normally see. Eight years down the line, Sekoko Resources is well funded and has never had to borrow money from the banks.
It is often said that your job is your second home, and I like my staff to feel that this is their second family. I see myself as a father figure, and I want to be respected as such. I think I have proved that I am not just a businessman who wants to enrich himself alone. We employ 32 people, all of whom have shares in the business.
I believe it is critical for them to know that they have ownership in everything they do. We have created a friendly work environment. I encourage our people to respect and trust one-another. In addition to the permanent employees, we have hundreds of consultants in the field so we provide employment for many people.
In 2008 we entered into a joint venture for two Waterberg coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko is now the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy and I am a director of the company. The Waterberg coal joint venture is playing a major role in helping to alleviate poverty in Limpopo, which has a high unemployment rate.
We are now working on listing Sekoko on the London Stock Exchange. There is a huge appetite for coal assets in the UK. We have prospecting rights on 27 coal farms measuring nearly 36 000 hectares in the Soutpansberg, and on eight farms measuring about 8 000 hectares in the Waterberg. Considering the future fuel and energy requirements in this country and abroad, this is of great strategic value to the company.
I am a spiritual person and my faith is an important part of my life. Last year The Tim Tebeila Foundation donated R7 million for the building of a church in Sekhukhune, the first of its kind in a rural area. The foundation helps feed the needy, including pensioners, the disabled and children in Limpopo.
I also sponsor a number of students at various universities. I am passionate about human development and helping to fight poverty. We regularly hand out clothing and food parcels to people who need them. Whatever we get from life, we must plough back into our communities and it will be multiplied many times. I believe that if Nelson Mandela could give the best of himself to this country, who am I not to do the same?
Related: Adrian Gore – The Disrupter
Invest your own sweat
Make sure your principles are clear and established. Then, stick to what you know best to generate income and save money. Do not borrow from others, but learn to create your own wealth. It’s vital to build your income on what you know how to do best. That’s what I did when I was in the insurance business, and it’s a principle I continue to apply even now.
It takes time to make money this way – it’s not something that can be achieved overnight or without much hard work and personal sacrifice – but it can be done. You cannot depend on government handouts if you want to create sustainable wealth for yourself and your investors.
Being able to earn money is fundamental to operating a successful business. I was prepared to invest my own sweat and my own efforts, and I believe that is what convinced others to come on board. Also, if you are serious about your business, don’t spend money on cars and big houses. Don’t confuse working capital with profit. First you must make the business work, then you can develop expensive tastes.
Discipline is key
In addition to my teaching diploma, I have participated in many specialised courses in marketing, business management and mining over the past years, but I have learnt my most valuable lessons in the course of doing business. I don’t believe that the spirit of entrepreneurship can be taught, but I do believe you can learn the principles and then apply them in your business.
I draw a lot of inspiration from the stories of international entrepreneurs like Donald Trump. But I am also inspired by mining companies around the globe.
I am a disciplined person by nature, which is probably a result of the way I grew up. My wife Pollett and I married in 1998, and we now have four children. When I was single and focused on making money to survive, I worked solidly from Monday to Friday and kept any socialising strictly to weekends.
These days my free time is devoted to my family. I have also found it vital to spend time only with people who are positive. There are many negative detractors out there who do not have your best interests at heart. As a business person, it is advisable to keep away from them as their gossip brings nothing into your life. Surrounding yourself with children is a good way to ensure that you only hear optimistic stories.
A long and winding road
Tim Tebeila qualifies as a teacher and his first post is at a high school in Tembisa. At the end of that first year he is fired by the Department of Education for being an activist for change.
He finds work as a teacher in Mpumalanga and supplements his meagre income by selling insurance in the evenings and on weekends.
He leaves teaching and joins Sanlam where he becomes a successful broker, later moving back to Limpopo.
He leaves Sanlam and opens his own brokerage, Morethi Insurance Brokers.
Tebeila Building Construction is launched, carrying out building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West. Between 1997 and 1998 it becomes the biggest black construction company in the country.
Tebeila starts to develop an interest in mining and resources and loses R100 000, his life savings, by making an application for prospecting rights that is rejected.
He raises R1,5 million from his own funds and from local community groups in Limpopo – who remain shareholders in the business to this day – to begin prospecting. The money is lost to an unscrupulous consultant.
Armed with lab test results, he secures R55 million in capital from Coal for Africa. This paves the way for the expansion of Sekoko Resources.
Sekoko enters into a joint venture for two local coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko becomes the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy.