- Player: Sisa Ngebulana
- Company: Rebosis Property Fund (listed in 2011)
- Rebosis Consolidated group assets: R23 billion
- Awards: The Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2006 — SA), Property Developer of the Year Award (2009 — SA), Pioneer Award (2014 — SA), African Business Excellence Award (2014 — UK House of Lords) and Global Leadership Excellence Award (2016 — Global Leadership Congress).
- Visit: www.rebosis.co.za
When Sisa listed Rebosis Property Fund in 2011, it was the first black-managed and substantially held property fund to be listed on the JSE.
He is also the founder and CEO of Billion Group, a commercial and retail property developer that will spend in excess of R35 billion over the next ten years on its current projects.
It’s safe to say he’s achieved his goals and then some.
But success doesn’t come without a price. Sisa believes that adversity is the panacea of success.
Every victory has been hard won after learning a devastating lesson. Entrepreneurship is all about risk and reward — you can assess and mitigate as best you can but you have to accept there will be risks.
Take the hard knocks, learn the lessons they bring you and forge ahead with a positive attitude. That is the entrepreneurial way. That’s the real secret to success.
From adversity comes success
From adversity comes success. Remember that. When you are faced with insurmountable challenges, know that you are being honed for something great. Use the lessons and the pain and build something stronger than you were, smarter, more able to withstand further hardships.
This is a mantra Sisa Ngebulana lives by. It’s also a path he has walked numerous times. His first business caused him so much stress that to this day he believes it almost cost him his life. Yet he pushed on.
He has faced ruthless competitors, paid back millions in debt, weathered bad press, survived industry collusions attempting to freeze him out and halt his projects, and still, he has pushed on.
Because he believes that this is the path of a true entrepreneur.
The higher the risk, the higher the rewards, and Sisa has always kept his eye on the rewards, no matter what life has thrown at him.
“Entrepreneurship is a risk; things don’t always go your way,” he says, “but when (not if) they don’t, use it and learn from it. What went wrong? What could I do better? Take these lessons as a strength and move forward.”
Lesson One: Even good businesses go bad
“My grandmother made us strong,” he says with pride.
Born and raised in Mthatha by his grandparents after his father passed away in a trucking accident, Sisa was taught at an early age that while there is no guarantee of success, if you foster good habits and are disciplined, driven, self-reliant and able to take accountability for your actions and decisions, you have a much higher chance of achieving your goals.
“At any given time there were between 12 and 15 of us in the house, cousins, brothers and sisters, and we were all always working. Every day, my grandmother woke us up early and instructed us to find something to do. ‘You have two hands and two eyes,’ she’d say. ‘
You’re blessed. Now go and use them.’ She gave us the tools to make something of ourselves, but it was up to us to use them.”
It was this sense of accountability and personal responsibility that directed Sisa’s actions when his first business, a trucking and transport company, failed.
“I built the business up quickly while I was doing my articles at a law firm in Cape Town,” he says. “By the time I completed my articles I had nine trucks and decided to pursue business full time.”
The stress of an under-performing business can impact your health
The early successes did not continue though. Sisa struggled with bad debtors, and could not pay his creditors or the truck instalments to the bank.
His health started deteriorating. “I blacked out three times in a matter of weeks. The first time the doctors thought it might be kidney stones.
“The second time they decided the problem was my appendix, and scheduled an appendectomy. I was still recovering from the operation when I had my third blackout. It was at that point that my aunt, who is a doctor, told me that my problem was stress. It was clear: It was the business or me. I had to make a choice.”
Sisa chose his health. He still owed the bank R800 000, and he knew he needed to auction off his trucks and get a job to start repaying the loan.
“The bank didn’t want me to auction off the trucks — they wanted surety for the loan. Without the assets they just had my word that I would pay them back.”
Be persistent when negotiating with financiers
A skilled — and persistent — negotiator, Sisa convinced the bank to give him 36 months to repay the loan, and to let him auction off the vehicles to make the first instalments.
“I repaid the loan in 32 months. I didn’t declare bankruptcy and I didn’t walk away. The consequences of this business were mine. If you default on a loan you can carry on with your life, but you cannot get credit with a bank, and you cannot be the director of a company.
“Many people choose that path. It wasn’t going to be mine. There were too many things I wanted to achieve. I needed to do it right, deal with the challenges and get through them. Throwing in the towel would have prevented that. There will always be things outside of your control, but you need to own up to all the consequences of your actions — good or bad.”
This wouldn’t be the last time Sisa would face this decision. If anything, his next failed enterprise would make the trucking business and its problems pale in comparison.
Finding your feet and starting again when your initial plan doesn’t work out
When Sisa went off to university, he was one of five grandchildren heading off that year. His grandmother had saved enough to pay for one year for each of them. Thereafter it would be up to them to achieve good enough marks to secure bursaries or loans. Sisa took her sacrifice to heart.
For the first time he was old — and mature — enough to understand what his grandparents had done in supporting him and his four brothers and sisters, and giving them every opportunity they could. His school marks had been average. His university marks were not.
He worked harder than he had in his life, and graduated with top marks, enabling him to do his honours degree and take his pick of top law firms through which to complete his articles.
He then simultaneously studied accounting and economics through correspondence at UCT, after realising that most of his peers had legal and financial degrees. He was interested in finance and upskilling himself.
Develop skills so you can land on your feet if your business goes under
Those skills and degrees became important after his trucking business went under. “There was no shortage of job offers,” he says.
“But I needed something that paid my bills, enabled me to pay back my debt to the bank, but also furthered my career.”
That opportunity lay with Eskom’s legal department (specialising in finance). This further enabled him to complete his master’s degree at RAU. “Even though entrepreneurship was in my blood, I spent seven years at Eskom, and it proved to be invaluable experience that carries me to this day. I needed those foundations.
“Over the years, I have seen many entrepreneurs limited by their experiences — the ability to take their business to the next level eludes them.
At Eskom I learnt governance, delegation, HR, industrial relations, management and more importantly, treasury (having traded money and capital markets) — not just how to be a founder and owner, but how to successfully manage a large organisation.”
While the experience was instrumental in future successes, the salary was not enough to cover his debts, and so — with Eskom’s blessing — Sisa started investing in property. “I was upfront with Eskom about my debt from the beginning.
“My plan was to purchase land, build houses and flip the properties. Since I could have a building team doing the work with check-ins on weekends, my managers allowed it.” Sisa had experience in this area, as he’d started renovating and selling properties while he was at varsity.
His first land parcel — in Kyalami Estate — cost R22 000. Because he couldn’t qualify for a loan with his outstanding debt, he found a colleague who was interested in a business partnership, and with a R350 000 bond they built and flipped the property for a profit within six months.
Take one step at a time until you reach success
Sisa used his profits to buy the next property and slowly, one plot after the next, he developed the whole street. He paid off the bank loan and began developing high-end clusters.
His ‘side’ business was booming, and even though he was still employed by Eskom, he had now amassed some personal wealth.
It was at this point that a listed coal mining company approached Sisa to help them save the business. Their largest subsidiary company was defaulting on its debts, and the entire group was in financial trouble as a result.
“I restructured their balance sheet and got new funding from the banks,” says Sisa. But these measures weren’t enough.
The company was involved in anthracite coal mining, and international prices declined so severely that the business was unsustainable.
Once again, Sisa restructured the balance sheet and approached banks for finance, outlining his recapitalisation programme. By now he was so involved in the company’s journey that he had invested his own personal funds in it.
Have skin in the game so financiers will take you seriously
“The banks were clear that they would not give a cent unless I was involved. I’d invested everything I had into the business. I needed to make it work, and I felt assured that if I resigned from Eskom and took on the challenge, the banks would come to the party.”
They didn’t. Three months after leaving Eskom and bonding his house, plots and remaining properties to keep the business afloat until the banks came on board, Sisa realised he needed to cut his losses.
He had personally signed surety for the company’s loans, not to mention his personal debts that were tied up in the business.
“I had to face the fact that I’d lost the gamble. The risk hadn’t paid off. Holding on to the business would have just sunk us into even more debt. Admitting defeat was painful — real physical pain — and caused immense stress. But I’d learnt to recognise that stress, and the toll it takes on the mind and body, and I think I handled it better.
“In times like this, there’s no point looking back with regret. I could have stayed employed. I was making good money developing clusters on the side. It was safe and comfortable. And now it was all gone.
I couldn’t even pay my kids’ school fees, and needed to ask the school for a five-month fee hiatus. But I needed to look forward. Regrets serve no purpose. Learn from the experience; that’s all you can do.”
Selling assets to settle to company’s debt
Sisa now needed to find a way to settle the company’s debts.
“Luckily we had some highly specialised low-seam mining machines that we could sell. India and Brazil have similar coal seams, and so I spent six months travelling back and forth until I sold the equipment for R200 million. I then negotiated terms for the remaining R30 million that we owed.”
Once again Sisa was in a position where he needed to find a way to personally pay back debt, except this time it wasn’t R800 000, but R30 million.
Employment wasn’t an option — it would never be adequate to pay back that much money. Instead, he returned to his core: Property.
Dealing with R30 million debt
“I was lucky enough to have options on some land in areas like Hyde Park and Bryanston. I sold four units in Hyde Park off plan, and was able to hustle an overdraft based on those pre-sales.
From there I completed 21 clusters in Hyde Park followed by spec developments in Dainfern, Pecan Ridge and other high-end estates.” Sisa was putting into action a lesson he had learnt while watching his grandparents growing up — success is cyclical.
You can be abundant one minute, and have nothing the next, but if you keep moving forward, you can build that abundance again. You just need to get started and then build on each small success.
“The coal mining business was a financial blow, but it was also a blessing in disguise. It forced me out of employment. If it hadn’t, I might still be employed today, and I would never have achieved what I have through the Billion Group and Rebosis.”
Push yourself out of your comfort zone
Throughout his career, Sisa has consistently pushed himself out of his comfort zones. Residential development was going well, but he was up for the next challenge, and so he set his sights on commercial properties.
“You can’t let the fear of failure hold you back,” he says. “You also can’t let a lack of experience stop you trying new things and taking on new challenges.”
That challenge would take the form of an old commercial property in Pretoria that Liberty was selling.
“Corporates were making the move from the old commercial CBD hubs to decentralised locations like Sandton, and they left some really nice buildings behind that could be picked up for nothing.
“The problem was that they carried a lot of risk. For example, Liberty’s building was selling for R60 million, but the bottom two floors in the basement were flooded, and all-in there was R120 million worth of work that needed to be done.
“In addition, I needed to start refurbishing floors before the deal went through so that I could attract tenants to the building, as I couldn’t have it sitting idle after Liberty moved out. I’d spent R4 million by the time the deal went through.”
Be persistent to achieve success
But getting the deal wasn’t easy. Sisa approached RMB five times to finance it, and each time they said no. “The reason for the ‘no’ changed each time I went back to them. To be honest, I don’t know why I kept going back, but I was determined to make it happen.”
On the sixth attempt, Sisa was told that unless he had R10 million to put up as collateral, they didn’t want to hear from him again.
“My response was that this was fantastic. They couldn’t understand my excitement. It was still technically a no. But I saw it as a yes; I understood what I needed to do now — I had a goalpost that I could work with, and would eventually do a deal with the bank.”
All-in the Liberty building cost R85 million to develop: R40 million to purchase the property, and R45 million for the construction. Contractors quoted Sisa R120 million to refurbish the building, and he used that to negotiate Liberty down from R60 million to R40 million.
However, the agreement with RMB was for R60 million, of which they would put up R30 million.
“I jostled together the rest, did the construction myself to keep costs down, which was why I was able to do the job for R45 million instead of R120 million, and I had my first commercial building.”
It was a 26-story building, and Sisa secured tenants up to the 18th floor and was then able to refinance the building. “Within 18 months it was valued at R180 million.” And just like that, Billion Group was in the commercial property sector, building and refurbishing properties in the Johannesburg and Pretoria CBDs.
The case for Regional Malls: Finding a new challenge
The interesting thing about success is that it’s actually quite boring, and Sisa soon realised that he loves a challenge. “The thing about properties, whether they’re residential or commercial, is that once you’ve sold the property or have a tenant in, you’ve done it. Money goes into the bank and there’s nothing really left to do.
“I wanted something in the property space that was a real challenge.” That something was regional shopping centres. “The risks were high, assessing and mitigating them is scientific. You need to do your homework properly, but the idea of sinking my teeth into that space was incredibly exciting.”
Even so, Sisa did not yet fully appreciate that a project of that scale can produce challenges from places you never expect them, and these can destabilise both you and the project.
“My first regional mall was Mdantsane City in the Eastern Cape. From the moment I secured the contract the challenges began. First, I couldn’t find a contractor that wasn’t R20 million over my budget.
It was my first real introduction to the reality that collusion does exist. I gave the earthworks contract to a separate company and began blasting the site while I continued to look for a building contractor.
“The site was almost solid rock, and needed 84 blasts to prepare for construction. Each blast is carefully planned, and signed off by the SAPS and bomb unit. On the 75th blast, someone died.
A local mental hospital had been evacuated as per blasting standards, but one patient had returned to her bed without anyone realising. During the blast, a rock flew out in an unexpected direction, and went through the hospital’s roof, through the ceiling and hit the patient on the head.
“It was a freak accident, and the earthworks company was cleared of any wrongdoing — they had followed protocols to the letter — but there was a deep emotional impact. Someone had died. I shut down the site while we processed and came to terms with what had happened.
“Then, two months later, some kids cut through the fence to play on soil heaps that were being moved by the earthworks machines, and a child was buried alive. This time I shut the site down for six months.
When your path is tested, have faith to carry on
“I questioned everything: What I was doing, why I was doing it, my emotional state and our purpose. I was brought up in a devote Christian home, and my faith has always been a great source of strength to me. We had prayers over the site with pastors and churches.
“Eventually, we reopened. We had loans that needed to be paid, and the only way to do that was to build an operational regional mall that could generate income. And so we went back to work. By this stage we had fallen behind and needed to make up lost time.
“Retailers charge developers heavy penalties if malls don’t open on time. They need to order stock and hire employees, and so every day that a mall doesn’t open costs them money — which they pass on to the developer.
“I had found a contractor in Mthatha, but I realised his pace was too slow — there was no way we would finish on time at his current pace.” Even though he and his team had no experience in projects of this size, Sisa took over the construction of the project and managed to complete it on time.
While he was finishing Mdantsane, Sisa was already bidding on another parcel of land, this time in East London.
“The site was perfect; it belonged to Tsogo Sun, which had a casino on the property, but was looking to sell a section to develop a mall.”
When Sisa first bid on the property, it was R15 million; soon other bidders entered the fray, pushing the price up to R45 million.
Although Billion Group would ultimately win the project, the delay meant that three other developers with different sites around East London had been able to approach retailers, who had committed to the various projects.
“There was only room for one regional mall,” says Sisa. “Luckily, the big retailers were split over all three competing sites, which meant no one could yet declare their site the winner. If I wanted to build my mall, I needed to win over the retailers.” This is exactly what Sisa did.
It wasn’t easy. They had already committed to other projects with much bigger, more established developers, and didn’t even want to meet with an unknown player who was new to the space. So Sisa camped out at their executive offices until they agreed to see him.
“I spent the whole day sitting in the reception of the CEO of one of the big five retailers,” Sisa recalls. “At 5pm he felt so bad that I’d been there the entire day that he agreed to give me five minutes.”
The pair hit it off, and two hours later Sisa promised to fly the retailer and his executives down to East London and put them on a helicopter so that they could view all three sites. “Ours was hands down the best location coming off the highway. I left it up to them to judge which site they wanted to be at, but the tactic worked. Within six weeks, all five major retailers were on board. This sealed our fate and destroyed our competition.”
For Sisa, the challenges were just beginning. None of the major construction companies wanted to work with him. They had JVs with other smaller contenders, and even though building Hemingways would be a lucrative R1,2 billion construction job, contractor after contractor said no.
Eventually, Sisa approached the management team of the top contractor in the sector and offered them all equity in a new entity. They turned him down flat. “So I started stalking the MD,” he says. “He called me and told me to stop talking to his friends and family, and showing up everywhere he went. But he agreed to discuss the job opportunity.”
Once Sisa convinced the MD, the rest of his team followed. The company received 17 resignations on the same day. “They were beyond furious with me. I received a call from the CEO, raging at me. I let him rage.
I figured it was the least I could do. However, at the end of the phone call he told me that he would squeeze me out — no supplier in the whole of South Africa would do business with me after he had contacted them.
“Unfortunately, he had the power to do just that. We had to open within 26 months and I’d already lost two months. I needed to make a plan, and no one would work with us. We got shut out completely.
“We couldn’t get cranes, equipment, cement, shutters — even the concrete supplier refused to work with us. I flew with the team to Dubai to get our shutters, Austria for our cranes and Germany for our cement.
We batched our own concrete on site, bent our own steel — we did everything ourselves and we finished the mall in 24 months. It was one of our greatest achievements.”
Completing the development wasn’t the end of Sisa’s challenges, however. The construction ran R180 million over spec because everything had to be imported, and when the mall opened in October 2009, South Africa was already feeling the effects of the recession.
“The banks had tightened their belts and most of my small tenants, including restaurants and boutiques, couldn’t get funding nor pay their rent. I suddenly had a 15% vacancy, which accounted for 27% of my income. We had massive over-runs and I had to scratch around and sell assets to make ends meet.”
It was the second time in his life that Sisa’s health suffered as a result of a setback. Again, he recognised the signs and managed his blood pressure and overall health more effectively.
For Sisa, overcoming adversity in business and life had become a necessary skill. The attempts by big corporates to squeeze him out were just the beginning of his challenges in the sector. “Forest Hill was delayed in court for six years — up until one month before we opened we were in court against another developer who wanted to shut us down.
“The Baywest site in Port Elizabeth was built as a JV after we finally decided to work with the developer of the site adjacent to ours, instead of continuing to fight each other in court for the development. It’s a very competitive industry.”
But with the right vision, guts and determination, it’s also incredibly rewarding. “When we built BT Ngebs, which I named after my grandfather, in Mthatha, everyone said I was crazy.
A regional mall would never work there. Not only has it been incredibly successful over the past two years, but we are now building our first four-star hotel and entertainment node that includes movies, a casino and restaurants.
In fact, Sisa’s appetite for risk and his continuous quest for challenges has led to Billion Group becoming a precinct developer. Regional malls and smaller centres form the catalyst for these precincts.
As with Baywest, first the mall is built, and then the entire precinct around it — including industrial parks, office buildings, hospitals and big automotive showrooms.
“We’ve reached a point where if we create the catalyst, they will come — we’re creating our own work as a developer.” In fact, in its current projects alone, Billion Group has R35 billion worth of development lined up for the next ten to 15 years. “And we always come in a few years ahead of target,” he says.
SA’s first black-managed and held company on the JSE
In 2010, Sisa consolidated his assets and formed a company called Rebosis Property Fund, which he listed on the JSE in May 2011. It was the first black managed and held property company on the JSE, as well as the largest IPO in the property sector.
Sisa kept his development assets in Billion Group, but moved the income assets into Rebosis. This included four commercial buildings and four shopping malls. The total value of assets was R3,6 billion, and the company had a market cap of R2 billion.
The IPO raised R1,6 billion, of which 40% to 45% covered debt still held by banking partners. Over the last six years Sisa has grown Rebosis into a R23 billion company that includes three malls in the UK.
Again in 2016, Sisa experienced major challenges as a consequence of market and financial media skepticism relating to the transaction between Billion Group and Rebosis.
“When I created and listed Rebosis, Baywest and Forest Hill were still vacant land, and were not included in the asset transfer. Rebosis is not a development business due to the higher risk associated with development.
“Once these properties were developed and opened after one-and two years respectively however, I sold them to Rebosis for R2,2 billion each. I also sold an asset management company and a property management business for an additional R560 million.”
There was huge pushback from analysts who questioned whether other shareholder interests were impacted by the fact that Sisa was the buyer and seller.
“There was a lot of enmity in the market; distrust and unwarrented negative publicity. Numbers were misquoted and shareholders got nervous. It took a toll on me. Competitors, sceptics and some analysts worked tirelessly to sabotage the process; major shareholders instigated negative media publicity.
“It was incredible watching how vicious they became. This resulted in a share price drop, as two shareholders swopped shares with a competitor who was quietly planning a hostile takeover, and had put pressure on major institutional shareholders to swap
“You can view these challenges as a disaster, or as an opportunity. I went straight to my boards and shareholders to build back their trust. I had to work really, really hard, but I ended up in a stronger position than when this all started.
“Six months later we concluded the transaction with 88% shareholder approval, which is exceptional. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself with a 20% hostile shareholder whom I’m still dealing with to
Share prices quickly stabilised however, and over the course of the last five years, Rebosis has enjoyed a minimum growth of 8% per year, peaking at 11% in some years. This is in line with the property sector, which has been the top performing sector in the last three consecutive years.
It’s just one more lesson on that perilous road to entrepreneurial success. But if you keep your head held high and face each and every challenge — the journey will always be worth the price.
7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up
Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.
- Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
- Company: Brand Cartel
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: brandcartel.co.za
“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”
When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.
Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.
“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”
The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.
“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon
“We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”
This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”
The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.
Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.
This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.
“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.
Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”
The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.
“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.
The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.
Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.
“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”
The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”
The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.
The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.
“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”
Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.
1. Play with your work
Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.
2. Wag your tail
The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.
We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.
3. Check it, don’t wreck it
The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.
4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)
We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.
That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.
Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.
5. Put your name to it
It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.
We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.
When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.
We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.
6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)
We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’
7. Walk the talk
For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.
Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.
John Holdsworth Founder Of Tautona AI Shares 4 Disruptive Strategies That Are Changing The Insurance Industry
What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology?
“Disruption isn’t just doing things in a different way which doesn’t resonate or go any further — it’s about changing the game. Being disruptive means taking a look at an industry and finding a way to do it differently, giving you an advantage over the incumbents.”
- Player: John Holdsworth
- Company: Tautona AI
- Est: 2016
- Visit: www.tautona.ai
Disruptive innovation is the catchphrase that defines the last 20 years. New technologies, business models and media have disrupted the way we do just about everything. Conventional wisdom has it that the new kids on the block are the ones who are going to own the market at the expense of industry stalwarts, but this innovative South African disruptor is showing them how it’s done.
1. It’s the experience economy, stupid
Regardless of how the world changes, organisations that consider their customers’ emotions and experience first, win. That’s exactly what Tautona did. They put themselves in the customers’ shoes and asked one key question: ‘What’s wrong?’ Few industries are as ripe for disruption as insurance. When John Holdsworth co-founded cognitive automation business Tautona AI in 2016, he knew that there had to be a better way for insurers to handle client claims.
Tautona AI emerged out of a consulting engagement John had with a large insurance company. With a background in IT, he is a highly experienced technology executive and entrepreneur who has started a number of successful companies. He says he loves the energy and adrenalin associated with start-ups. He pioneered the use of digital signatures in South Africa, founded mobile payments company PAYM8, and converged voice and data provider ECN, which he sold to Reunert for R172 million in 2011. The experience acquired over this time meant he was ready to take on a massive challenge.
“When a policyholder submits an insurance claim, that action should trigger an instant decision, with the outcome immediately communicated back to the policyholder,” John says.
“Customers want swift claims handling, communication, and compensation. They want the same instant gratification that they get from online banking. So that’s what we set out do — to revolutionise the entire claims process. We have made traditional claims processing a thing of the past by pioneering a cognitive solution that is making the claims process faster, smarter and more efficient.”
2. Automating judgment tasks once reserved for humans
Tautona’s claims automation solution uses artificial intelligence to instantly approve or refer claims for further investigation. By using machine learning algorithms to identify patterns in the data, Tautona’s solution identifies fraudulent claims, enabling insurers to halve fraudulent claim losses.
Tautona also uses Robotic Process Automation to integrate to legacy systems, removing the need for traditional programming techniques. This means that Tautona’s claims automation solution can be implemented with minimal disruption to a business. By automating decision-making, communication, and compensation, Tautona enables insurance companies to take a major step towards becoming true digital insurers.
3. Ditch the legacy systems, start from scratch
Disruptive innovators invest in digital strategies so that they can find new ways of responding to their customers’ evolving needs. The founders of Tautona AI agree on several principles, but one that stands out specifically because it goes entirely against traditional thinking, is the importance of starting from scratch.
“You cannot take a non-digital business model and expect it to work online,” says John. “Instead of using old methods, you need to start from the beginning. Ditch the legacy systems, take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible.”
This iterative, modular approach typically begins with defining the strategy and programme plan upfront, delivering a core capability fast so it can provide benefits immediately, and then continuously improving with regular, incremental capability improvements to achieve the objectives of the strategy. It’s an approach that fosters closer collaboration between stakeholders, improved transparency, earlier delivery, greater allowance for change and more focus on the business outcomes.
4. Shaking up an industry
How do you launch new solutions and educate customers who are used to doing things the way they have always been done? John says resistance to change is inevitable. That’s why you need more than good technology.
“When you introduce something ground-breaking to the market, you encounter many different types of personalities asking diverse questions. That demands an approach that is client-centric and entirely customer focused. It also means you have to spend time developing a sound business case to present to decision makers.”
A solid business case documents the justification for the undertaking of a project. It’s the way you prove to your client and other stakeholders that the product you’re pitching is a sound investment. You need to justify the project expenditure by identifying the business benefits the innovation will deliver and that your stakeholders will be most interested in reaping from the technology.
“Essentially, it’s about proving you can deliver,” says John. “When you have an entirely new proposition, the only way you can hope to get your foot in the door is with a value proposition so profound that clients are forced to take a look at it.”
Tautona has convinced a number of South Africa’s top insurers to implement their AI-powered claims automation solution. The results to date have been ground-breaking, with insurers dramatically reducing turnaround times and processing fees. As a result, Tautona’s sales pipeline is full to the end of the first quarter of 2019.
“But there’s no rest for disruptors. Nokia and BlackBerry crumbled because they were slow to react to market changes, and they underestimated the challenge from Apple and Samsung. The only way to retain leadership is with relentless innovation, that is, a constant flow of new versions and features. That applies in any industry today.”
Tim Hogins Started Out As A Security Guard, Today His Has A Turnover Of R150 Million And Has Self-Funded Three Huge Lifestyle Parks
As a poor township kid, Tim Hogins watched kids pile into buses heading to Sun City every weekend, knowing he couldn’t afford to join them. He was a youngster, but he made a promise to himself. One day he would build parks that anyone could visit — especially underprivileged kids like himself.
- Player: Tim Hogins
- Company: GOG, formerly Green Outdoor Gyms
- Est: 2012
- Turnover: R110 million
- Projected Turnover: R150 million (2018)
- Visit: gog.co.za
“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that – I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this.”
“Poverty can be a good thing, because growing up poor makes you creative, and that’s an incredible power if you know how to use it.”
Seven years ago, Tim Hogins drove out of an office park and pulled onto the side of the road because he was having a panic attack. His car was closing in on him, he couldn’t see and he couldn’t breathe. After months of hard work, it was all over. His dreams were shattered.
Tim isn’t the first entrepreneur to find himself here, and he won’t be the last. What separates him from countless other aspiring business owners is that despite a massive setback, he didn’t back down. He sat in his car, phoned his wife, and told her what had happened. Instead of telling him it was time to move on and find a job, she asked him how they were going to cobble together the money he needed to start again.
And that was the beginning of Green Outdoor Gyms, a vision Tim had been nurturing for almost two years. A business idea that had led to his retrenchment and was almost ripped away from him by his business partners and investors.
But he didn’t quit. He pushed on. And today his business has a projected turnover of R150 million and has self-funded three huge lifestyle parks that Tim hopes will impact the lives of thousands of underprivileged children while providing jobs for hundreds more.
The in-built art of tenacity
To understand Tim, you need to understand where he came from. As a township kid growing up in Randfontein on the West Rand of Johannesburg, Tim always helped his parents to sell stuff. They were traders. His dad had a small café selling burgers and chips, and his mom baked. While other kids in the area piled into buses for Sun City on the weekends, or visited a local bird park, Tim had to work or the family didn’t eat.
“I matriculated in 1996, and even though I had an exemption, tertiary education wasn’t on the cards for me,” he says. “We just couldn’t afford it.” But Tim had a plan. His cousin told him about a free four-week course to become a security guard, and Tim aced it, securing a position at one of the firm’s top industrial sites.
Here’s the first secret to Tim’s success. Instead of seeing a dead-end job, Tim saw an opportunity. If he did his job well, he would progress to a driver, and then a cash-in-transit guard. From there the plan was management. Becoming a security guard wasn’t his fate because he couldn’t get a degree — it was step one to the rest of his life.
“I was raised to be the best version of myself. Everything is what you make of it. In primary school I was head boy, and in high school the head of the SRC. There’s always a way to grow and improve yourself.”
Two years into his career as a security guard, Tim heard about another opportunity — a free programming course teaching COBOL, a back-end system used by the financial services industry.
“I grew up 500 metres from Stafford Masie, who would go on to become the first head of Google South Africa and is one of our country’s greatest tech entrepreneurs,” says Tim. “I had zero programming experience — I’d never touched a computer — but I knew how valuable these skills were, and here was an opportunity being handed to me.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as Tim imagined. He failed the aptitude test and had to take it again. Once he was on the course, he failed that too — it was a programming course after all, and Tim needed a far more basic introduction to IT. He didn’t give up though. He’d quit his job and needed to make this work while he was still living with his father and didn’t have financial responsibilities, so he begged the course administrator to let him retake the programme. This time he passed, and found a job at a small IT firm.
Once there, Tim built up his IT acumen. Over the course of his IT career Tim worked for Dimension Data, EOH and SITA. In his final three years he applied for an account management position and moved into sales. His goal was to become a business owner, and so he diversified and learnt what he could about business.
He also paid attention to the world around him, looking for a business opportunity or problem he could solve. He dabbled with some ideas, but the one he kept coming back to was outdoor gyms.
“I saw kids in parks doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups on trees, and kept thinking there must be a better way than this for them. I knew that a proper solution would be good for the whole community — giving kids and parents a safe and free environment to play in and focus on their health. I focused on poorer communities, where gym fees weren’t an option, and kids needed safe places to play and keep out of trouble.”
The more Tim unpacked the idea, the more he began to believe in it. And then his employers found out, and made it clear that they did not like Tim’s attention divided between his job and his business idea. Despite this, Tim continued to focus on his entrepreneurial play, and within a few months he’d been retrenched, ostensibly due to a restructuring of the business, yet Tim was the only person let go.
It was October 2010 and Tim had no job, two-months’ salary and he was about to get married. But it was the best thing that could have happened to him. “That retrenchment catapulted me into business. From then on, my full focus became outdoor gyms.”
Winning and losing
Tim had approached Joburg City Parks who where interested in the idea. He had also met with an engineer and they had begun to design the equipment. There was just one small problem: Money.
“I knocked on doors, approaching anyone who would listen. One investor laughed at me. He said I’d gone from IT to playing with steel — what was wrong with me? A contact at SITA said flat out that she wouldn’t help me. Looking for funding can be incredibly demoralising. I had an idea and a letter of intent from Joburg City Parks, and it still wasn’t enough.”
And then Tim was introduced to a group of investors who wanted to instal kids play areas in municipal parks. Tim had the City Parks connection; they had the funding. They entered into a business partnership and built a prototype together. This was when Tim’s wheels fell off.
“I was invited to a meeting by my three business partners, and when I arrived there were five people in the room — my partners and their two lawyers. We’d entered into the agreement as 50/50 partners, and they wanted us to all be 25% shareholders. I couldn’t agree to that. This was my idea, my connection, my baby.”
By the time Tim left the meeting, he had no funding, no partners and no prototype and he knew City Parks was getting impatient. All he’d done was create competitors — and they had a demo model.
Tim had spent most of 2011 looking for funding and then building the prototype once he found his partners. He wasn’t just back to square one, he was behind where he’d started months ago. Hence the panic attack.
It was a pivotal moment. Give up or push on? Tim chose to push on. That night, Tim and his wife, Rona Hogins, sat down and came up with a plan. They would sell one car and Rona would apply for a bank loan. Together, they managed to come up with R200 000. Tim approached a friend who was interested in a side business and they launched LXI, an importer of screens for media companies. LXI brought in enough to pay the bills while Tim concentrated on getting Green Outdoor Gyms off the ground.
Then luck stepped in. “I drove past a warehouse and saw some play equipment. Instead of driving on, I pulled in and pitched my business idea to the owner.” The owner, Neta Indig, agreed to build Tim’s prototype at cost, in exchange for a long-term partnership. Tim agreed. His R200 000 would be enough to get the business back off the ground. Green Outdoor Gyms was officially launched in February 2012.
Here’s the thing about luck though. Unless you’re open to opportunities, paying attention and willing to step out of your comfort zone, luck alone will get you nowhere. By the time Tim drove into Neta’s parking lot, he’d spoken to countless investors, had doors shut in his face, lost a partnership and his prototype, and was still willing to look for any opportunity that might present itself. Through sheer will and tenacity, he found it.
After the first outdoor gym was installed, two things happened. The competition Tim had feared from his old partners didn’t materialise. It was Tim’s first real lesson in the power of passion. He’d doggedly pursued his idea for over two years. His partners, who didn’t share that passion, did nothing with the prototype they’d acquired. Tim was still — at that stage — in blue ocean territory.
The second was how quickly an idea can take off once the foundations are in place. GOG’s turnover was R3 million in its first year, and orders were flooding in from municipalities throughout South Africa.
Tim was invited to present his solution in parliament, and it was included in the National Development Plan. “Everything escalated faster than I could have imagined,” he says.
“The reality is that we’re an obese nation. It’s a real problem. On top of that, 90% of the country can’t afford commercial gym fees. Under the National Development Plan, every community was earmarked for an outdoor gym. Government saw my vision and they bought into it.”
Tim had to tender for each new site, but he had a first-mover advantage. By the time other players entered his space he’d already built up a track record. His team’s turnover times are impressive and the business doesn’t only design and instal the equipment, but can also overhaul a derelict park. The quality of his products ensures that equipment lasts at least eight years with no maintenance, although once an outdoor park is installed, the community takes ownership of it, cleaning it regularly and maintaining the area.
In six short years, GOG has installed over 1 000 outdoor gyms for local municipalities around the country, and there’s still room for growth. There are currently between 5 000 and 10 000 sites available, and while Tim doesn’t believe they will get all of them, the business will continue to expand. “I believe we still have a ten-year run with government-funded outdoor gyms, but this is no longer our core business.”
In fact, GOG has grown and changed considerably since that first outdoor gym was installed in February 2012.
“I’m an opportunist. I pay attention to developments around me and am always on the lookout for where we can add value,” says Tim. As a result, GOG is now developing its own sites and supplying equipment to the industry — across private and public sectors.
“You need to know that competitors are coming,” says Tim. “When we started out we had a niche with outdoor gyms and government, but someone will always want to eat your lunch. If you know that someone’s paying attention to what you’re doing and that everyone needs to diversify, you can stay ahead of your competitors.
“Our business is centred around health, fitness and family, and this understanding has allowed us to grow into lifestyle spaces that support our core focus.”
As a result, GOG has expanded to the installation of play areas and outdoor gyms for hotels, private and public schools, beach parks and lifestyle estates, including Steyn City.
“We also have a registered landscape company,” says Tim. “We can take vacant land and transform it into a park with grass, trees, water and pathways. We have a Geotech division that does soil testing and environmental studies.”
None of this happened overnight. It takes time to build a reputation, but if you’re focused on four key things, you can build a sustainable business. “You need to diversify your product range, diversify your customer base, nurture relationships and push outbound sales,” says Tim.
Tim has geared the business for scale, which is critical in a production and manufacturing context. “We have always outsourced our manufacturing, first with Neta, and later to a Chinese manufacturer who has become integral to our success.”
Tim’s relationship with Neta was critical in the start-up phase, but after two years the manufacturer decided to focus on his core. “We were too big — it wasn’t a side project anymore, and Neta wanted to remain in construction,” says Tim. “I needed to either find another manufacturing partner, or move into that space myself.”
Tim visited manufacturing facilities in China and sourced samples until he found a plant that could handle GOG’s volumes and quality. “Chinese manufacturers value loyalty and they’ll do whatever you want at the price point you ask. If you want a cheap product, you’ll get it — and the quality to match. Good quality costs more. I have an excellent relationship with our supplier — so good that he flew out to South Africa to see our operations, because he was impressed with the volumes he produces for us.”
It’s this relationship and the capacity available to Tim that has allowed him to take the next step towards his ultimate vision for GOG: Lifestyle parks.
Living the dream
GOG’s first lifestyle park stemmed from Tim’s need for a showroom and his life-long dream to give underprivileged children access to entertainment parks that he couldn’t afford when he was a child.
“We were manufacturing outdoor parks and I started thinking about other ideas in this space that aligned with our vision and niche. I needed a showroom that could showcase everything we can do, from ziplines to climbing walls, swimming pools to spray pools and outdoor gyms. A lifestyle park was the natural answer to everything I wanted to achieve.”
GOG Lifestyle was opened in November 2016 and is situated off the N14 near Lanseria Airport. It’s close to a number of townships, including Diepsloot and Cosmo City. “The revenue model is corporate team building events, family days and launches, which allows us to run specials for kids, the elderly, and CSI projects for schools and churches.”
The next lifestyle park, GOG Gardens, was opened in Soweto in December 2017. Bigger than the first lifestyle park, GOG Gardens caters for picnics, outdoor events and concerts. It’s a multi-purpose venue with seven venues in one, and also focuses on corporates, the general public and events, with CSI projects that support children.
“We have launched some smaller projects, such as GOG Kids at Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort and a play area in Vilakazi Street, but our next big project is Happy Island, a 36 hectare water park off Beyers Naude Drive in Muldersdrift.”
Happy Island is GOG’s first joint venture with an investment partner, Tim’s Chinese supplier. Unlike the other lifestyle parks, which GOG self-funded from cash reserves, Happy Island is a multi-hundred million rand project with large capex needs. “The idea came to life when the chairman of our manufacturing supplier visited our operations in South Africa. There are no water parks in South Africa similar to those I visited in China. We are doing something completely new and exciting, and we broke ground in April 2017.”
All of GOG’s lifestyle parks have required high capex investments and have not yet reached break-even, unlike the smaller projects that will reach break-even within a few months. “Our projection for the lifestyle parks is three years, and five years for Happy Island,” says Tim.
“My long-term goal is to have ten lifestyle parks across South Africa, one in each region, and that’s what I’m investing in. We want to make a difference, give kids access to these parks and employ people.
“I’m here today because of my childhood experiences, but before I could invest in this dream, I needed to start small and build up my reputation and cash reserves. To achieve my ultimate dream will take a lot of investment, so that’s the focus.
“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that — I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this. When someone says something is impossible, I want to know why, and then try anyway. That’s how you achieve great things. That’s how you realise your dreams.”
In 2016, GOG launched its first lifestyle park, GOG Lifestyle. Since then, two more lifestyle parks have been added, GOG Gardens in Soweto, and GOG Kids in Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort. The company’s biggest venture, Happy Island will soon be open to the public as well.
GOG’s genesis was outdoor gyms, and the company continues to grow from these original roots: Catering to a growing focus on healthier lifestyles, from public parks to beaches, corporates and residential estates.
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