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Master Currency: Zitulele Combi

Successful entrepreneur, Master Currency founder earned his stripes in the townships

David Mwanambuyu

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KK Combi

When you call the Cape Town offices of Master Currency the response is prompt and the voice at the other end is friendly and professional. It is on the basis of this thoroughness and attention to detail that Zitulele “KK” Combi founded Master Currency, a local chain of foreign exchange bureaus. Combi is a man of firsts.

He was the first person in South Africa to be granted a foreign exchange licence; the first black South African to win the local Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur award in 2000; the first South African to be crowned World Entrepreneur for Managing Change in 2001 in Monte Carlo; and the first black South African appointed as a judge for the World Entrepreneur Competition in 2002.

He holds directorships at nine associate companies and organisations.

Combi had his first taste of the corporate world at Old Mutual where he worked as a financial consultant. During his brief tenure there he was the salesman of the year, leaving the insurance conglomerate a year later to pursue a diploma in public relations.

This knowledge empowered him to spot an enticing investment opportunity in Gugulethu. There were no convenience stores, so he opened a self-service café in the township. For two years the business was a success until the outbreak of riots in 1985.

Delivery trucks could not access his café because of the violence and he could not replenish his stock. He sold the business and turned his attention to other pursuits. In 1989 he developed the first service station in Gugulethu. Next he bought a chunk of land with a view to developing a shopping complex, but the idea was aborted when his neighbour refused to co-operate.

Combi rezoned the plot and sold it for almost nine times the original purchase price. Subsequently he identified the Nyanga Station on the Cape Flats as a potential development site. With  30 000 people accessing the facility daily, he reckoned it would make for an ideal investment option. In 1994 Combi was granted permission to develop what is now the Nyanga Junction Shopping Complex. He was later to sell it to Southern Life for R45 million.

Encouraged by this success in property development, he spread wings to the Eastern Cape, developing a R20 million One-Stop Engen Ultra City in King Williams Town in 1995. With the advent of democracy, exciting opportunities were beckoning. That same year Combi travelled to the UK in search of ideas.

While visiting a London foreign exchange bureau, it occurred to him that hordes of tourists would be flocking to see the miracle nation. They would all need the services of a foreign exchange bureau. For the next couple of days he stood by the doorway of a London exchange bureau to observe proceedings.

It wasn’t long before the bureau manager spotted him and called him in. The manager wanted news on South Africa’s smooth transition to democracy and Combi offered to give it to him in exchange for an insight into the world of foreign exchange transactions. “It wasn’t easy to comprehend initially,” he admits.

However, a week later he got the hang of the business. Upon his return, and with help from former National Party Minister Piet Koornhof, he secured a meeting with the South African Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank duly granted him a foreign exchange licence in 1995 and Master Currency was born.

The Reserve Bank prudently suggested a joint venture with Rennies Travel, to facilitate smooth transfer of skills. Since then Master Currency has been a key player in the foreign exchange market, positioning its outlets within easy access of its customers. The visibly branded outlets at the entrance to the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town are a case in point.

The company differentiates itself on flexibility, its strategy to offer faster, hassle-free, round-the-clock service. The company now employs 250 people at 20 branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. With a gross annual turnover of R2 billion, it is ranked third in the industry and commands 12% market share. “Look out for opportunities, they are always there waiting to be discovered,” says Combi.

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