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Shela Business Enterprises: Filbert Mokale & Shela Moyo

A construction company reaps the rewards of being proactive

Juliet Pitman

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Filbert Mokale & Shela Moyo of Shela Business Enterprises

There’s a lot to be said for taking the initiative. When lifelong friends Filbert Mokale and Shela Moyo battled to find work after graduating with electronic and civil engineering qualifications respectively, they refused to sit around being idle and filled their time by getting involved in a range of voluntary community projects.

After hearing news of the Alexandria township renewal project, they launched Filbert and Shela Business Enterprises out of a shack in 2002, hoping to access business opportunities in construction. But the early months were tough and business was anything but booming.

Refusing to be demoralised, the partners attended regular community business networking forums, delivered their company profile to government departments and scanned the press for tenders that,without any capital, they had little chance of winning.

But perseverance and proactive behaviour have a way of paying dividends. “We came across a Department of Housing tender which we wanted to tender for but we needed partners to help us meet the skills requirement. We approached one of the companies we met at a networking event and it brought in a third partner,” recalls Mokale.

They won the tender worth R1, 7 million to carry out an audit on the condition of the structure of various existing houses in Alexandria.But, as Mokale explains, he and Moyo had no capital to carry out the job.

“Our partners, who had the financial muscle, said they were aware that we had no money but that because we took the initiative in approaching them and getting them involved in the opportunity, they would split the profit equally three ways and only claim back their costs,” he says.

The project was run successfully and met all its deadlines. As a consequence, the authorities extended the tender to include an even greater percentage of township buildings. A further tender for the Department of Education worth R1 million followed.

With money in their back pockets, Mokale and Moyo set about sourcing office space. “We rented really smart offices but it was a mistake,” says Mokale. The business won another tender, this time for the Department of Education to build a community centre in Soweto, but being inexperienced, particularly in the area of costing, the partners under-quoted on the tender and lost money doing the project.

“We realised half-way that we were going to lose around R300 000 but we took a decision to complete the project anyway. We had made a commitment to do so and knew that if we abandoned it, our reputation would be so negatively affected that we probably wouldn’t be awarded any more tenders by government,” says Mokale.

This, coupled with the overheads incurred by renting beyond their means, meant the business took a hard knock. But in spite of this,Mokale has a positive outlook on the experience. “We’re very proud of that community centre. We may not have made money on it but we finished it on schedule and it stands there as a showcase of our work,” he says philosophically.

A positive attitude allowed the pair to take on board some tough lessons and remain forward-looking. “We met Cyril Ramaphosa at a networking event in 2003 and months later in 2004 his personal assistant called us to request a meeting to discuss opportunities, and the Shanduka Foundation offered to provide us with business mentoring and skills development to help us run the business more professionally,” relates Mokale.

The next time the business won a tender, Shanduka provided it with a loan to execute the project. “This money enabled us to buy materials and run the contract successfully. We were able to repay the loan on time and we donated a portion of our profit to Shanduka’s Trust as a token of our appreciation, because without them we couldn’t have done it,” he explains.

“The mentorship and incubation services provided by Shanduka have helped the business in other ways as well, especially with things like accounting and costing.”Mokale and Moyo have come a long way since the days when they ran their business out of a township shack. Now they have their eyes on big dreams and hope to compete with the big industry players in the coming years.

As their pay-off line states, vision is about seeing the invisible and this duo has what it takes to make it happen.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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