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Xoliswa Daku of Daku Group’s Top Lessons For Growth To Inspire Yours

Xoliswa Daku believes in creating wealth through property developments. This principle has been her guiding star, helping her take an R18 million business to R100 million in under four years, while building a sustainable base of R800 million in assets under management. Her growth strategy has evolved thanks to intense and continuous personal development. These are her lessons in growth.

Nadine Todd

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Xoliswa Daku of Daku Group

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  • Player: Xoliswa Daku
  • Company: Daku Group
  • Launched: 2003
  • Turnover: R100 million
  • What they do: Investment, infrastructure and property development
  • Visit: dakugroup.co.za

Xoliswa Daku completed her law degree knowing she would one day be an entrepreneur. At the time she thought she would eventually have her own law practice, instead of heading up a R100-million property development business, with R800 million in assets under management. These are her lessons for growth.

1. Do what you love

If there is such a thing as the first rule of successful business ownership, it’s this: Do what you love. True passion will not only see you through challenging times, but keep you focused on your ultimate goals as well.

Too many businesses water down their value propositions or get distracted chasing revenue, to the ultimate detriment of the company’s long-term growth strategies.

Xoliswa learnt this lesson the hard way, but has significantly grown her asset base and margins since realising her company was losing its way.

“I began my corporate career at a legal firm, and within a year was head-hunted and offered a position at Wesgro, the official tourism, trade & investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape,” says Xoliswa.

Related: (Slideshow) Oprah Winfrey: The World’s Most Influential Woman

“Wesgro was full of economists, but they needed a legal person to assist with policy. The move introduced me to the worlds of business development and marketing, and it was then that I fell in love with the whole process of finding greenfield spaces and packaging an entire development deal, from the investors to other business partners.

“When I left the agency a few years later to join an entrepreneurial business that was in the incentives field, it wasn’t long before I gravitated back to this space. My love for it was the deciding factor, and it’s what has driven me, even when things got tough.”

As with many growing businesses, Xoliswa was so busy chasing growth that she lost her way. “When you start out, you’ll do anything to keep cash flowing into the business. I was consulting as well, and would tackle any needs a client had, from legal issues to BEE and marketing queries. The problem was that it diluted our brand. We had grown to a business with an R18 million turnover, and people were constantly asking me what it was that we actually did. I realised my entire business model was reactive, rather than proactive, and it was entirely my fault. I had no chance of growing a large business if we didn’t focus on our core areas.”

Xoliswa made the decision to offload some of the company’s products and focus. This is where passion played its role, because it helped her determine exactly where she wanted to focus Daku Group’s energies.

The lesson: High-growth organisations are proactive, not reactive. No business can be the master of everything. Choose your niche, focus on which opportunities give you the best margins and above all, ensure you’re following your passion. The more specialist a business, the more successful it tends to be.

2. Capitalise on your base

The most successful businesses (and business owners) are exceptionally good at developing a base and then growing it.

For example, Xoliswa launched the Daku Group when she was approached to join the development team for The One and Only Hotel as the project’s BEE partner and shareholder. The reason the team approached her was because of the reputation she had built at Wesgro. Because she came in while the deal was being structured, she was an active partner throughout the deal and development of the hotel.

“If you’re good at what you do, one partnership leads to another,” explains Xoliswa. “The more a market gets to know you and your reputation, the higher your chances of securing a deal. But you also can’t just sit back and expect work and contracts to flow your way. You have to take that solid reputation and make sure you’re getting noticed by the right people. And that takes planning.

“I started out helping other businesses to grow, and then put those lessons to good use in my own company. I also learnt as much as possible about my sector: The various players, the challenges my potential partners faced, and which opportunities worked and which didn’t.

“There’s so much out there, but you need to understand the landscape and what you have to offer before you can approach potential partners and pitch for deals. No one will come find you and offer an amazing opportunity — you have to go out and find it, and prove that you’re the best fit for the deal. To do that, you need a strong base, and that’s built on knowledge, experience, and successful projects that cement your reputation in the market.”

The lesson: If you’re planning for long-term success, approach every pitch, deal and even research strategically. You need to become the expert in your field; your future partners should benefit from working with you, and you need to be able to prove this.

3. Under-promise and over-deliver

Understand your company’s capabilities, and work within them to ensure you over-deliver, rather than over-promise and then let your clients down.

“We were very strategic about the sites we pitched for within the Prasa tender,” explains Xoliswa. The Prasa deal is everything Xoliswa loves: A greenfield infrastructure development project that called for local developers to pitch their ideas around what could be done with the land around Prasa’s interchanges.

“Prasa published an expression of interest. I always pay attention to what’s happening in the space, looking for development opportunities. Once you find out about a project, you then need to market yourself, and think strategically about what the client needs for the entire project to be a success.

“These pitches are at your own expense, so you want to ensure you’re aligning yourself with their needs — otherwise it’s an expensive act in futility that just wastes everyone’s time. When I was at Wesgro, I was mentored by an economist who was nearing retirement. He was extremely knowledgeable and insightful about what makes certain projects a success, and others a failure. For example, he thought Century City in Cape Town wouldn’t work, because the project didn’t include a transport interchange, or residential and office space. He was right. The original developers sold the project and it’s being reworked.

“This gave me great insight into what Prasa needed to successfully launch a national transport interchange. Whilst Prasa presented various opportunities to developers on an open tender system, I opted for three sites and those were awarded to me. I assessed and recognised that I couldn’t do more than that. I believe it’s important to avoid taking on more than you can chew, even at tender stage. It was important to me that the entire project was a success.

“If I’d pitched for more than three sites, I would have been spreading myself too thin, and I knew it. Remember, all the risk areas of the project belong to you as the developer. You’re bringing three things together: The site, resources and capital. But ultimately the risk is yours — the rewards too — but successful projects are completed because the risks have been mitigated.”

This isn’t to say Xoliswa has any interest in being a small business. She’s always aimed high, and wants to move through Africa and beyond. But she’s building careful foundations to ensure a sustainable business that can handle growth and build on it.

The lesson: It’s always good to aim high. Most entrepreneurs have the mantra that they’ll say yes first and then figure out how to do it. In this way, great things are achieved. But you also have to be realistic. Plan for success, ensure you have all the components in place, and then deliver — but don’t over-promise. If you know you have certain limitations, work within them and deliver an exceptional product, rather than over-extending yourself and only achieving a mediocre result.

Related: Celebrating The Multi-Faceted Woman

4. Learning is the gateway to growth

In 2010, Xoliswa enrolled in an Executive MBA at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. When she entered the programme, Daku Group’s turnover was R18 million. By 2014 it was R100 million. During the two-year programme her company’s turnover dipped. This was expected. Running a company while completing an MBA is no easy task, and there were gaps in the business while she focused on her personal and business development.

It had been a strategic decision — some short-term pain and losses for long-term gain.

“My business was seven years old, and I recognised that something was holding us back. We were experiencing growth challenges, and I wasn’t finding a way to move us forward. We had some incredible projects under our belt, but we had hit a ceiling.”

Xoliswa took stock of what she was facing. “First, I was playing across a lot of spaces: Investment and trade, the legal field, women empowerment, and I was struggling to find mentors. People were coming to me to mentor them. That’s flattering, and I want to give back, but mentors have always been critical for me. I felt that my personal development had stalled.”

Studying further seemed to be the only solution. Xoliswa had already completed her law degree, a certificate programme in Economics, the Management Development Programme (MAP) at Stellenbosch University, and a project management course through Cranfield University. An MBA was the next logical step.

“As a lawyer who structured deals, I understood that growth comes from following a clear path. I’d worked on a lot of different elements and now needed to pull those loose threads together. I believed the tools an MBA would give me would help me do that.

“It’s a tough choice. It’s hard work, and you’re spending hours away from your business. I saw the impact of that first hand. Our turnover dropped. But, without the tools and lessons the MBA gave me, I wouldn’t have reached the next level. My growth had stalled. I’d been working on my expertise, my name and reputation. Now I needed to get the right foundations and systems into place for the business.”

The lesson: Great business leaders never stop focusing on their own personal development. The more you learn — particularly across disciplines — the more you’ll achieve. Business courses, business books, podcasts, mentors and associations are just some of the ways you can hone your skills and learn from your peers.

5. It’s all about the balance sheet

One of the biggest lessons Xoliswa has learnt along her journey is that in many respects, a high turnover is just vanity.

“For a long time we were chasing cash, and it led to far too much diversification in the business. For example, I launched a construction company so that we could build our own developments. The result was two-fold. We diluted ourselves too much, instead of staying niche and focused, and we increased our risk exponentially.

“It’s great to say you’re developing a project worth more that R200 million, but your exposure is R7 million. In those terms, it’s not as valuable. Instead, we made the decision in 2014 to partner with experts, shorten our turnaround time for implementation, focus on maximum returns instead of turnover, and to build our assets under management.

“As a result of this shift in strategy — which is designed to build real wealth — our turnover hasn’t grown since 2014, but we’ve grown our assets under management to R800 million, and we’ve increased our margins. The business is in a much healthier space.”

The lesson: Understand your strategy, and what you’re trying to achieve. A high turnover is meaningless if you’ve got poor cash reserves and limited assets. On the other hand, higher margins can be far more valuable than a high turnover. At the end of the day, it’s all about the balance sheet.

Related: Hold the Testosterone: Must a Woman Behave Like a Man to Succeed?


Lessons from an MBA

MBA

An MBA is a large investment, from both a monetary and time perspective. Given the hours of sleep she was losing, Xoliswa was determined to make the most of her Executive MBA through GSB, and to implement what she was learning in her business.

“The reality is that you can be the darling of your industry, with an exceptional reputation, and a decent business — but then the realities of growth set in. Cash flow is a problem, management issues, client issues. These happen to all growing businesses. The question is, what are you going to do about them?” Here are the key gaps Xoliswa identified for her own business.

1. What’s my unique selling point?

I realised that I’d become a jack of all trades within my industry. Daku Group had no clear selling proposition. In fact, we were often asked what it was exactly that we did. You can’t be the go-to player in your industry if no-one is sure precisely what you do. We needed to pare down what we offered, and be more focused and niche. It’s scary at first, but we’ve built a far more robust business by not taking on anything and everything that comes our way.

2. Delegate

I realised I had a disjointed team, with no clear leadership when I wasn’t around. No business owner can be everywhere at once. I needed a senior management team who was on the ground and could build a competent, efficient team. I was outsourcing too much as well, instead of bringing in specialist talent. I realised that I was boxing the business, but not the people. First you need a great team, and then you can build the right financial systems.

3. Understand your strengths

I have no interest in the small stuff. My focus is on creating long-term opportunities through analysis, and providing the right opportunities to investors in synergistic environments. The problem was that even though I don’t like the small stuff, I wasn’t employing people who excel at the finer details. This affected my capital.

As a business owner, your drive, work ethic and independent approach and offering are so important. But you also need to let go. Your teams are the best tools you have to grow your business, but only if you give them the opportunity and space to thrive. Understand what you bring to the business and where the gaps lie, and then find the best people to fill those gaps.

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Designing Her Destiny

Oh Yay! owner, Emmerentia van den Hoven does business her way.

QuickBooks SA

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In 2011, Emmerentia van den Hoven took a leap of faith when she decided to leave her graphic design job at an agency and pursue her real passion – and it has paid off tenfold. Here’s her story.

“When I started planning my own wedding eight years ago, I fell in love with wedding design and wanted to do that for the rest of my life. Designing for brands had become a set of rules rather than being creative, and I’d always wanted to work for myself. So, in September 2011, I turned my seven-month-old side gig into a fully-fledged business and launched Oh Yay!

I have to hustle every month to get new clients because every client will use my services maximum twice – first for the wedding invitations and then for the stationery on the day – so I don’t normally have returning clients.

Because my main business is seasonal and usually once-off per customer, I have branched out into branding for small businesses in the beauty and lifestyle industry. I also earn a passive income through the Oh Yay! online shop where I sell wedding décor items.  Oh Yay Kids – my other online store – is my passion project. I launched it just before my second child was born, adding items to the store that I made for my two boys when I saw a need for it. I then expanded into prints for nurseries and kids’ party stationery.

I work for myself and have no employees, so the fact that QuickBooks lets me load all my services, products and prices in one place makes running my business so much easier. Being an entrepreneur is difficult because you don’t know if you’ll be successful or not. But if you believe in and love what you’re doing, it reflects in your work and the service you give.”

Less admin, more of what you love

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When Oh Yay! was launched, along with her dream of being an entrepreneur, came the nightmare of other administrative tasks. But that changed in 2018 when Emmerentia started using QuickBooks.

“When I was using spreadsheets to balance my books, I was spending 80% of my time on admin, which left very little time to tend to customers’ orders. I now spend no more than 25% of my time on admin, which is important, especially when it comes to the speed at which I send quotes. You don’t get any work if you don’t send out quotes and it’s tough to juggle the admin with your actual job of running the business.

Numbers were never really my strong point, so having a professional quote done in record time not only projects professionalism, but the format also changes the way new clients see me. In my industry, the quicker you can send a quote out, the likelier you’ll get the clients’ business. It gives legitimacy to my business. The QuickBooks system operates so seamlessly that clients communicate with me differently, like I have my own accounting department, when in fact, I’m a one-woman-show.

I used to dread doing admin, but now it’s so easy and quick. I’m not just saying this – QuickBooks changed my life.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Owner Of Nouwens Carpets Shares Success Lessons From Running A 50 Year Old Family Business

Embrace technology every chance you get.

Nadine Todd

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A company that’s been active for more than five decades in an industry that’s hundreds of years old doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation — and yet that’s exactly what Luci Nouwens, owner of Nouwens Carpets, is focused on.

The modern carpet has a history that goes back thousands of years. And despite the hipster trend of reclaimed and hard wood flooring, the carpet still remains a popular choice for consumers.

In South Africa, a name that’s synonymous with quality carpeting is Nouwens. When Cornelis Nouwens arrived in the country in the 1950s, bringing the skills of a trade which he had mastered alongside his father in Tilburg, the hub of the Netherlands’ wool textile industry, he passed on the skills and the love of the craft to his family and to workers in the Harrismith region in KwaZulu Natal.

More than 50 years after her father started it in 1962, the company remains family owned, and is headed by Luci Nouwens, who has been with the business for 48 years.

“We have maintained our reputation for premium quality all this time by paying meticulous attention to crafting standards and selecting only the finest raw materials,” says Luci. “Equally important is that we have innovated at every opportunity, embracing technology without ever compromising the traditional craftsman’s spirit.”

Innovation drives growth

Businesses that innovate are able to grow and hire more employees. As a result, they grab a bigger share of the market. That’s true regardless of the size of your business: If you innovate, you can scale up.

In 1968 Nouwens launched a pure karakul wool carpet that was extremely hard wearing and took the company into the commercial carpet market. Luci recalls the manufacturing of the carpet as “a major feat of unique textile engineering.” Another innovation in 2005 was the introduction of a totally new style of flat weave wool carpet, a very clean, minimalist and natural look requiring much less wool without compromising on wearability.

“These innovations are just two of many that have allowed the business to boost its market share over the years,” says Luci. “But beyond that, innovation has enabled Nouwens Carpets to form the backbone of economic activity and upliftment in the local community around Harrismith. This has allowed us to make substantial investment in providing education and skills development for the local population, to ensure that the craft is preserved for generations to come.”

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

Innovation enables sustainability

Innovation in technologies and how they are applied is key to enabling a manufacturer like Nouwens to create new business value, while also protecting the planet.

“We have used technology to enable sustainable manufacturing, for the benefit of the business, the community, and our customers.”

Nouwens selects equipment, materials and manufacturing methods based on their degree of sustainability and protection of the environment. The company is also a member of the Green Building Council of South Africa and submits its products for VOC testing to ensure that harmful emissions are significantly reduced.

“Ultimately, we are driven by a passion for textiles and the ability to constantly find better ways to produce beautiful products. After the downturn in the economy, we started to produce more cost-effective commercial nylon yarns, and in 2017, we became the new kid on the block for synthetic grass. The bottom line is that a true entrepreneur does what has to be done when the time comes.” — Monique Verduyn

The role of disruption in creating value

A disruptive business is a business that challenges and potentially changes the status quo. From a mindset point of view, a culture that questions ‘why’ can help foster organisational and market disruption. But disruption for the sake of disruption is self-defeating, it needs to be on the back of making things better and based on commercial principles, i.e. people or market players actually wanting to be disrupted.

The starting point is this: Does someone, or a market, value what you’re producing? If the answer is yes, you have a commercially viable disruption. Disruption that is valued by its target market has the best chance of resulting in success.

Get that right and you’ll have a customer base, you’ll gain traction and you’ll attract investors, provided you’re also making a meaningful and sustainable difference to your target market or community. — Ian Lessem, CEO, HAVAIC Investment and Advisory Firm

Collaboration

Team up with customers and competitors.

There’s more power in collaboration than competition. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart. When it comes to working with competitors, consider this: They may have something that you don’t, or vice versa, and 50% of something is always more than 100% of nothing. You’re then positioned to add value before you add an invoice, so your clients benefit from your relationships, and the market wins. From there, you become your client’s go-to-person, because you’re putting them first.

Customers are also a great source of knowledge: They might just have the answers you’re looking for, but are you asking them the right questions? They often know more about an entrepreneur’s business than they know themselves, because they’re on the receiving end of your offering. One way to collaborate with customers is to ask them more questions about yourselves, themselves and their clients. Harness their perspective and develop yourself to give them what they want, not what you think they want. — Wes Boshoff, founder, Imagine Thinking

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch

PR

Know what your audiences are interested in

As a brand, there are many ways to ensure your audience is paying attention to you, but you can’t expect them to find you unless you’re sharing content that captures their interest. If you send out press releases, don’t be too rigid or plain. Audiences want to be engaged, and not to have to deal with long, cumbersome information. An infographic, along with a video or pictures will make your release easier to ingest and more memorable. People don’t want boring figures, they want relatable stories.

One way to be relatable is by tapping into influencer marketing. This doesn’t mean you need celebrities with the highest followings to endorse you. Micro-influencers are proving to have just as much clout as those with larger followings. Evidence shows that micro-influencers have a more established and deeper connection with their audience, which translates to loyalty and a readiness to follow their advice. The trick is to find the micro-influencers who are speaking to the audience you want to reach.

Big data plays a key role in painting a picture of who is ‘out there’. With the right information, you can tailor your content to a specific audience. Big data can show you what topics and problems are trending in your industry, so that you can get the jump on them. Use big data to deliver your own insights on current topics, shaping and leading the conversation, converting your audience’s attention into action. — Madelain Roscher, founder and managing director, PR Worx and Status Reputation Management

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