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From Painting Houses To Building A $1.95-Billion Development

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John Rabie is the entrepreneur who transformed the way South Africans build houses. With humble beginnings, he is now known as the man who took 1.25 million square meters of marshy wasteland on the outskirts of Cape Town and turned it into the $1.95-billion Century City.

It’s hard to believe that this co-founder of the Rabie Property Group is the same humble man who was painting buildings in Sea Point 40 years ago, along with his longtime business partner, Leon Cohen.

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“I started as painter with Leon. We formed a painting business. We said to ourselves, ‘hang on a second, let’s start building’. In those days, there was plenty of land in the southern suburbs in Constantia,” says Rabie.

From his office in Cape Town’s foreshore, filled with memorabilia of his property developments and school photographs, you can see why Rabie has stood at the test of time.

“It took me 40 years. There is no instant gratification to wealth. Property development is not a one-day game, it’s a five-day game,” says Rabie, using cricket analogy. “It’s taking a view for the future. Because we build buildings not for five years but because we want to live in them for 10 or 20 years.”

READ MORE: From Selling Beer To Rubbing Shoulders With Richard Branson

Along with Century City, Rabie has been involved in other developments around Cape Town, including Marconi Beam, Westlake Estate, Royal Ascot and Big Bay.

Rabie is also responsible for cluster house developments. This started when Rabie didn’t have the capital to build the houses from scratch. Instead he came up with the idea of plot and plan, which allowed house hunters to pay a deposit on a plot of land for cheap and wait for Rabie to build it.

“In those days people bought their own little plots and then they built their houses. So we said ‘ok, we can build these houses on your plot for cheaper’. Then we said ‘hang on a minute, let’s take it to the next level’. We acquired five plots on Constantia, I think we paid R10,000 ($850) for a stand at the time – can you believe that, in Constantia of all places? We said ‘let’s build a house, finish it and furnish it and landscape it’.”

The idea took off in the 1980s and Rabie’s team was building five houses a month.  Soon it was building villages, over vast areas of Cape Town’s southern suburbs. It then moved on to show houses, giving buyers an idea of what the house would look like, right down to the kitchen sink.

“You know, what people struggle with is the design. How the house is going to look when the building is done, the vision. We had a beautiful brochure with eight or 10 designs, because the individual owned the plot we could sign a building contract and build that house that they chose.”

Back in his office, Rabie admits to being a hoarder. He has dozens of books with newspaper clippings and advertisements. It is a personal archive of 40 years of developing property. His proudest moment came in 2004, when he bought into a project that wanted to turn a marshy wasteland of 1.25 million square meters into a mini city.

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“The biggest boom to hit this country was in 2001 to 2007 – the world exploded. That was the biggest property boom we’d ever seen,” he says.

“It changed Rabie Property Group, because we now had a city.”

Fourteen years and an investment of more than $1.95 billion later, Century City has taken shape. These days it is a city-within-a-city; a place where one can work, live, shop and relax. The precinct hosts more than 500 businesses, 4,000 residential homes and is known for its clean and safe environment.

The Apex forms the focal point of the new Century City Square in Cape Town. Photo supplied

“The great thing about Century City is it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, as the markets change you can change it to have a bit more commercial, a bit more residential areas. When I go inside the conference center or along the canals, I have to pinch myself,” says Rabie.

One of the latest developments in Century City has been the introduction of a Marriott hotel, the signature brand of the world’s largest hotel group, Marriott International. This brand was ushered in through the recent conversion of the African Pride Crystal Towers Hotel to the Cape Town Marriott Hotel Crystal Towers.

“It’s extremely positive for Century City to showcase a global giant like Marriott. The credibility of the brand internationally adds gravitas to our tenant directory, and we will no doubt see many more visitors from around the world coming to Century City because of the presence of a hotel under this brand,” says Cohen.

By 2010, Rabie had thought he had done all he could do in property. He was traveling abroad when he noticed a trend of inner-city revival. He saw major cities, like Sydney, were rejuvenating derelict buildings in city centers and repurposing them for residential living.

He immediately thought Cape Town could do the same. So, he embarked on co-founding Signatura, the private label property company, to do just that.

“No one was thinking of inner-city revival at that time. It was going to be very important for Cape Town to have hospitality linked to residential – in other words, intertwined. Our first project was the Radisson. We converted the office into the hotel and put 175 apartments on top, but the apartments have the use of the hotel facilities, the gym etc. That was hugely successful,” says Rabie.

Rabies ambitious Radisson development in Cape Town. Photo supplied.

Signatura recently completed the upscaling of central city landmark, the Safmarine building. It was transformed into an ambitious $100-million residential and hotel development known as The Radisson Blu Hotel and Residence.

It caters to South Africa’s growing upper middle class who are eager for luxury living close to the city and the ocean. What stands out for Rabie is the way in which social media has changed the way people buy property.

“We used to have to put flags up on Sunday at 10 o’clock. We’d get dressed up in our work clothes. That’s how we did it. If you didn’t get people into show houses on a Sunday, you didn’t sell. With social media, it changed dramatically. You hardly see us advertising in the press anymore because social media is so incredibly strong. We get 10 to 15 leads every day from people on the internet wanting to know about our developments.”

In five years, Signatura has rejuvenated more than 20 buildings in and around Cape Town – achieving over $500 million in sales.

It seems Rabie made the right decision to give up painting houses to build them instead.

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Entrepreneurs

Packing Light In School Bags

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Former South African rugby star John Mametsa provides alternative energy solutions for the state. With his wife Tumi, he says their future in the business is bright.


In his prime, former Blue Bulls winger John Mametsa had rugby fans screaming in delight at his try-scoring exploits at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Between 2001 to when he retired in 2010, he had brought smiles on people’s faces.

Hidden beneath the rugby bravura on display on a weekly basis were Mametsa’s entrepreneurial exploits, which led him to co-found Soltech, a solar technology company he started with his wife Tumi.

Soltech has bridged the gap between solar technology and user-friendly consumer products by creating school backpacks, outdoor umbrellas and lifestyle bags custom-fitted with solar power.

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The smiles are back but Mametsa has brought them in a different form.

Soltech’s main aim is to help companies achieve their corporate social investment targets and make a real difference in the lives of school children who might not have electricity at home, or whose access to electricity is limited.

“Generally, I love giving back. Just to see the kids smile brings joy to me,” Mametsa says.

“It is the best space I could have asked for. Other than when I was involved in rugby, this is the best thing I could have ever been a part of.

John Mamemtsa. Picture: Supplied

Putting smiles on kids’ faces is the best thing. Because we are dealing with children, we have aligned ourselves with people that want to make a difference.

“We don’t stop at just giving them the bags where they can charge phones and study at night but we also educate them about the social ills that come with roaming on the internet and social media.”

During this period of Eskom blackouts, uncertainty about South Africa’s energy and a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, he says Soltech’s products make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.

In a sense, they’ve taken the might of solar technology and put it right in people’s hands. The school bags come with a solar-powered battery, which has a night lamp and cellular phone battery charger installed.

“With everything that’s going on at Eskom now, they (citizens) are using millions of liters of diesel per month, just to keep the lights on,” Mametsa says.

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“Hence, it’s coming back to hit our pockets and they (Eskom – South Africa’s national energy provider) are raising the electricity prices again. Such things we have to read about so that, as we grow, we educate the people that we are selling the bags to.

“At some point, you need to convert [to reusable energy sources], you need to start using solar energy. We are still fortunate that there’s an Eskom in the first place. What about those countries that don’t even have electricity at all?

“Yes, we have power cuts but the people that really need the bags are people in the rural areas.”

Admittedly, Mametsa was the pretty face and Tumi conceptualized the idea when they started. But their partnership was perfect in more ways than one. Tumi, just like her husband, had a massive entrepreneurial drive.

While Mametsa was playing rugby, he would dabble in taxi and printing businesses – an uncommon trait among sportsmen and sportswomen who are at the peak of their powers. Tumi was no different. As a student, she would sell hair and cosmetics products, something that sharpened her business senses.

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And despite a successful 11-year career in corporate as an accountant and financial manager for companies such as Alexander Forbes and the Film and Publication Board, Tumi took a bet on herself and dedicated her time fully to building Soltech.

The result was that, in just the company’s second year, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland solar technology company Tespack. Tespack founders Caritta Seppä and Yesika Robles were last year named in Forbes ’s 30 Under 30 Europe.

The joint venture will see Soltech come out, among other things, with a solar-powered, fast-charging power bank, which should totally disrupt the smartphone accessories market.

Tumi Mametsa. Picture: Supplied

“There’s going to be skills and knowledge transfer,” Tumi says.

“The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) is also backing us on the partnership because we need them and their funding to assist us. We will be hiring South Africans to work the machinery, which was something that was very attractive to the DTI.

“The Tespack partnership confirmed my belief that our company could grow from a small tree to a forest someday. Once we manufacture in-house we can streamline the process. And there are so many other ideas for products I have, such as ladies’ handbags and stuff.”

Here at home, Soltech has partnered in CSI projects with Liberty and Exxaro and they hope to grow their client base in the next couple of years. It is a huge endorsement of their products and should see them salve some of the hurt from the country’s electricity crisis, especially to those who need it the most.

-Sibusiso Mjikeliso

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‘Worth Millions And Billions’

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Terence Terenzo, the award-winning South African hairdresser and founder of hair salon group Terenzo Suites, on his biggest investment decisions and blunders.


What is your investment philosophy?

One of my philosophies is to really analyse ‘is this an investment or is it a money pit… Are you sure you got a good investment and not a liability?’… Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to invest in things that don’t absorb all my time and energy.

So if someone were to say to me, ‘you can work your butt off seven days a week and we will give you a million rand a month, or you can take it super easy and do the absolute minimum but you can have R400,000 ($27,700) a month’, I would rather take the R400,000 because that would free me up so much more.

I would have time to do things that are important and other projects. So, for me, it is about setting up passive income businesses instead of creating businesses that need huge amounts of management.

What are some of the big investments you have made over the years?

Most of them were in property but this, Terenzo Suites, is one of the biggest investments I have ever made. It was many many millions. And then on the stock market, I’ve played around on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where we have invested quite heavily. I would use it, then look at the market and sometimes pull the money out and move it. I have also invested in Naspers.

Have you had any regrets?

If any entrepreneur tells you that he hasn’t had that [an investment blunder], he is lying. So, what happened was I bought a property in 2008, just before the [recession]. I was stuck with it for years and even when I sold it, I sold it many years later at the same price I bought it.

I bought it in an absolute inflated stop end, and it was really at an all-time high and I had to sell it at an all-time low… But the main thing for me about those kind of things is that you learn from them and you must not beat yourself up for too long.

Try and see what you learned from them.

Why did you invest in the hair business?

I think the hair industry is going to explode in South Africa and the whole continent, if you just think of the possibilities of wigs, hair pieces, hair colors and relaxers. Millions of women before weren’t so worried about their hair but as the world has changed so much, all of them want to look amazing and they want to look current, fresh, sexy, and that is all a part of the hair industry.

What should you consider first before you invest in your hair?

I think the one thing is to have a professional conversation with someone instead of just doing your own thing and, usually, hairdressers are quite happy to consult with you without charging you before you make a serious investment in hair pieces or wigs.

How big do you think the hair industry is in Africa?

I think it is worth millions and billions… and I think it is an undiscovered industry that is still going to explode. I don’t think we have scratched the tip of the iceberg with this.

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A Germ Of An idea

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The microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Babajide Ipaye started making good-looking shoes to fit his size 48 feet but decided to create them for others as well.


Selling shoes was probably the last thing Babajide Ipaye, a microbiology graduate, envisioned doing. But when by the age of 10, he was already wearing his father’s shoes, a size 44, he knew that some day that he would step in that world.

The only child of his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was only 11, Ipaye was raised by his grandparents and extended family members who shaped the early years of his life.

“I had a lot of people who were trying to nurture me and they had different professions. So for example, one was an artist and I was endeared to him, another one was a medical doctor, so my granddad wanted me to study medicine and another uncle was a computer scientist, so I was kind of confused growing up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I kind of lived the life of almost everyone that influenced me,” says Ipaye.

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That confusion helped Ipaye cut his teeth in various industries early on in his career. His medical doctor uncle influenced his career as a microbiologist where he worked with Ideas International Bio Technology Services, spending his days cleaning up oil spills and bacteria.

Then followed a stint in Information Technology (IT), a move also inspired by another uncle, where he worked with Tranter IT Infrastructure Services and Computer Warehouse as an analyst deploying managed technology services for multinationals like Guinness, Total and KPMG.

“At this point in time, IT was very hip and we happened to be one of the early pioneers in the tech space which was a very exciting time and considering where I was coming from in microbiology, it was a new field for me, I was working with multinationals and the exposure was amazing, it gave me a very broad sense of how organizations function.”

But Ipaye soon became dissatisfied with being put in a silo. There was too much structure and rigor due to the size of these multinationals and he became bogged down with a lot of systems and processes, which ultimately stifled his creative juices. His solution was to start his own IT company, Torque Technologies.

The company began providing IT equipment and technology services in its early days to multinationals before quickly creating a niche for itself in the fiber optics space. In early 2003 to 2005, the Nigerian telecoms era had just started booming and Ipaye and his partner saw a first-mover advantage in fiber optics by providing training to firms in Nigeria, which they did for the next 10 years.

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By 2015, Ipaye decided he wanted a new challenge outside the IT world. After parting ways with his partner, he began to ponder about his life-long struggle with footwear.

“So I said to myself ‘why don’t I make my own shoes?’ So I went on the internet, did a bit of research and came across a school in the Netherlands called SLEM. I called them up and found out about the shoe-making course and I said since I was on holiday, why don’t I take some time off the business and explore how to make my own shoes and I went to the Netherlands.”

Keexs was born. The goal was to make shoes that fit Ipaye’s size 48 feet but also looked aesthetically pleasing. But making shoes for him alone would prove to be too costly.

Ipaye decided to make shoes for others as well. He would focus on the athleisure market, which is a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’, a market that has grown to the stage where it is no longer a trend but a mainstay in Nigerian fashion.

To stand out in the competitive footwear market, Ipaye decided to add some African elements to his innovative footwear brand and focused on outsourcing the production to a factory in the Netherlands while he focused on the product and design to save on cost.

The aim in the long run was to move production to Nigeria where he could fulfill the brand’s social mission of providing employment and skills training to unemployed youth. However, to make the business viable, he had to make a minimum of 1,000 pairs of shoes to achieve economies of scale. Next came the challenge of securing startup funding.

“From my previous experience of starting my technology business in Nigeria, I came to realize that the cost of funding in Nigeria is very high and also there are a lot of businesses chasing funding and the risk level of most potential investors in Nigeria is very conservative and they don’t want to invest in stuff they are not sure about.

“So I read about crowdfunding and consulted a company in the Netherlands and I came across a site called kick-starter which is a US-based platform that offers a global crowdfunding platform to innovative ideas and projects, hence we started the first innovative and social focused brand in Africa,” says Ipaye.

In just over two years Ipaye has managed to grow the business through leading e-commerce sites like Jumia and Konga as well as via its own website which receives orders from countries around the world. The shoes sell for anywhere from $40 to $60, with over 8,000 pairs of shoes sold till date.

Keexs has about 18 outlets in Nigeria with retail partners in Kenya, South Africa and Guadeloupe and Nairobi.

The company also sells through social media channels where they boast over 15,000 followers on Instagram. The long-term goal for Ipaye is to secure enough funding to set up a factory in Nigeria, which he is looking to raise through an amalgamation of funding sources including grants and loans.

“We realized very quickly that economies of scale is critical to drive the growth of this business therefore there is a need for a lot of capital. There are four sides to this chain; production, design, distribution and retail. The problem with a lot of businesses in Africa is that they are expected to do everything from start to finish along that entire value chain and what that does is, it stifles the growth of the business,” says Ipaye.

The big-time hit when CNN profiled Keexs on its African Voices show. Since then, they have managed to establish themselves as an innovative social brand focused on empowering unemployed youth in Nigeria. Next on the to-do list for Ipaye is establishing a production line in Nigeria, and then taking his brand global.

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