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How A Mouse Ate An Elephant

It was a huge risk when a small company, with makeshift offices in the coastal city of Durban in South Africa, took over a pharmaceutical giant. It wasn’t easy but it helped Michael ‘Gus’ Attridge earn a $525 million fortune.

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Nestled on a ridge overlooking the sea to the left and Durban’s beachfront to the right, with Moses Mabhida Stadium on the horizon, is the view from the balcony of a multimillionaire. Michael Attridge is one of the guiding spirits of one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

His stride is that of a man who knows where he is going in life. The handshake is firm but welcoming and his warm smile reassures you that Durban may be hot, humid and sticky but it’s a fun place to live.

Attridge, who’s been called Gus since his school days, is a charted accountant by training and the deputy group chief executive of Aspen Pharmacare, a R125-billion ($11.8 billion) company as of the beginning of April according to Reuters, listed on Africa’s biggest bourse, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. If you bought $10,000 worth of shares, valued at R2,36 in 1998, what would it be worth now?

Attridge is one of four founding shareholders who built this business in their backyard in Durban.

It all began in an old Victorian house, converted into offices, near Greyville racecourse in 1997.

“It was in a rather less fashionable part of Durban, at that time this was sugar cane,” says Attridge, referring to their current offices in La Lucia.

Attridge made his debut on FORBES’ list of Africa’s richest in 2013, coming in at number 37, with an estimated net worth of $525 million. A listing he says he didn’t know about and would rather be without.

The debut was down to Aspen’s stock shooting up nearly 75% in 2012/2013 thanks to its booming business in Asia and Australia, says chief executive, Stephen Saad. Attridge is the second biggest individual shareholder, owning a 4% slice, with co-founder, Saad, who is also on the FORBES list with a net worth of $1.5 billion.

How two friends from Durban came to be worth $2 billion is an African story worth telling.

In 1981, Attridge completed a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Natal [now University of KwaZulu-Natal] in Durban. He added a diploma in accounting, a year later, followed by another in datametrics before his training with Coopers & Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers. This is where he met Saad. They worked together on assignments; Attridge was Saad’s senior, who was to climb the ladder at Coopers & Lybrand to become a manager in the corporate finance division in London.

“I’d always set my objectives on becoming a partner in one of the firms. That was kind of my pinnacle as a trainee in the accounting profession,” says Attridge.

Just before the end of apartheid, he returned to South Africa to establish a corporate finance division in the Durban office of Coopers & Lybrand.

During that time, Saad left the company, leaving Attridge behind, suffering from the entrepreneurial itch. But Saad returned. Not to the company, but to Attridge, whom he approached with a lucrative business idea.

“The day he [Saad] could first get out of there, he got out of there. I initially had some career ambition there. But I quickly realized that selling time was not very entrepreneurial and it was difficult to get rewarded effectively for your efforts when you were selling time because it did not measure what value you added to things. I was eager to find an opportunity in business,” says Attridge.

Saad and Attridge put their heads and money together.

“And that’s where my business partnership with Saad began, probably 20 odd years ago,” says Attridge.

He left his job at Coopers & Lybrand in 1994, the year South Africa held its first democratic elections. Their first venture was to buy Varsity College, a struggling private tertiary institution, for R1.5 million ($142,000) and to apply a fresh idea.

“We embarked on quite a differentiated, let’s call it, advertising campaign where essentially we guaranteed students who attended all their lectures and did all their assignments that we would give them their tuition fees free the next year if they failed under those circumstances.”

“It was all built around adverts that went into the press which were around the F-word. It was F***, being fail, but it provoked some reaction generally as well because it was a bit provocative I suppose,” he says.

Few students fell foul of the F-word.

“In a student’s DNA, to go to all lectures is foreign. But really, with that diligence required to attend all lectures and to submit all your assignments and so on, you will pass. Unless you chose a course incompatible with your skills set,” Attridge says.

He and Saad also bought a private primary and secondary institution, Crawford College, one of which is opposite their head offices in this suburb of La Lucia in Durban. It worked. The partners turned the losses of Varsity College and sold it in 1996 for R10 million ($948,000).

This paved the way for another adventure.

“We’re not people with 10-year plans. We don’t even have a three-year plan. It’s a good thing we haven’t because we would have never stuck with any of those plans because we move too quickly, things change quickly,” says Attridge.

Three years into the pharmaceuticals business, Aspen took a big risk. It was a highly leveraged hostile takeover of South Africa’s oldest pharmaceutical business, South African Druggist (SAD), for R2.4 billion ($227.5 million).

“That changed our business forever and changed our business model,” says Attridge.

SAD worked in a number of areas, including the development, production and marketing of pharmaceuticals, within South Africa.

Aspen’s initial business plan was to avoid manufacturing. Its plan was to be a small business selling good margin products to build its name.

The takeover wasn’t going to be easy.

At the time, Fedsure owned 34.9% of SAD, but its attempt to buy the remainder of the company and then sell Pharmacare to Adcock Ingram was opposed by the South African Competition Board. Pharmacare was the main pharmaceutical unit of SAD.

“I remember I was driving from work and I was listening to a business program and I heard this deal had been cancelled or disallowed. I walked in the house, picked up the phone to Steve and I said, ‘you know a lot more about the history of SAD, you know their products well but I’ve just heard that this is cancelled, this deal is not going ahead,’” recalls Attridge.

It got even more complicated.

There were other companies involved in the acquisition. A business called Macmed Health Care initially did the running to buy SAD. They specialized in medical devises rather than pharmaceuticals. They had an agreement with Aspen to divide up SAD in a way that would allow other players, who wanted other parts, to enter into a consortium.

“We had to put up guarantees. It was a hostile arrangement. Management at SAD had their own ideas about acquiring the business for their own benefit. So there were a whole lot of different issues going down. We weren’t allowed to do due diligence,” says Attridge.

Luckily for them, SAD was a public company and Saad had a good knowledge of the product. Financing the deal was a problem but they were helped by property entrepreneur Jonathan Beare, who relished backing small businesses like Aspen. Beare introduced Attridge and Saad to Investec’s chief executive, Stephen Koseff. The two businessmen put up money and Aspen led the deal.

“We didn’t think we were going to buy the whole pharmaceutical business. I don’t know whether its fate or what, but we got it.”

With the deal done, the business grew to a $11.8-billion global corporation with Saad as the chief executive and Attridge the deputy.

The irony of this story was that Aspen were the new kids on the block but survived and prospered. Within 18 months of the transaction, Macmed went bust, about three years later, Fedsure followed.

“So we were the only ones from that consortium that survived and we were the small kids on the block. Those kind of things were instrumental in some of our thinking we try and impart on our staff. We now have a lot of management teams trying to impart on our people that you can never be complacent because you could be succeeding today, because both Fedsure and Macmed were highly rated at the time,” says Attridge.

“You should never be arrogant about your success, because success can be fleeting. You never know how the wheel is going to turn and who’s actually going to need who in the future. I do hope that our people [Aspen staff] understand that. When you’ve lived through and seen what happened to the management team with those businesses and so on, it’s actually very insightful because they all thought they were bulletproof.”

However, a business with a staff of 200 taking over a firm of around 3,000 was no mean feat. One newspaper called it a mouse trying to eat an elephant.

This little company had to get the buy-in from the staff at SAD. They had a small management team that was now going to manage SAD. It all played out at their old Victorian house turned into an office.

“The company which we still own today, Pharmacare Limited, was a company within the SAD label that housed the pharmaceutical business and we invited the chief executive of that business, Kobus Nel, to come to Durban and to meet us and talk about our plans and strategies and get to know him a little better. I think he took one look at that house and the day after he handed in his resignation,” laughs Attridge.

“I think he thought no, look at me sitting in this office park with a view of Johannesburg with a golf course and these guys are sitting here looking into the backyard of someone with a washing line.”

Today, Aspen supplies medicine to more than 150 countries, manufactured in 16 sites in: Kenya; Tanzania; Australia; Mexico; Brazil; Germany; South Africa; the Netherlands and the United States (US), with a French-based site becoming effective in May. It is the largest manufacturer of generic medicines in the southern hemisphere. Aspen is the first company on the continent to launch a generic anti-retroviral for the treatment of HIV and AIDS patients, thus becoming the largest supplier.

On the continent, Aspen has long-term plans for sub-Saharan Africa. Their challenge lies in its fragmented countries but they’re working on it.

“It’s not a big part of our business today but I think the investment in those difficult markets will pay back in time,” says Attridge.

In East Africa, Aspen bought 60% of Shelys, which has businesses in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. He says they hope to move away from the tender business into more of a business focused on brands.

They’ve also consolidated some of the manufacturing in East Africa, supported by the South African business, which Attridge hopes will help it to have its best year this year.

The business opened Aspen Nigeria last year. This is a collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a British multinational pharmaceutical company, where they share products and everything else, which has resulted in a strong business in Nigeria that is exceeding expectations.

“We’ve managed to get better market penetration than we thought we’d be able to, early on. It’s very small; it’s not going to influence anyone’s thinking on Aspen today. Everything has to start small. We know that very well at Aspen because we started small,” he says.

And that is how their Australian business grew. They started out with just two employees, but today it is one of their biggest revenue streams. Aspen aims to perform ahead of the market in Australia.

“We’re one of the top players in Australia now. The Australian business is getting to a certain stage of maturity. And the Australian market is challenging at the moment. It has had a series of price cuts which has taken a lot of profits off the table,” says Attridge.

Aspen has an agreement with Nestle that is helping the business ease into Australia. They plan to cut costs of goods through migrating product manufacturers from Australia back to South Africa and Asia.

“There is a big consolidation of manufacturing already well progressed and it continues well into Australia. When we bought the Sigma Pharmaceuticals unit, it had five manufacturing facilities and our target is to end up with one. We’ve got three at the moment,” he adds.

Aspen is Australia’s eighth largest pharmaceutical company by scripts generated. Following its October acquisition of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing sites in the Netherlands and the US.

Aspen is ranked the ninth largest generic pharmaceutical producer out of 60 generic companies in the world by EvaluatePharma in 2013. It employs around 8,200 people.

But their success comes with problems they have no control over. The beginning of the year saw South Africa’s currency weakening steadily against the dollar, straining Aspen’s South African business.

But because Aspen has become diversified, its money comes in different currencies.

“The rand denomination results have a lot of protection against the weakness of the rand as a group,” says Attridge.

In January, Aspen Global, a subsidiary of Aspen Holdings, acquired the brands and business worldwide of Arixtra and FRaxiparine/Fraxodi, except in China, Pakistan and India, from GSK. As of May, Aspen Holdings will have acquired a specialized sterile production site that manufacturers the brands in France, a total consideration for the acquisition made through its subsidiary at an estimated R9.79 billion ($929 million).

Aspen has an expanding presence in Latin America and South East Asia. Their expansion plans will stretch as far as Russia and the former Soviet Republic, as well as to Central and Eastern Europe.

Attridge attests that though it’s going well, they’ve had some tricky times when they started out in Latin America. Their aim is to create a business model structured for success, similar to Varsity College’s plan.

“Varsity College was about getting an overhead base and would be covered by the revenues and we take the same approach in every business that we look at, that we have to make sure it’s a business model that’s sustainable,” he says.

They changed the business from one that relied on tenders to one based on brand equity.

“We restructured the business and got rid of some of the manufacturing which was not core to what we wanted to do… We’ve had a lot of challenges with management in Latin America. But in Brazil, we got that right a couple of years ago. It’s really doing well. It’s got a good foundation there.”

Brazil has been Aspen’s biggest part of the business in Latin America but the Spanish region of Latin America will soon overtake Brazil.

Spanish Latin America is a region where Aspen has struggled because they only had operations in Mexico and Venezuela. However, in the last 12 months or so, Aspen made a transaction with Nestle to acquire the infant milk business they bought from Pfizer; increasing their product portfolio offering. This has helped Aspen make inroads into Columbia, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Costa Rica.

Attridge hopes that the Latin American business will be as big as South Africa’s in the near future. Before that happens, they need to decrease debt from the latest acquisitions in Latin America.

This will be done through their cash flow from the business. Attridge says they’d rather use debt to build their business.

“We don’t see having money in the bank as a productive use of funds. If you’ve got money in the bank, you better have a very good investment plan and or you should give it to your shareholders. You shouldn’t be sitting with it in a government bank account,” says Attridge.

He believes the business model must produce a good return of cash. Aspen has also avoided giving equity as it is the most expensive way of raising funds.

“We’ve developed that model in all our businesses, so the profits from our business flow through to the business and to cash very efficiently. And most years our cash flow per share have exceeded our earnings per share before investments. But that’s a very important fundamental.”

Aspen made its way into Russia in January, with around 80 employees on the ground, promoting products acquired from GSK and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) SA.

“One of the philosophies we have is that the more challenging the market, the greater the opportunities that may exist. So Russia has been on our radar for some time as a potential investment area, a market with good growth fundamentals and evolving health sector. But it’s not the easiest market to operate in. If you can succeed in difficult markets, then you can succeed in any market and sometimes in the difficult markets you don’t actually have as much competition as you do in markets where it’s easy to operate in. People are scared of the circumstances,” says Attridge.

In Russia, Aspen will compete with a lot of local businesses who will defend their space and territory from the South African company. Attridge says Aspen is competing with a lot of products not as regulated as theirs.

“It’s not unique to Russia, but being able to access the distribution networks into the pharmacies is critical, so establishing and building on the relationships with the people (wholesalers) who are taking the products… they dictate a lot of what can be achieved. You can’t reach Russia on your own,” says Attridge.

But he says these are challenges they’re willing to take head on. He believes good leadership in other regions is one of the factors to their success of running Aspen from their modest offices in Durban.

“You’ve got to have the right people leading your businesses. We stumbled on that initially in America. We didn’t have the right leadership in place there. We inherited some that weren’t aligned with what we were trying to achieve.”

Besides challenges, the group hopes to enter into the two biggest markets by population, China and the United States (US), as well as making an entry into the Japanese market.

“That’s not to say we are going to rush in tomorrow. We now have a small portfolio in the US and one or two products in China.”

A family man, this father of two doesn’t take work home. He says with all the traveling, he makes sure that when he is home he spends it with his two sons and his wife. This 53-year-old, who celebrates his birthday this month, is a former rugby player, who played for the Kwa-Zulu Natal provincial under-20 team in 1981. He is also a cyclist, like his partner Saad, having taken part in the Argus and Amashova races.

He’s also an accountant who’s not afraid to take risks and this has made him rich.

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Cover Story

Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.


On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.

Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.

Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.  

This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.

In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.

And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.

Nonkululeko Gobodo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing

 As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.

Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.

Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”

As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.

“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”  

Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.

“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.

It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.

“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”

Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.

While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.

The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).

“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.

She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).

Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on. 

“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”

Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.

In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.

Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.

“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.

She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”. 

So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.

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 At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”

The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”

She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.

“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”

Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.

“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.

This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.

“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.

“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”

She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.

She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.” 

Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.

Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.

The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.

She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.

From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.

Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.

The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.

She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.

Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?

There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together.  A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left. 

In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.

Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff. 

“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”

When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.

Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.

“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”

 She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.

“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”

Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.

“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”

Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.

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Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’

What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?

“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.

“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.

“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.

“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”

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