Connect with us

Cover Story

How The Dis-Chem Founders Went From $1,000 To Over A Billion




“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb is the glue that binds the Saltzman family. It has ushered in fame, fortune and happiness for Lynette and Ivan Saltzman.

This husband and wife duo founded Dis-Chem, one of South Africa’s fastest growing pharmacies. It is a specialist in beauty, health food, sport supplements and health and wellbeing. The company reported an impressive R17.4 billion ($1.46 billion) turnover in its full financial year results for the year ending February 2017, giving it a R30.43 billion ($2.56 billion) market capitalization.

It is big money.

As we meet, it is a clear summer’s day in Greenside, Johannesburg. Clarity has played a big part of Lynette and Ivan’s life. On this day, they feel the warmth of success born of a strong family bond.

“You know Ivan used to stay upstairs when he first moved to Johannesburg to study,” says Lynette as the pair walk into the studio.

Inside, the fan moves sluggishly through the stifling air as the power couple sit for a rare interview.

“I had an inclination towards retail from early age and I’m happy we now employ 15,000 people,” says Ivan with utmost humility.

It is an empire built through passion and love. Four decades later, you can still see it in their eyes whenever they look at each other.

Lynette Saltzman (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

It all started in a pharmacy class in 1972.

“We were doing a science experiment and he lent me an eraser or something like that and that’s basically how we met. We started dating quite soon thereafter and we got engaged in our final year,” says Lynette.

Once married and working as pharmacists, Ivan says he was frustrated about how things were done at his workplace in Mondeor, south of Johannesburg. He had many ideas of how to make the business more profitable so he made an offer to buy out the owner.

It worked. Lynette left her job to join Ivan in the business. It was time to put their innovative ideas to test.

“We were just anxious to start putting all these new things that weren’t in the shop before. People started coming into this tiny neighborhood shop and they wanted to see what we had. We were always looking for new things, like putting earrings into the shop. The day we unpacked the earrings we had queues of people,” she says.

It marked a breakthrough. According to the Saltzmans, the shop started making profit almost immediately.

Growth was inevitable. Six years later, an opportunity to open another pharmacy in the northern suburbs knocked.

“A lot of people turned down the opportunity to open shops at the newly build centre in Randpark Ridge because of high rentals. We thought this is our opportunity, let’s take it and let’s make it work, which is exactly what we did,” says Ivan.

The answer was discounts on medicine. It was a case of volume over gross profit. It may have been an old theory but it worked. From there they improved their supply chain which gave them reasonable pricing, which they’ve kept to this day.

“We would go to other stores and check drug prices and then take our prices down. Our customers knew that we were always cheaper. We made sure we had plenty of stock and the concept of a discount pharmacy was born,” says Lynette.

“There was a time when we couldn’t advertise discounts, so the Dis-Chem could be dispensary chemist or discount chemist, but most people took it as a discount chemist,” says Ivan.

READ MORE: Bank On This Man

To keep expanding, they advertised the business on mass media and continued to innovate.

“When people needed medicine and came to our store, we could sell other things too. We were unique and our stores were always larger than any other pharmacy. And we had the variety in that space. We discounted heavily on medicines and we were competitive on the rest,” he says.

The discounts paid off. The second store expanded about four times within the mall; but not without challenges.

“It was unusual for a retail operation to have a wholesale operation at the same time, so that was a challenge to get wholesale prices,” says Ivan.

There were also unkind comments from people. In those days, most women stayed at home with the children. Lynette says she faced some negativity for being a working mom.

“I used to get comments from people, and a few of them that hurt at that time came from family members. I tried to juggle my time. In the earlier days, I used to try and get home in the afternoons, where I used to do homework or take kids to wherever they had to go to and work at night. Our marriage has come out stronger and our children are closer to us, we are more a family than some of the people that were making the comments about how I should spend my time with my family,” says Lynette.

Ivan Saltzman (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Although some couples may find working together a problem, the Saltzmans made it work.

“Sure you have disagreements, on how to do things and how not to do things, but a strong factor is that we do different things in the business and we were not in the same office. Ivan has the foresight on most things. He can see the possibilities into the future and once the idea grabs me, I can then take it into implementation,” she says.

Ivan says they always move together and Lynette is an innovator in her own right. For example, being the only woman in the family, she built the business’ cosmetics and beauty category.

Lynette says she found that in the early days, although she would have been in charge, people would want to go to Ivan when it was time to sign agreements.

“There is a time when we were in the pharmacy, and I was dispensing and one of the customers said to me, ‘just because you are married to a pharmacist doesn’t make you a pharmacist’. But now everybody accepts it,” she says.

“In the business side there are assumptions that I’m the boss, but we are both bosses,” says Ivan.

Teamwork has earned them 135 stores and 15,000 employees. It’s a remarkable story considering they started with one store and one employee. They will open 21 stores this year alone.

The company also has stores in Namibia and will be getting into Botswana this year.

“Namibia is different but [also] very similar to South Africa. The consumers are very similar, the supply chain is different, there are different laws and regulations, but it is very busy and competing very well with the South African stores,” says Ivan.

The Saltzmans currently own just over 50% of the group. Dis-Chem has become a major retailer of health products, with annual sales of more than R15 billion ($1.26 billion). In 2016 they listed the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Its shares opened at R18.50 ($1.50). At the time of going to press, Dis-Chem shares were R35.39 ($2.97).

READ MORE: How A Mouse Ate An Elephant

Being on the JSE may have posed some questions when it was found that other listed companies were cooking books.

“We are not worried about our own company, but it is just sad to see, that some companies have misrepresented their assets. I think it taints the country,” says Ivan.

Although they say they haven’t made major mistakes in the business, Ivan says they were, and still are, cautious. He wishes they had expanded faster and earlier. On the other hand, Lynette feels they grew as they were comfortable.

“We expanded as we felt we could cope. We could handle everything properly, do it properly and get it right. So it’s taking us a bit longer to get more stores; it’s a great business. I feel that we’ve done it the right way,” she says.

The business has had its share of struggles. Lynette remembers some bad days. One of them is an employee strike eight years ago. The striking crowd threw a gas cylinder into one of their shops in Pretoria. The second is when an electrical fault caused a raging inferno in their store in Roodepoort.

“That was absolutely terrible. The whole roof came down. The whole shop was destroyed and it took us a year before we could reopen the store,” says Lynette.

Ivan says those were disasters that happened when the business was strong. They were able to pick up business in surrounding stores.

With all this success, they don’t hesitate to offer advice to young people.

“The basic thing is that, whatever fields anybody wants to go into, they have to have a passion for it, they have to want to do it. If it’s just a job, it’s not going to succeed,” says Lynette.

One of Dis-Chem’s warehouses in South Africa (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Ivan says the next boom is artificial intelligence and information technology.

To ensure smooth processes, the company already makes use of technology. A few days after our meeting, we visited the Saltzmans at their head office in Midrand to see the technology at work.

As we walk up the stairs of the 40,000m2 building, many awards hang on the wall. We meet Saul Saltzman, one of Lynette and Ivan’s three sons who takes us on a tour.

The warehouse is semi-automated. Processes are still run by humans with the help of robotic technology.

“It will be impossible to run ourselves without some sort of robotics. I don’t believe that robots have replaced jobs, it has probably, in our case, created jobs because it enables us to do far bigger volumes and there are always people involved,” says Ivan.

READ MORE: The Reluctant Pharmacist

The group has three other warehouses around the country. Most of the business comes from Johannesburg, with Cape Town accounting for 25%.

“We have the ethical, beauty and retail departments and the warehouse doesn’t shut down. We work 24 hours a day and seven days a week and there are 2,500 employees in this warehouse. We are always busy and the technology we use helps us with efficiencies,” says Dis-Chem’s Logistics Manager, Brian Sher.

There are machines which wrap 500 pallets in plastic per day and some that help sort 4,000 boxes per hour.

“Because we deal with sensitive things like medicine, we always have pharmacists available and have controls in place to make sure things are done properly. For example, you can find medicines that need to be kept under certain conditions and we also use these technologies to track orders and progress within the warehouse,” says Saul.

Giving back also forms a big part of Dis-Chem’s DNA. In 2006, Lynette founded the Dis-Chem Foundation to help South Africa’s impoverished communities.

“We started a loyalty card program to give back to the customer and the community. We then started the foundation which works closely with registered NGOs who work with orphanages, rehab centers, abandoned babies and old age homes. We also have two mobile clinics in the Western Cape,” says Lynette.

Dis-Chem Foundation’s food garden in South Africa feeds 10,000 people a month (Photo supplied)

She also saw a need for nutrition and in 2013, the foundation decided to use two hectors of vacant land in front of their offices for farming. As we walk through the garden, we pass all types of vegetables, from onions to carrots to spinach. Lynette introduces us to farm manager Lebo Malinga.

“We have 13 farmers working here to make sure we feed 10,000 underprivileged people per month. Now we even have students interested in agriculture visiting us to learn. We even get students studying agriculture in college coming in to test the soil, look into irrigation systems and water catchments,” says Malinga.

As we leave the garden, the sun blazes down from a cloudless azure sky and the heat bounces off the streets creating a mirage of wavering images but Dis-Chem’s future cannot be clearer – brighter than ever.

How we made it:

  1. Convenience – We made sure to create a shop that offers many things so that it’s convenient for our customers. They can come into our store to get their make-up done or buy medicine or buy healthy food items.
  2. Hiring the right people – Our employees know who we are and we are not inaccessible to anybody. We are still very much a family business. I think our employees feel this loyalty. They see our passion and and they feel the passion and they go all out to help run stores. So having passionate, well-qualified and well-trained staff has helped us.
  3. More for less – Being a discount pharmacy helped because we were always affordable compared to our competitors.
  4. Passion – When you love what you do it becomes easy to grow the business. You have to love your job.

Continue Reading

Cover Story

Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa



Prev1 of 2
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

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.

Prev1 of 2
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

Continue Reading

Cover Story

Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died




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

Continue Reading

Cover Story

Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo





Prev1 of 2
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

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.

READ MORE : WATCH | The Making Of The New Wealth Creators Cover

 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.

READ MORE : Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

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.”

Prev1 of 2
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

Continue Reading