It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.
Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.
The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few.
A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.
The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”
His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.
In 1992, he did.
“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.
On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.
Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.
“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”
Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.
The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.
For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest.
“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.
From this exercise an important lesson was learned.
“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”
Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.
Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.
“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”
“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.
Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.
“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.
The rationale for diversification
What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.
Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”
The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.
“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”
The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.
“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”
‘Reputation very important’
But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.
Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.
Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.
Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.
Analogue to digital
Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.
Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz.
“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”
From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.
In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.
Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.
But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”
The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.
“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.
The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.
“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.
“When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”
Philanthropy, education and inclusion
It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.
The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.
In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.
The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:
“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”
It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.
“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.
In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.
The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.
His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.
Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.
His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.
“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.
“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.
Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.
“Ylias Akbaraly’s reputation precedes him,” says Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate and Former Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Goulet says the work Akbaraly does “has crossed oceans and France admires him. He knows how to share his knowledge and is a special kind of businessman”.
Goulet lauds Akbaraly’s altruistic approach to business, in particular his relationship to the youth and refers to him as “socially responsible and someone who loves his country very much”.
“He is someone who is open to the world. The personal touch he brings to his approach makes him unique. You can tell he loves his family, and society,” she says.
Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”
Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”
Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many. “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”
“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.
“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.
“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire
-With inputs from Unathi Shologu
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
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: 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.
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.
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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