Fate thought it had struck a crippling blow to the Ndlovu family enterprise, Fikile Construction, when its visionary, Amos Ndlovu, passed away in 2007. He had powered the company to multimillion-dollar success in the South African building and civil engineering construction industry in just over 15 years.
But with his 26-year-old daughter taking over the helm as executive director, the company’s turnover more than doubled in three years. Hlamalani Ndlovu has propelled 100% black-owned Fikile Construction to phenomenal success, with a turnover of R153 million ($19 million) in 2010/11.
Ndlovu, now 30 years old, is vivacious and eloquent, yet also perceptive and focused. “It has not been easy. I was constantly overwhelmed for three years,” she says.
“The benefit of being naïve about leadership is that you think everything is easy and you don’t know how hard ‘hard’ can be until it confronts you. But it was important for me to succeed. I had to do it for my father’s good name, the level of respect he enjoyed in the industry, for my mother and three siblings, and the staff members of Fikile Construction. I give credit also to the management team of the company,” she adds.
A lesson she appreciates is that construction is not a get-rich-quick scheme. “If you want to do it, you have to do it properly, otherwise you could lose a lot of money,” Ndlovu explains.
To joint credit with her father, Fikile Construction has successfully executed, either independently or in partnerships, formidable projects such as the building and construction of phase two of the head office of international cellular giant MTN; the Cradle of Humankind; O.R. Tambo International Airport; the national head office of the South African Department of Education and Training and renovations to the Johannesburg Central Library.
The company is divided into five sections: building construction, civil construction, property development, housing and public-private partnerships (PPPs).
A healthy order book shielded Fikile Construction from the effects of the economic meltdown in 2008. In that year, they began building 3,000 RDP houses (basic quality subsidy housing) in the North West province of South Africa. They also started construction on the national head offices of the Department of Education and Training.
However, most companies were exercising caution in the two years following the economic downturn by deferring spending, which resulted in some retrenchments at Fikile Construction in 2011. The company had to let go of 13 of their 50 full-time employees.
Ndlovu is optimistic about the current financial year, saying: “We have increased our network. Our order book also looks good. It currently stands at R70 million ($8.7 million). We are hoping to push to R300 million ($37.4 million) by the end of the year.”
Another reason for her optimism is that she recently appointed four directors onto her team of seven executives. All of the new appointees have experience working for listed construction companies.
“Our strategy moving forward is to focus on resources, to ensure that we target clients who know how we are spending, and to get involved in more PPPs to ensure we are not dependent mainly on tenders,” she says.
Ndlovu believes Fikile Construction should get a stake in the South African government’s infrastructural development plan.
“Fikile Construction has an established track record as a company that delivers. We are also in line, in terms of government targets. The company is headed by a woman and we employ 80% young people. We are not threatened by big construction companies. No one company can do everything in this industry. There has to be a role and space provided to black companies. The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time. At Fikile Construction, we rely on our good name, the excellent quality of the product we deliver, our cost effectiveness and the good relationships we have established in the industry.”
Ndlovu received her commerce degree at the University of Pretoria, majoring in entrepreneurship.
“I have always known I would be in business. An experience in grade 10, selling snacks at break for a class project, had a lasting impression on me. I never went home with stock.
“A truck manufacturing company was interested in an idea I presented for an assignment I did during my second year at university. I did not follow it up then, due to a lack of confidence and childish playfulness. I was adamant, though, that I wouldn’t go into my father’s business.
“But when I finished my degree, I still wasn’t ready to roll out the business plan I had proposed to the truck company. I decided to give the family business a go.”
Ndlovu is the second of four siblings. She insists she was not forced into the decision to join Fikile Construction and knew she could walk away from it if she wanted.
“My father’s words when I told him about my decision to join him were: ‘I am happy to have you work for me, but please understand, I have always done this on my own. I don’t need you.” she says.
“On my first day at work, he plainly told me he was very busy and wouldn’t have time to hold my hand. I knew then that I was officially in the deep end,” she says.
Determined she would not suffer the “boss’s daughter syndrome”, Ndlovu decided to investigate Fikile Construction’s options in property development.
“I had a lot to prove in a field I knew nothing about. A lot of the projects did not come off the ground. There were hits and misses. But I was determined to keep at it until it worked out,” she says
With time, she has become more involved in PPPs, acting as director on some of the boards.
Her record proves she has earned her position. Hlamalani Ndlovu is making her mark in the South African economy and beyond.