His daughter’s relationship with her boyfriend spurred Charl du Toit to build a forest in South Africa’s capital city of Pretoria. But, the road to this dream was a long one.
After finishing high school, Du Toit didn’t know what to study, so his father told him to find a job. At the time he was living in Zimbabwe, which was still Rhodesia then.
“The very first interview I ever went for… I still remember the newspaper ad saying they were looking for a very young, energetic, honest, reliable, young man. And I responded, writing the exact words to them,” says Du Toit.
He went for the interview without even knowing what post he had applied for or what the company was about. It turned out to be a pest control business.
“It’s the only interview I’ve ever been to in my entire life. And then six months later I found out that the only reason I got the job was because I was the only applicant. So that sort of brought me down to earth a little. I accepted I wasn’t as bright as I thought,” he says.
He spent around 10 years at this company, working his way up. He started as a pest control operator, moved to sales, then to management until he finally became the CEO.
“When I started out as a pest controller, my friends used to laugh at me. They used to call me ‘bug man’ and all of that. A couple of them even tried to work for the company, but they didn’t last. I was very fortunate, in hindsight, because this particular company had a history of about 40 years before I joined,” he says.
In January, 1980, Rhodesia was in the grips of war. It was then that Du Toit slipped through the border into South Africa and started his own pest control company, which grew quickly. Within 10 years, Pest Control Specialists had 13 branches and this was when he decided to franchise the business.
He realized that he would need a head office for the franchise business, as he was no longer a pest control specialist but a franchisee. So he bought a piece of land in Highveld Techno Park, outside of Pretoria.
“I got an architect to design a building and went out to tender and when I looked at the prices I told myself, ‘I can do this, I’m not stupid’. I had built the odd house before. So I decided to build it myself. The building was 700 square meters. It took me a year to build and when I finished it, I moved my offices in and I thought to myself, this could be a nice hobby.”
With 20 years in the pest control business and 36 franchisees, Du Toit decided to sell the business to focus on his new hobby—constructing and building offices. He bought the building next door to the one he had built, and built another structure, but this time, slightly bigger at 900 square meters.
A year later, he started to duplicate these two buildings and creating office parks, constructing around 16 more structures in two years.
Today, this office park has around 32 buildings over roughly 5.5 hectares. When construction is done, the portfolio should cover 75,000 square meters.
“It was more or less at that time I realized I needed to make a change because the hobby had now become bigger than my business,” he says.
In between all this, Du Toit saw another business opportunity. His daughter began dating a young man named Barry, who was living with his parents and had studied agriculture. He had some chickens, was trying to farm and was also growing trees.
“When I saw that he and my daughter were becoming serious, I sat him down and said, ‘listen my boy, you are going to have to do something else because this girl, for you to keep her, it’s expensive.’ So I said to him, ‘look, why don’t we do a joint venture? And I’ll help you support my daughter.’”
They decided they would grow indigenous trees in 100-liter containers which would take around five years, without any profit, just expenses, to grow them. Seven years later, there are about 500,000 trees on the farm.
“Our challenge was twofold; the first was to learn how to grow trees. The second challenge was to learn how to sell trees. Those were two different skills,” he says.
The 100-liter tree was quite difficult to handle because it was heavy and there was a bigger market for smaller sizes. Today, Willow Feather supplies trees to municipalities, mines, new developments and the public.
Seeing that the business of selling trees was becoming a success, Du Toit started a new initiative called ‘Save our planet, plant a tree’. This campaign was an undertaking that would sponsor, or give as a gift, 150,000 trees to Pretoria residents over five years.
“I’ll never forget, when I made that statement it sounded quite cool. Those are two nice numbers. I took out my calculator and I realized it worked out to 2,500 trees a month,” he says.
“I’m telling you now that it’s going to take me more than five years. We are standing at about 24,000 trees.”
Even though the dream will take him longer than he had planned, Du Toit is not giving up that easily.
The serial entrepreneur is well on his way to building a forest in the city. To help realize his dream, he works with schools around Pretoria to assist in making his vision a reality. And this is his latest way of making his millions, through building a forest with the help of Barry.
And as for his daughter being expensive?
“She married Barry and I have three grandchildren. So, it was a good investment.”