It was a hard place to start. It was the worst night of his life. Sello Senyatsi is from Katlehong in the east of Johannesburg. One night, back when he was in his early twenties, in the Limpopo province, in the north of South Africa, all Senyatsi had on his mind was revenge. In his hand was a gun. He found it in a car that was involved in an accident.
With this gun he wanted to get back the money he believed was owed to his father. He drank far too much and marched to the petrol station of the man he believed to be his debtor.
“I can’t say what my purpose was then. I don’t know if I wanted to shoot him or if I wanted the money. As I entered [the petrol station premises], I fired one shot. On the second shot, the gun jammed. There were about six guys in there who got up and beat me up. He burnt my leg with a cutting torch then his police friends came and arrested me,” says Senyatsi.
Not your everyday beginning for an entrepreneur.
With a criminal record and a stint behind bars hanging over his head, Senyatsi was determined to turn his life around and to start a successful business. His cellmates would probably never believe it but Senyatsi is doing just that through Sello’s Gutters and Fianco, a shop selling bespoke shoes.
We meet at the swanky 54 on Bath hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Senyatsi is dressed in luxury Italian clothing—Angelo Galasso faded blue jeans and the brand’s royal blue blazer. The designer shoes he’s wearing are a far cry from the sneakers he used to wear at varsity. Those had added cushioning because they were two sizes too big. He’s had a taste for the finer things in life from a young age and has honed that affection to this day. Growing up in South Africa’s East Rand drove him to stand out from his peers.
It was during his second year studying law at Turfloop University, in the Limpopo province, that Senyatsi’s trouble started.
His father lent a friend around R10,000 ($930) to buy petrol for his filling station, which the friend promised to pay back. The money was supposed to pay for his son’s university expenses. The mistake that Senyatsi’s father made was that he never formalized the agreement. The day before his father was going to collect the money, he died and it was left to his son to collect what was owed.
Broke and sullen, Senyatsi sold anything he could lay his hands on to eke out a living and continue with his studies.
A week later, while driving back from his father’s funeral, Senyatsi came across a car accident and stopped to help. He opened the glove box and found a gun and a wallet, both of which he took.
This was the gun he used at the petrol station, the gun that had him arrested and charged with robbery with aggravating circumstances in 1990.
“My trial didn’t even take long. I pleaded guilty. I remember when I was sentenced and they said 12 years and six months, I somehow heard 12 weeks or something else, but not 12 years… I think it took me the whole day to realize how many years I was going to serve,” he says.
Before he even made it to his cell, another convict who saw that he was very young gave Senyatsi the 411 on what went on behind bars.
“I was told that everybody knew I was coming already and that I’d be turned into a woman,” he says.
This was all because of a home-made tattoo he had got four years earlier. It meant that he belonged to a certain group and if he got into trouble, that certain gang would protect him. It also meant that he would be prey to another gang. Senyatsi removes his gold trimmed, blue strapped watch and reveals the smudged tattoo.
His first three days without food were tough. He survived on toilet paper and toothpaste. But after that things became easier, practising and abiding by the advice of the fellow convict. Along the way, he even survived a stabbing.
Following the end of apartheid, the government started to integrate the black and white prisons and this is where Senyatsi learnt to make guttering systems.
“Those prisons were well equipped; motor mechanics, carpentry, by then I mean any machinery was there. For the blacks it was just working in the fields and peeling potatoes. And that’s how they [white people] survived, learning a lot. And that’s when I learnt sheet metalwork,” he says.
He learnt all that he could and after six years in prison, he was released on parole for good behavior.
In 1998, Senyatsi started running Sello’s Gutters, a firm specializing in manufacturing stainless steel gutters. The business came by chance. His sister had placed an order for gutters, but had to wait six months before they could be delivered. Using the skills he had gained while in jail, he tried his hand at making the gutters himself, using his employer’s machines in his spare time.
His employer, a catering equipment manufacturer, was impressed by Senyatsi’s craftsmanship and told him the business should rather concentrate on gutters. During the week, he worked at the manufacturing warehouse, while on weekends he made and installed the gutters alone. Within six months, Senyatsi left the company and it subsequently closed down. His former employer then gave the machines to Senyatsi and he began making gutters at home.
He started selling and installing the gutters in Kathlehong and the nearby Daveyton township. He even gave them a different look which made them unique.
At first, he was making five gutters a month and within three months business was booming. He was getting clients through word of mouth. He even took out a loan against his house to buy new machines that would help him making these stainless steel gutters.
What made his business successful was his persistence. He even showed this quality when he gave up the gutter business. He started selling the gutters on credit and was making a loss. Having to knock on clients’ doors who delayed payment reminded him of why he went to prison.
“I had bought a car and went to Pretoria to visit my friend in another township. And my business fell away. Then I moved to Pretoria to start selling chicken,” says Senyatsi.
By the time this business had also shut up shop, he had saved a lot of money and returned to his gutter business in 2001.
“I told myself that I will not sell anything on credit anymore. Until today I do not do that,” he says.
“This [stainless steel gutters] is an innovation made from the township. I didn’t copy it from the internet or anywhere else. It’s a concept, it’s my design. I even came up with the idea of doing the gutters in stainless steel. Even my supplier would tell you that he started off by telling me that ‘Sello you’re mad, no one will buy stainless steel gutters’… Now you are talking about a project that has created a massive demand,” he says.
His business has grown from buying one ton of steel, that lasted a year, to 40 tons.
Today, Sello’s Gutters employs around 160 installers and hopes to establish a franchise with some of its current employees.
“I love seeing people grow. Money doesn’t make me as happy as empowering someone,” says Senyatsi.
The entrepreneur saw an opportunity which now generates a turnover of R20 million ($1.86 million). Houses in townships like Soweto, Daveyton and Katlehong are quickly catching on to stainless steel gutters.
“We are moving to a point where we want to be a giant for the guttering system,” he says.
While building his business, his love for fashion never faded. As someone who grew up traveling from the north of South Africa to as far as the east coast in Durban to buy or check out the latest trends, Senyatsi is a fashion head who has never liked to dress like the person next door. This passion filtered down to his two sons who died in a car accident in March last year, about three weeks before they were to open Fianco, a shoe boutique store selling some of the most exclusive Italian shoe brands in South Africa.
“I found strength… it was the hardest thing any human can face. My one son was 18 years old and the other was 21. It devastated me when we had to open it [Fianco]. We spent around R1.3 million ($120,000) on putting this shop together,” Senyatsi says.
The 46-year-old father decided to go ahead with his sons’ idea, which he says is becoming a success despite its location in a quiet street in the Limpopo province. It is inspired by the luxury shoe shops of Milan. Asked why his shop is not in the country’s economic hub, Johannesburg, Senyatsi says there are issues with rights.
“There are people who own those brands in Johannesburg. I’m not allowed to sell there,” he says.
Three months after his sons died, Senaytsi went on a holiday to Italy’s fashion capital, Milan, where he visited a shoe shop where the cheapest shoe was $5,500. On this particular day, he was lucky to have met a taxi driver who drove him to a custom hand-made shoemaker, Silvano Lattanzi.
After meeting its owner, the Fianco boutique is the only store on the continent that sells the Silvano Lattanzi shoe brand. The owner even made Senyatsi and his wife a pair of shoes and boots respectively, with their sons’ names engraved on the sole. Silvano Lattanzi shoes are handmade and comprise a business that has preserved the Italian way of making shoes which could cost around $30,000 with a 20-year guarantee.
“The market is there, we don’t disclose our customers. But I’m meeting serious people through this brand. And that is how I link it to the gutters. I’m able to speak about my gutter business with these serious people.”
These serious people probably don’t believe how a former convict is making his fortune through gutters and shoes.