Struggles, rejection, heartache, backstabbing and an empty bank account – Lebo Gunguluza endured it all and never gave up.
He claims his net worth is more than R300 million ($19.5 million).
We meet Gunguluza at a barbershop in Sandton City, a plush mall in Johannesburg – a world away from where he was born, in a shack behind a funeral parlour in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape. He had a tough upbringing.
When Gunguluza was six, his father died leaving his mother to provide for three children.
“I grew up with an uneasy upbringing. There’s one thing that my mother pushed for us, in all the difficult times in our lives, she pushed for us to be educated, even today she continues to teach us certain values; respect, love and gratitude,” says Gunguluza, the Founder and Group Chairman of the Gunguluza Enterprises & Media (GEM) Group.
In those lean days he had plans to make his first million at the age of 25, at 35 he wanted to be a multi-millionaire and at 45 a billionaire.
“I grew up so impoverished, admiring and envying other people who had better things than me. I set those financial goals because I wanted to put myself under pressure so that I don’t waste my time on things that will not take me to those goals.”
Gunguluza matriculated in 1989 and studied for a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In his final year, he began his business career by selling accounts for a clothing store on campus, for commission.
Within a month, he was hired as the store’s trainee manager. It meant he had to make up for missed lectures.
Soon after completing his degree, Gunguluza was hired as a sales executive for South Africa’s public broadcaster, the SABC. A year after, at the age of 25, he was promoted to marketing manager of the broadcaster’s radio station Metro FM.
He left the broadcaster to join advertising mavericks Herdbuoys. Here, he decided to start his own business.
“At 26, I realized that I haven’t reached my goal of being a millionaire so I decided to change my strategy. I did what I did but at a higher level. I approached one of the new radio stations and proposed to activate them, that’s how I got to make my first million at 27.”
“Success is not a destination, it’s a journey. Every milestone or obstacle you encounter you have an option to learn from it. I always say to people I have failed so many times I feel like failure is tired of me,” he says.
Gunguluza has had his fair share of ups and downs.
“I was making so much money, I bought my office cash. I then started employing people the wrong way, instead of employing people who are competent. Every girl who was pretty that came looking for a job, I would hire them. My office was not filled by competent people; it was full of pretty people. For me, if you were a sexy girl with a short skirt, you would be employed. And that was my downfall,” Gunguluza says.
At the end of 2008, he was embroiled in a messy divorce with his wife of eight years. He lost everything; his cars and their restaurant.
Because of his financial immaturity and no mentor, within a year of making his first million, Gunguluza found himself running out of cash.
“I never knew how to run a business. I never knew how to manage people. I never knew how to set systems and structures at a company and I never had a mentor. I had to sell one of the cars and ended up squatting at my cousin’s place.”
He then went to read about how businessmen acquire their successes and did some soul searching. Three months later, he learned a powerful lesson.
“Whatever business that you are going into you must know it in and out,” says Gunguluza.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘how come I couldn’t build a company whereas people like Richard Branson and Donald Trump had built successful businesses?’ So I thought to myself that it can only be what’s in my mind.”
Once he had found his seat on the rollercoaster of business, he founded the GEM Group – an integrated media and hospitality group, which boasts 12 print publications, stakes in numerous hotels and a car hire business.
“I decided that I’m going to build one entity that can generate enough cash flow, and then use it to acquire stakes in already existing companies. I didn’t want to start a company from scratch because I learned the hard way.”
The 46-year-old, from humble beginnings, is a turnaround strategist, business speaker and mentor to young entrepreneurs.
What is clear is that whatever he has, he has struggled. “In business you will never go anywhere without good contacts. The most important thing is to remain with the person that you are working with because there is a lot that you are going to go through together. There are lots of disagreements, misconceptions, and backstabbing, you have to go through all those things in order for you to mature into a great entrepreneur.”
He spends his time mentoring up-and-coming entrepreneurs through his Izani 12-12-12 Enterprise. Through this initiative, he earned himself a spot as one of the judges in the Dragons’ Den television show – where young entrepreneurs have the chance of getting funds and mentorship.
In the next five years, he plans to go into the software development business and to meet his goal of making his first billion. He also wants to travel the world.
After poverty, a messy divorce and business failures, Gunguluza has suffered on the road to success. He is proof that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.