Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile, the sports car and designer clothes; behind it all is a sad story of depression.
On a windy winter’s afternoon, in Johannesburg, we arrive at the Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate, in Kempton Park – a place for the affluent. Five minutes later, a BMW sports car pulls up and a tall gentleman in a navy blue tailored suit steps out, his name – Chris Van Zyl. His game – building.
For one so young and seemingly successful it is a surprise when 30-year-old Van Zyl claims that failure is his best friend.
“I am so glad of the failures that happened to me. If I see failure, I say bring it on and it becomes part of my DNA,” says Van Zyl.
“Although I’m in the building industry, I’m not a builder, I’m a businessman.”
Van Zyl grew up in Sunward Park, in the east of Johannesburg, a middle-class suburb, where education is important; yet he doesn’t have a qualification beyond school.
“I never felt comfortable with the mind-set that to be successful you have to be educated. If you’re not the smartest, surround yourself with people who are going to help you grow.”
When Van Zyl matriculated, his father, a businessman in the transport industry, encouraged him to try his hand at golf. Here, he had to face his demons; frustration and confusion. Luckily, he found a niche in real estate.
Van Zyl then went to work at his brother-in-law’s auto-glass company. This gave him a taste for business.
“I didn’t like the job but I had to take anything that came my way and make the best of it… Talking to a stranger was unthinkable, so I was taken out of my comfort zone.”
“I would go an extra-mile for the customers, more like people pleasing. I would aid more for people but never felt I was succeeding,” he says.
From here, he volunteered as a driver at a construction building company to learn the trade.
“I love designing; it can be anything from fashion to cars and building. Because I wanted to learn about the building industry I asked my boss to just pay me for transport and airtime as long as I got to learn the ins and outs of the business,” he says.
In 2008, Van Zyl took a leap of faith, with a friend, and started the company Buildpro Construction and built 21 houses. In 2013, he bought out his partner.
It all seemed plain sailing; lurking around the corner was his worst day.
His business was thriving but his health was suffering; anxiety and depression were his lot.
“I was pumped as an entrepreneur because I was getting in a lot of business and everything looked up because if you have money in the bank all is fine, right?”
Deals piled up and the business grew. It meant long hours of work; three for sleep. The pressure was on and getting more intense.
“I was depressed, for weeks on end I could not sleep because of all the stressful situations I had to solve daily. I was in constant damage control and because I did not know how to delegate; nobody could lighten the load for me.”
“We had a last minute site meeting with one of my clients who said it was urgent to meet face to face; of course I knew something big was wrong. I remember driving past the site twice and not realizing I must pull over for the meeting.”
He eventually pulled over and found that his client was at the end of his tether. There had been too many failures, says Van Zyl.
“As we walked around the site he pointed out all the things that were incorrect and problems that I committed two weeks ago to fix but had not been touched.”
The client sued for damages.
During the meeting, Van Zyl says he could feel that something was wrong; his whole body became numb.
“I tried to tell my project manager next to me but was struggling to speak – he saw that something was wrong. I used all the power I had to apologize to the client to cut the meeting short and my project manager carried me to the car and took me to my house. I could not think clearly or breathe. It was time that my body told me that I can simply not carry on like this,” he says.
“I had to negotiate new time timelines, and deliverables and made sure that I stuck to them.”
It was going to get worse.
Van Zyl was overworked his brain started to shut down.
“When people spoke to me, most of the time I did not register what they were saying because I would think of all the overwhelming problems in my business I need to solve.”
Cash flow was also a problem.
“I remember it was early in the month and I did not even have enough money to pay my workers’ salaries. I was days late on salaries and thinking now that the client will sue me for damages.”
The thought of closing down his business made it worse.
“It was unthinkable for me because I had so many clients that entrusted me with their hard-earned money on the dream homes which I was supposed to finish for them. If I had to close, all of them would have suffered financially and emotionally and I could not allow that.”
The doctors advised him to take a break.
“They told me the usual things; that I was fatigued and experienced several panic attacks so I had to stay at home for about a month. I couldn’t leave my staff to run the business; the big problem was that none of them really knew what was expected from them, so they carried on with no goals, deadlines or correct budgets. Without me there was no company.”
He had a choice to make, either fight for his health or be an entrepreneur.
Van Zyl chose health and less work. It meant he had to cancel two deals worth R18 million ($1.26 million).
“We were about to sign deals but I couldn’t take them on and [the clients] were angry with me. I had no choice but to cancel, my capacity couldn’t handle it,” he says.
It was touch and go.
“I was not sure my business would make it at all,” he says.
It did. But tough times were not over for Van Zyl.
“I remember, we were building a suite and had to cement on top. We booked eight loads of trucks with concrete.”
“I paid for the loads and it was in the morning, I was exhausted and decided to take a nap. I couldn’t hear my phone ring, I was totally burned out and when the workers needed two more loads to complete the job, they were unable to get hold of me,” he says.
It almost cost him another deal. Years later, he has vowed to never give in to the pain.
He claims that his company is worth R24 million ($1.68 million). By the end of 2016, he plans to make R38 million ($2.66 million).
“I do not compare myself to anybody. I’m a learner and strive to be the best I can be.”
“Learn to say no. Do not over commit. If you say you gonna do something, make sure you are fully equipped.”
Three years after his worst day, Van Zyl is thriving and plans to start a private funding firm and luxury brands. Not even depression could keep him down. He is also about to get married. What else does he need?