He appears to be soft-hearted behind his infectious smile, but this is a steely franchise mogul who has survived being stripped of all his assets.
On a gloomy day, as gloomy as his worst day, we arrive in Mamelodi, Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, to meet Itumeleng Mpatlanyana.
At the corner of Shabangu and Maake Street in Mamelodi West, is a shisa nyama (township braai restaurant) made with a shipping container painted shocking red. This is Nkukhu-Box, one of his many businesses.
The atmosphere is vibrant. There is deafening house music playing at the restaurant – we had to ask people to turn it down. The street buzzes with taxis and hooting cars.
Finally, 40 minutes late, a white BMW sports car pulls up. It looks out of place, as well as tardy.
A short and soft-spoken gentleman, in a white shirt, emerges. Mpatlanyana, the food man, is ready to speak about his worst day.
For someone seen as successful, it comes as a surprise that seven years ago Mpatlanyana found himself sitting on the floor of his near empty house. The only thing he was able to save from the repossessors was a painting on the wall.
“There was one painting that I bought when I was a student. I actually begged the guys not to take it and I still have it today,” he says.
“It is a happy colorful painting. When you look at that painting in the mornings, it gives new life and meaning. So that is why I begged the guys not to take it. They took everything, but that painting was the only survivor that day.”
This was how bankruptcy felt.
It all began when he was 14 years old, growing up in the township of Embalenhle, in Mpumalanga. He had started a lawn-mowing business in his neighborhood at weekends. His motivation was money for a nice packed lunch.
“Having a tastier lunch meant that I could hang out and trade my lunch with more privileged pupils who were perceived as being cool at school.”
While his fancy lunchbox brought him a sense of belonging, his business brought a sense of wealth. He branched out into the food business selling cheese, polony and bacon throughout high school.
With a taste for business, Mpatlanyana then studied a BCom in entrepreneurship at the University of Pretoria.
As a student he sold beanbag furniture to students. He also bought his first car – a 1979 VW Beetle – that he used to transport students.
“The business was successful. At one point I had 20 apartments under my portfolio, but none were owned by me,” he says.
The money rolled in and the friends came with ideas.
In 2008, he and his friend bought Fashion TV Café, a French television channel franchise. He thought it was gold for the grandchildren.
“When we became Fashion TV Café’s first young black franchisees in the world, we were in our twenties and it was a hell of an achievement,” says Mpatlanyana.
It all seemed plain sailing; but the exorbitant rent and overhead costs were to make a meal of them. Mpatlanyana lost his R3.3 million ($252,000) investment. The thought of losing everything was always his biggest fear.
Soon he was to experience his worst nightmare.
“That day I thought, colorful s*** just hit the fan, and it is looking beautiful. I was accepting defeat, because I knew it was coming and I knew I could do it again.”
First, the repossessors came.
“Those guys park their truck and they knock at your door, thereafter they just walk in and they just start taking stuff without negotiating, because it’s a done deal, the courts have given them the order,” says Mpatlanyana.
“I actually helped them to move the furniture, because I tried to make the experience as comfortable as I could. I was not fighting them, I wasn’t crying. I was like, ‘It went bad sharp-sharp, moja (fine), take it.’”
Reality kicked in when he was alone and bereft.
“The tears came later, after they left, when I was sitting on the floor.”
“The remote control is gone, the TV is gone and the ironing board is gone. I was just sitting there asking myself, what was I going to do next? But I knew then, that I could do it again bigger and better,” recalls Mpatlanyana.
“That was the lowest moment of my life. I would sit on the floor with no furniture or anything, wondering where did it all go wrong? At one point you were rolling in cash and all of a sudden, you have hit rock bottom,” he says.
The fear of people was stronger than the fear of loss.
“It’s was not even about the money, it was about the people that knew me and how they would look at me. A few weeks ago, you had this upmarket restaurant and the ladies love you, then all of a sudden, you have zero.”
“How do you even get your friends to come visit you again, if you have no furniture in the house? Your bank accounts are all cleaned up,” says Mpatlanyana
A phone call changed his fortunes four months later.
“I don’t know whether to call it luck or whether it was just my work ethic that came through for me because a customer who happened to be a coalmine owner who was looking for a BEE partner decided to call me. Instantly, I became part of a small mine operation,” Mpatlanyana says with relief in his voice.
“He could have called any other black man, but he called me, because he saw my work ethic and the amount of hard work I had put into FTV Café.”
His journey with the mining company was not long. Four years later, the coalmine was sold. He went back into the food business; his first love.
But this time, he was to do things differently. He would become the franchiser instead of the franchisee.
Spykos Foods was born in 2011, with R1 million ($76,000).
He founded a franchise that was about taking traditional township shisa nyama, fish and chips and bunny chow, into major malls and shopping centers in South Africa.
“You have to have a strong character to try again. I didn’t allow that to discourage me. I got up and I tried again.”
“I still went back into the food industry, the experience and what I learned out of the situation helped me to come up with the next brand. I decided to start my own brand, where I make my own rules and I don’t have to be dictated to by any franchise or international person that is in Paris,” says Mpatlanyana.
Forty Spykos Foods franchises were established around the country, but some collapsed.
“The stores started to close down due to several factors, but the main [reasons] were the escalating shopping center rentals, increase in food prices, especially fresh potatoes as this was our main product line.”
“There were also major competitors dominating the market… Some not so well-skilled franchisees and the lack of adequate infrastructure,” says Mpatlanyana.
Even with the punches that he took, he is adamant he’ll become a franchise mogul.
He launched his first Nkukhu-Box, selling chicken, in August 2016. It is a business that mitigates the rent and overheads of Spykos Foods with a red shipping container that doesn’t cost much.
To date, he has three stores in South Africa and plans to expand to Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland this year.
Mpatlanyana claims that his business is worth R6.5 million ($497,000).
“Being a young black entrepreneur has immense challenges in the private sector. I realized that in business you need to find a business model that doesn’t rely on too many external sources,” he says.
Seven years on from an empty house and empty bank account, his worst day, in many ways, made him.
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