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My Worst Day

Burned But Not Broken; The Tale Of Fiery fashion

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Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile and designer clothes; beneath his tough exterior is a layered story of depression and despair.

On a rainy autumn morning in Johannesburg in March, we meet Adrian Furstenburg in the small affluent suburb of Parkhurst.

Ironically, he is dressed in black – a symbol of grief – to recount the day when his design studio, including stock and equipment worth R70,000 ($5,800), burned and was razed to the ground.

“The damage was so painfully clear in the bright, winter morning light,” says Furstenburg.

To get to this story, it is important to start from the beginning.

Furstenburg was only four years old when he first said he wanted to become a fashion designer.

“I was at my granny’s house and we were watching a fashion show on television, and as we were watching, that is when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Furstenburg.

However, his father, a farmer, had, other plans – he wanted him to pursue law.

Somehow, Furstenburg found a way to persuade his father to allow him to enter a career not so distant from the fashion industry.

“It was the early 2000s and it was pretty cool to study graphic designing, so he said ‘that’s okay, I will pay for you to study graphic designing’,” he says.

In his last year at college, he specialized in textile design, which led to him crafting a career as a handbag designer.

“I think that is one of the wisest decisions that I have ever made, there are definitely no regrets,” says Furstenburg today.

As part of a college assignment, he was required to do a practical project.

“I weaved this beautiful piece of fabric and then I actually made a handbag. This project is where my passion for handbags started,” he says.

After he graduated, he started freelancing as a designer and stylist, set on his journey of one day being a fashion mogul selling swanky handbags.

But his worst day was lurking around the corner, ready to throw him into a state of melancholy.

It was June 6, 2012.

“The day isn’t etched into my memory. I recall it from a much deeper, more visceral part than that,” he says.

He and his business partner at the time, Nkululeko Msibi, of 2souls clothing, had recently set up a small studio just off Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, where they produced every kind of clothing and accessory to keep their bank balances and ambitions afloat.

“We landed one of our biggest projects producing costumes for a major dance production. We spent hours planning, designing, sourcing, selecting, sewing, stitching. Their budget was strict and the schedule was even tighter with virtually no room for error,” says Furstenburg.

But a disaster that would discredit him and Msibi was about to blaze through their studio.

READ MORE: They Can Burn My Face, But They Can’t Burn My Voice

Furstenburg was picking up materials from a supplier before heading to the studio that Wednesday morning when he received a frantic phone call from Msibi.

“Fire was really the only word I got from the conversation,” says Furstenburg.

He describes how surreal everything felt in the bright, winter morning light when he arrived at the studio.

“The thick smell of smoke hung throughout the building. Inside the studio, sooty black licks ran up the walls where the fire had devoured our machines, stock and the rails of costumes for the production,” says Furstenburg.

This was just three days before they had to deliver the costumes to their client. They were also not business savvy-enough at the time to have insurance.

“We sat sobbing on the ashy floor. The nausea swam in my stomach as the reality of the situation gained momentum in my head.”

“I called the client, trembling. The shouting started on the telephone and didn’t stop until they left our charcoal pile with a few pieces that had escaped the flames while stored in another studio,” Furstenburg recounts.

They were livid – understandably so.

“They were so outraged, because I was dealing with their dream as well. It was a costume production. They had a look of utter hatred and disgust on their faces,” he says.

They lost the clients.

“I spent two weeks in a blur of fear and guilt… Almost no one trusted us with their work and the landlord suspected that we were to blame for negligence,” says Furstenburg.

He went home, depressed for weeks, not knowing what his next move would be.

“I don’t have children but my business is my child. I have fought very hard for it. Seeing it die was the worst day of my life. I took about two weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he says.

Fortunately, it was soon established that the fire was caused by old wiring. They salvaged what they could and Furstenburg decided to change his focus from production to styling – that is how he slowly managed to recover from what was his worst day.

He started from scratch, working on freelance projects making very little money.

“It was far from ideal and barely sustainable but somehow my resolve strengthened not to allow this incident to raze me permanently,” says Furstenburg.

The passion for designing handbags ignited within, in 2013, he equipped himself with business training at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.

When he completed the three-month training, the center placed an order with him for 70 small, original-design messenger bags to be given as gifts to guests at an event held during one of FORBES AFRICA cover stars Richard Branson’s visit to South Africa.

“It could be said that someone else spotted what I had to offer before I had known exactly, and acting perhaps more in response to a veiled instruction than personal confidence at the time, I started making bags,” he says.

“Amusingly, whatever I might have lacked in self-belief was effectively offset by a desire to wow anyone and everyone and so I almost simultaneously entered the Independent Handbag Designer Awards of that year [in New York],” says Furstenburg.

It took four years of applications before he was accepted in 2016 into the All About the Logo by Guess Handbags category. He was the first South African applicant accepted – and the first to win. This opened doors for him locally and internationally.

READ MORE: From Football To Fashion

Furstenburg is currently working on a procurement deal with an international airline. If successful, it will be the golden game changer that takes his business to the goal of netting an annual profit of $1 million by 2019.

Six years after his worst day, Furstenburg is not without challenges. But he is continuously taking it one step at a time, ensuring that the fire he has for designing world-class handbags never burns out.

“I must admit that I get a little breathless reflecting on the trajectory that the business has followed in the last 15 months, not least because of the risks we’ve survived and the gratitude I feel to those who’ve guided and supported me,” he says.

Adrian Furstenburg. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Entrepreneurs

‘I Started Avoiding Calls From Creditors’

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On the day FORBES AFRICA meets Gavin Mkhabela, the sun is shining as bright as he had hoped his future in business would be when he resigned from the banking sector. He thought he would be the person that would clean every working space across Africa, but little did he know that it would be his bank account that would be cleaned out.

At a business park in Midrand, 30kms north of Johannesburg, Mkhabela is energetic and full of life, unlike six years ago when he was broke and depressed.

“All I did was to wake up, eat and sleep again,” he says.

It started in the basement of his work place, where he had spent four hours in his car contemplating his hasty resignation.

“I like to believe that I am a very creative person and the corporate industry tends to be stagnant at times. There are certain ideas which you may not implement because they are just not ready for them. My lifestyle was also inflated but not in accordance with my income at the time,” he says.

Soon after his resignation in 2011, Mkhabela received his pension payout which he used to start his cleaning company GavCare.

“I was excited; it was my first business. I used my provident fund to start the business,” he says.

Mkhabela  used his credit cards to finance the new business.

“My fiancé and I bought everything new. We even bought a new carpet machine that was being phased out. We were just spending,” he says.

READ MORE: Slaves To Debt: Oh, What We Owe!

Things started well for the young entrepreneur after he received contracts with corporate giants, such as Standard Bank and Nampak, and a few local law firms.

In 2012, he sold 40% of his business. Then, in 2013, he was chosen for a business mentorship program in Germany, which was in partnership with the government’s National Youth Development Agency (NYDA).

“When I came back from the month-long mentorship program in Germany, everyone was celebrating me. They would say ‘you have made it in life’,” he says.

But his worst days were lurking around the corner.

“Out of excitement, I called my business partner to tell her that my mentor had decided to inject R2 million ($169,000) into our business, and he would donate equipment for our business.”

Soon after, his elation turned to despair.

On a cold Friday morning his business partner pulled out.

“We were at our detergent store in Tembisa when she proposed that she would like to pull out of the business… I still ran everything via my credit card and had overdrafts,” he says.

To make matters worse, GavCare was in a cash flow crisis.

“Our company’s financial controls were a mess, there was money coming into the business but more money went out. We also had more people working for us than we actually needed. Our operational costs far outweighed our income,” says Mkhabela.

He was also living beyond his means.

“My biggest mistake was to continue living a lifestyle that I lived when I was working in the corporate world. Most of my provident fund payout went to buying the company’s equipment and keeping the business afloat. I started skipping my monthly repayments, but even worse started avoiding calls from creditors,” he says.

“I got a lot of judgements under my name and was eventually blacklisted by creditors. We took business loans and I extended my credit facilities on my personal capacity in an effort to keep the business going for two years. I also went to loan sharks, an even more [costly] mistake that almost put my life at risk. It was all in an effort to survive and help my financial situation every month the loan amounts from the loan sharks will increase as I couldn’t settle them.”

He then fell into depression.

“One by one, I kept losing things and getting more in the red. I got depressed… My relationship with my fiancé also started to suffer, because I had no financial contribution to the relationship. You know when the man loses the ability and the power to provide, you drive your woman away,” he says.

Mkhabela then got the dreaded call.

“All I did for months was to sleep, wake, eat and sleep again. Then the repossessor called me,” he says. “They took my [VW Golf] GTI, my furniture and every other thing I had worked so hard for. Luckily my house was paid up,” he says.

“It was at that point that I realized that I needed to get up and do something,” he says.

READ MORE: South African Billionaire’s Fortune Plunges More Than $2 Billion In A Day Amid Accounting Scandal

Even though he was down, he was not out of ideas.

“I bounced back in 2014, when I decided to become a financial advisor so that I could save others from being in the same situation as me,” he says.

Mkhabela says he now has over a thousand clients. In 2016, he published his book, Financial Planning 4 What? The book addresses the problems experienced by many regarding personal finance.

“I wrote the book on financial planning and started developing an interest in educating people about financial management from a personal and business finance point of view. It stems from my whole experience because all that was needed was proper financial controls and proper planning,” says Mkhabela.

Looking back, he wishes he did things differently with his business and his business partner.

“I did a lot of introspection in the manner in which I ran things, because I studied a business course,” says Mkhabela.

Mkhabela’s worst day was a lesson that can’t be taught in lecture halls. It is also a lesson he’ll never forget.

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Entrepreneurs

From Rock Bottom To Rolling In cash

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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.”

From rock bottom to rolling in cash

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.

”A few weeks ago, you had this upmarket restaurant and the ladies were loving you, then all of a sudden, you have zero.”

“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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My Worst Day

A Mistake That Cost A Million A Month

It was a bullet-pocked and bloody road to life as an entrepreneur. Millionaire Cosmas Maduka suffered through grief, poverty and loss; around the corner lurked his worst day that would lose him nearly a million dollars a month.

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Cosmas Maduka is a man who knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.

By the age of six, Maduka had survived bombs and bullets. It was in the dark depths of that civil war over the failed secession of Biafra – a civil war that saw 30,000 dead and more than a million refugees. His home state of Anambra was right in the thick of it; it was the base for relief flights to the beleaguered Biafran population. This drew airstrikes by Nigerian warplanes.

“We had a bunker outside our house which we ran into during times where the military opened fire and dropped bombs with their fighter jets. We did not know whether we were going to survive to see the following day,” says Maduka.

One day, as the young Maduka walked to the market, soldiers opened fire, killing scores of civilians. Again, Maduka was lucky to escape with his life. Soon afterwards his mother sent him away to safety to live with his grandparents.

In these tough early years, Maduka had no idea who his father was until the day he was led to his funeral.

“The best I knew of my father was the day I saw a man lying lifelessly in a suit… It was like a festival, people were exceptionally kind to me that day and whatever I asked for, I got,” he says.

The sad celebrations faded into struggle and grinding poverty. Maduka became a street hawker to provide for his family. Every morning, at 5AM, Maduka would wake up to sell bean cakes on the streets with his older brother, Pius, to feed his family.

In a small step up from street life, Maduka began life as a lowly apprentice in his uncle’s motorcycle business. It was a sour first taste of the motor industry that was to make his millions decades later.

The motorcycle workshop job was poorly paid and after seven years of service his uncle fired him – the severance package was less than $400. In these difficult times, Maduka hugged to his heart two guiding principles.

“Firstly, no matter how careful you are things are always going to happen that you never anticipated. The second lesson is don’t ever take a risk you cannot discount.”

Both principles were the rich harvest of a bitter and expensive worst day that will forever haunt Maduka.

“Sometime in 2011, I was sitting in the office and my phone rang, it was a kid brother from my state who was in the oil business who said he wanted me to assist him. He had some difficulties in raising money for a project. I tried to talk to him and counsel him and at the end of the day he convinced me to come and see what he was doing,” says Maduka.

“I went with my wife and I was fascinated looking at how far he had built his business. He was looking for a line of credit. I was sitting in two publicly quoted banks owning about 70 percent equity in one of them. I tried to get the bank to support him but they refused, so I said I would guarantee the transaction. I told the bank to put the credit under my name and I parted with over $300 million.”

The approach came from Ifeanyi Ubah, the CEO of Capital Oil and gas, for a loan to import petroleum premium spirit. Maduka took a calculated risk.

“We did things systematically. The first consignment came and within 45 days we cleared the shipment. We did it for the second one too and that went well but I didn’t know he was goading me. Before December 2011, he came with six documents saying if I did this for him he would be eternally grateful. We had done several transactions and they were all successful, timely and he paid at the correct time so I had no issues.”

Maduka opened a line of credit to guarantee the loan for Ubah to secure his goods for the six consignments but, to his horror, the goods never arrived in Nigeria.

“The guy went abroad and connived with the shipping company and sold the vessel offshore. Every month interest of N300 million ($972,000) was dropping into my account,” says Maduka.

He was left liable and had to sell his entire stake in one of the financial institutions, where he was a director and had a controlling share, to pay off that debt.

“My franchise was threatened because this was not something we planned for. That is why when we talk about success, you can never be complacent and say that you have arrived because there are always obstacles you meet along the way. An entrepreneur must continue to reinvest into his business and keep reserve capital because there are shocks that you are going to meet that you never anticipated,” he says.

Today, Maduka is the President and Chairman of Coscharis Group, franchise holders of over eight luxury automobile brands and one of the largest distributors of spare car parts in Nigeria. The company also has interests in real estate, banking, technology, medical equipment, petrochemicals, elevators and agriculture. He stresses the importance of trust and loyalty to his 300 staff. Clearly, he doesn’t want them to suffer as he did in the motorcycle repair shop a lifetime ago.

The lessons from his worst day also led to a wiser, more cautious Maduka whose mantra today is never take anyone at face value.

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