Born into money, she started working at age 10 to hone her skills to build companies selling luxury and opulence. Along the way, she worked on cruise liners and sold pap and stew out of a food truck.
Opulent. There is no other word to describe Thandi Dombo.
The red carpet to her lounge, L’Opulence, in the heart of Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile, is fit for a queen. Like its inspiration, Dubai, the city of gold known for its bling and bravado, her lounge is gilt-edged and framed in rich navy overtones.
“I was in Dubai when the idea to build L’Opulence came about. I said ‘this is what you call opulence’. It was over the top, full of glitz, glamor and it was in your face. I came back home and built a place inspired by that. People come here for an experience. It’s a destination where you put an effort to dress up and go out to eat,” says Dombo.
In just two years, L’Opulence has as its clients South Africa’s affluent. That’s not all.
Just two days before our meeting, Dombo launched Purple Orchid, a company supplying event planners luxury décor.
“There was music, dance, good food and great décor pieces that I will definitely be getting for my wedding. They are all things that are new. Things I haven’t seen at events yet,” says bride-to-be Nicole Nkala who attended the launch.
She may not be an author, but Dombo says she has a book of ideas. She says the biggest lesson in her life is that preparation meets opportunity.
“If you’re not prepared and doing the work, opportunities are going to miss you,” she says.
She has been preparing for this from the age of 10, working for her parents. At 15, she swapped the comfort of family business for the ruthless world of retail.
“I went and looked for a job at CNA [a South African store] because work ethic was important to me. I needed to find my own job and not be a boss’s daughter at work because you get special treatment,” she says.
It meant three years of hard labor and lessons.
After high school, she left to study hospitality before finding work with the Carnival Cruise Line based in Florida, United States. She then went on to become the Restaurant Manager of Champagne French Bakery in Irvine, California. Her final stint overseas was as Executive Housekeeper for Norwegian Cruise Lines in Hawaii.
“I came in as a manager at 21 years old,” she says. It wasn’t easy.
At her first job, on a cruise ship, she had a boss she says was scary. One day, she made a mistake that could have cost her her job.
“The way the cruise ship operates is that the guests would leave their luggage outside. We’d come in at night with the crew and we’d need to take all the luggage down for embarkation and then it goes into the containers to get shipped. I forgot to schedule two floors which is about 500 rooms,” she recalls.
It was a serious mistake. She called her mom, back in South Africa, howling into the phone.
“I said ‘please get me a ticket, I am going back home. I can’t do this’. My mom said ‘take the good and the bad of it, he’s teaching you’.”
Armed with her mother’s words of wisdom, she convinced her team members to help her pack the rest of the guests’ bags before the boss realized something was wrong. It worked.
“As scary as that moment was and as he was, he taught me tough standards. He is my favorite boss of all times. I knew I went off as a sponge absorbing everything so that good or bad, it’s great,” says Dombo.
When the time was right, she came back home to South Africa, to become an entrepreneur. The years working and learning meant she had an eye for opportunities to make money.
First, she acquired shares in her family’s Engen garage. Then when she needed food to eat, in the East Rand, and got nothing on par with her expectations, her experience in hospitality came in handy. It took her 10 days to convert a container into a kitchen. There, she sold food like pap and stew, salads, rice, cakes and muffins. It tripled her revenue.
“It was great money and I loved it but I knew I could do more. While keeping an eye on more opportunities, I continued with the Engen garage, we revamped it and the revenue spiked.”
In 2008, she expanded. She founded MAD Functions, which operates in South Africa and Zimbabwe and employs 80. In addition to L’Opulence, Purple Orchid and others, MAD Functions owns and rents out units inside prestigious estates like Baronetcy Estate Private Villas in Cape Town and Pezula Golf Estate in Knysna.
In the world of social media and instant gratification on Instagram, with such successful businesses, it would be easy to show off. But, according to Dombo, authenticity is key.
“Always remain grounded and true to yourself… I’ve realized the importance and need to stay true to what my brand is and what I am trying to convey,” she says.
Because her colleagues in the cruise ship all those years ago helped her keep her job, in all her businesses, Dombo stresses the importance of teamwork.
“That’s the only way a company can grow. There’s no ‘I’ in a team. From the minute the hostesses greet you, the scalers at the back and the barman in front, nobody can function without the other, including myself. Thandi cannot do everything. So if you get yourself an amazing team and treat them with respect, they will show up for you.”
Clearly, hard work, respect and unabashed opulence are paying off for Dombo.