Being daring is grist for the mill
Decades of effort and strong theoretical credentials have been a winning recipe for the founder of SA’s first black-owned milling company
Today, he’s a mealie-milling king, but he started out with nothing but a dream. If you want your own company, “be prepared to do the groundwork that comes with it”, says CEO Xolani Ndzaba, who is the brains behind Lethabo Milling, based in Ventersburg in the Free State. From selling oranges in trains and at train stations in Soweto and Johannesburg to being the leader of South Africa’s first black-owned milling company, Ndzaba (50) says: “I sleep well knowing that I am contributing to empowering the country through employment opportunities at the milling factory.”
After years spent fine-tuning his entrepreneurial skills, working in diverse industries and recently trying to raise capital for Lethabo Milling, Ndzaba is proud to be in a business that has helped him contribute to the economy – creating 40 jobs in less than a year of being in business.
Lethabo Milling, which opened in November, produces more than 50 tons of maize meal a day.
There is potential for more people to be absorbed into his company as the business takes shape and becomes a big player in the market, he says.
The self-made entrepreneur says he knew from an early age that he wanted to be in business, but due to a lack of opportunity and funds, he had to start from the very bottom as a labourer at a construction site in Johannesburg before thinking about becoming his own boss.
Over the years, Ndzaba has worked steadily and climbed the corporate ladder, amassing more than 25 years’ experience in various sectors, such as sales, branding and strategy with diverse conglomerates such as SAB, United National Breweries, Pepsi, Tiger Brands and Papa Super Maize Meal.
Ndzaba has just finished a yearlong programme for entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), which has provided another dimension in his portfolio of skills. These include certificates from Unisa as well as other industry qualifications.
“I have learnt quite a lot in the past year after going through the Gibs programme.
“I now speak with conviction and the learning has confirmed what I have known all along and also added practical, action-packed learning that I can incorporate into my business.” He is also fluent in many of South Africa’s official languages, including Afrikaans, an observation made when he answers a call from an associate. Ndzaba says the language he learnt growing up under apartheid has come in handy, but it is the satisfaction of being able to address business associates in the language they are comfortable with that is more rewarding.
And being in the milling industry, he says Afrikaans “goes a long way in helping me establish common ground”.
Last year, Lethabo Milling was given a lifeline with a cash injection of R9 million from Massmart and banking giant Absa.
The funding deal allowed Lethabo Milling to be a product supplier to Massmart’s group of wholesalers and retailers.
It also allowed Ndzaba to refurbish his milling factory and invest in a fleet of vehicles – thereby ensuring that his products were distributed nationally.
Lethabo Maize Meal, which is produced at the factory, is now available in 2.5kg, 10kg, 12.5kg, 25kg and 50kg denominations at most Massmart chain stores around the country, and spaza shops too.
With many years of practical and theoretical experience under his belt, Ndzaba says he has learnt the invaluable lessons that come with dealing with competitors in a harsh business environment.
“I have learnt to embrace competitors in my thinking and doing.
“Whether I am trying to convince investors to invest in my business or fielding off tough competition, it all comes down to how you deal with the competition.”
But for Ndzaba, it all started with a sack of oranges given to him by his mine worker father, who was a unionist, at the age of 12.
Ndzaba notes that his father has been the biggest influence on his life and built his entrepreneurial spirit. The lessons he learnt fending off bullies on the trains have also been incorporated into his thinking in the big league of milling.
“My father would ask me what I wanted to become in life.
“He would challenge me to be daring to think and shape my future.”
Ndzaba grew up with seven sisters – and as the only boy in the family he had to take over the leadership role when his dad died.
This meant he had to find work soon after matriculating in 1984 from Mndeni High School in Soweto.
Now Ndzaba is already planning his next move – to take over other retailers – but first he wants to make sure he can deliver a great service to his current clients before venturing off to the greater retail market.
He says having a business coach, mentor and good support structure cannot be understated and he would not have succeeded without their assistance and support.
“It helps to have a good support structure. This allows me to focus on getting the business up and running.” And that support structure includes his wife, Thembi Ndzaba, who is a partner in the company and its
human resources director.
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM Lethabo Milling CEO Xolani Ndzaba is a self-made entrepreneur who used to sell oranges at train stations in Soweto and Johannesburg