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

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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.

PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

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

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