‘Plan, plan and plan again’ – Lesley Mntungwa
Name of company: African Olive
Years in existence: 7
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?
I was born in Newlands East, Durban. Both my parents are entrepreneurs and had their own businesses while I was growing up. So I guess I observed from an early age the fulfillment of creating something that is uniquely yours. I also saw the weight of that kind of responsibility over their lives and the impact that had on our family.
My dream was to become a clinical psychologist, but that changed when I studied a Bachelors of Social Science degree at the University of Natal, I fell in love with and then majored in Industrial and Organisational Psychology. I worked for 11 years at Eskom in various capacities within HR but ultimately left their service in 2008 as a Senior Advisor (Remuneration and Benefits) and have been working at African Olive ever since. I have been developing my skills as an entrepreneur since then by completing a few programs, GIBS programme for women in business, a mentorship programme with Deloitte, an entrepreneurship programme with Raizcorp as well as a few John C Maxwell leadership programmes.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?
The business is named African Olive. We supply high voltage electrical engineering services which includes, design and applications, testing and commissioning, stringing and cabling as well as installation of HV electrical equipment. We have recently added a civil construction division in the company.
How did your journey begin and how have you achieved success so far?
My husband, Siyabonga and I, identified a gap in the market for the services that we provide. It was an opportunity for him to utilise the skills that he had acquired over his 12 year journey working at Eskom as well. He felt a bit bored in his position, and I was also ready for something more challenging so it was a win-win situation all round. We started working from home in our little study and after 6 years we can see exponential growth in all areas of the business including our turnover.
What were some of the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle we faced when starting the business was that the skill we required was scarce, and it was also an expensive skill to employ. We strategised and decided to grow and nurture skills internally. We invested substantially and it proved to be a successful strategy. After 5 years we have successfully trained 15 technicians in this field. The downside to this, is that these technicians are head hunted and given offers they cannot refuse by big multi-national companies, so we lose them as well. This calls for a robust retention strategy.
How many people does your company employ?
We currently employ 22 employees. However, depending on which phase of a project we are in, this number can reach 60.
“As a visionary you have to value the possibility of a venture being successful more than you value security”
What is your overall vision for your business?
Our vision is to be the preferred provider of high voltage electrical engineering services in South Africa with future expansion into African markets by 2020.
What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?
Perseverance and belief in your vision.
How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?
We tried to access funding through the bank but were always told that the risk was too high. It was disappointing not being able to convince investors that we can do it. But we were not going to let that stop us. We decided to go ahead anyway. We had a robust plan that required substantial investment, but because of the lack of funding we watered down our initial plan and decided to start small and grow from there.
What are the three things you attribute your business success to?
1. My faith in God is definitely the number one reason for our success. There have been many times when we could have decided to ‘close the doors’, however we have always stood on the fact that this is our purpose. It is a vision that is bigger than ourselves, one we cannot achieve without strong faith.
2. Risk Taking – As a visionary you have to value the possibility of a venture being successful more than you value security.
3. Growth/Knowledge – We acknowledge that our employees will buy into us as leaders before they buy into the vision and that requires that we focus on our personal growth as leaders.
When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?
I didn’t. I identified a gap in the market , saw an opportunity and decided to take the leap. It was only after starting the business that I began reading up more about entrepreneurship and I identified those qualities in me. Although, I always knew that I would leave a great legacy.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would like to think that my leadership style is one of servitude. While I am the visionary in my organisation that is strategic, I also see my role in African Olive as one which is motivational to my most valuable assets , my employees. I am constantly pointing to the vision, but also ensure that our operations reflect excellence.
What are some of your favourite motivational books and motivational gurus that have inspired you in growing your business?
I have read and own most of John C. Maxwell’s books on leadership and leadership development.
What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Articulate your vision and write it down. It is good to keep focused on the end goal. You will also need a reminder of why your do what you do when things go a bit tough.
2. Plan, plan and plan again although you should be flexible with your planning since plans do change.
3. Never compromise on integrity – we have a moral duty and obligation to lead in integrity and be an example to all who will follow as entrepreneurs in our country. The fabric of our society depends on it.
What’s the worst and best business advice you’ve ever received?
Worst – “If you don’t do what everyone else does to secure contracts , you won’t get any”- We have always maintained the highest integrity and we do get the contracts, based on our ability to successfully complete them and the excellence with which they are done.
Best – “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn” – Learning from every bad decision I’ve made and recognising that failure is not final.
And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?
I believe in God and that He has great plans for me and African Olive, and yes hard work is very important to make things happen.