Long walk to business success
In his late twenties, Charles Ramuhashe literally walked out of his job to start his own business. “I didn’t have a vehicle. In fact, I had no taxi money, so I was walking home,” remembers Charles, who today is the owner of the Germiston-based Magnavolt, a multi-million-rand supplier and repairer of electrical motors and pumps.
As he walked, his cell phone buzzed, and there was his first order for a pump of R14 000. Things were happening quicker than he had planned, but just as he was wondering where he would get the working capital to fulfill the order, he bumped into an acquaintance, a former teacher who had just received her provident fund payout. Right then and there, she agreed to finance his first order.
Although it might seem like luck, it was sheer will power that got Charles into the position to take advantage of the good fortune of that day.
He was born in Vosloorus in the early seventies and spent his early childhood in the small shops that his self-taught father built despite an almost total lack of education. His father passed away, however, and there was no money for further schooling. Having reached grade 9 only by 1989, Charles had to find a job. But he was determined to one day build a business bigger than that of his father’s. His plan was to work his way up for ten years, and then start his own business.
He joined an East Rand electrical motor company as a driver – the youngest staff member on the team. He learned voraciously, making it clear to his colleagues that he would not waste any time with “striking and toyi-toying”, and when BEE pressure started growing in the early nineties, Charles threw himself at the opportunity when the company realised it needed to build a black sales team. He excelled as a salesman, despite the resistance from some old-school managers. As his planned ten years at the company drew to a close, the tension between him and some managers rose, especially as he made it clear that he did not agree with some of their dodgy business practices.
However, he was able to negotiate his way out of a restraint-of-trade bind and by the time he walked off, he had some prospects lined up and enough professional marketing material ready to make his fledgling company Magnavolt Trading look like a substantial player, even though, for the first year and a half, he worked from his cell phone and his bakkie.
Charles’s first appointment was an administrative assistant, and soon he found himself working from an office. He outsourced the installation, maintenance and repair services to contractors whom he had got to know throughout his years in the industry.
Looking back on it, Charles says the outsourcing model was actually more profitable than employing a full-time team of technicians. But the downsides of the model became apparent as Charles scaled up his business. Some subcontractors’ work was not always up to scratch. Quality control was clearly much more effective with an in-house team working from a well-run workshop.
The need for his own workshop also became clear as Charles made inroads in the mining industry. Procurement managers for the mines often wanted to have a look at their suppliers’ workshops before they do business. Charles set up his first own workshop in Wadeville, Johannesburg, employing a fitter and turner as the first member of a team that today consists of more than 20 technicians.
Meanwhile, many other business opportunities caught Charles’s eye, and in 2006 Magnavolt started a plant-hiring service. Charles first came into contact with Business Partners Ltd when he needed finance to buy a tractor loader backhoe. Unlike the asset finance divisions of the banks, Business Partners Ltd agreed to finance the equipment.
Since then, Magnavolt has made use of Business Partners Ltd on two more occasions, once for a working capital injection after the loss of a big contract in 2017, and the latest after winning a big contract.
Charles says he prefers Business Partners Ltd finance over bank finance because they lend based on your potential, rather than your balance sheet. “At Business Partners Ltd they don’t count the number of bounced cheques that you’ve had. They know that as an entrepreneur, you are going to bounce some cheques along the way. They look at who you are, and where you are going, and they want to grow with you. They really try to be your partner.”
Over the years, Magnavolt has also diversified with a cleaning division, and a fleet of ambulances. Charles sees great growth potential in the emergency medical services and might split the ambulance fleet into a separate entity soon.
Looking back over his career, Charles says he feels content that he has managed to surpass his initial dream – to build a bigger business than his father – by several orders of magnitude. It’s been hard, because no business project or operation is without its troubles, says Charles. But ever since that day that he walked off his job, Charles has applied what he calls the mountain climber’s rule – keep moving forward, and never look back.