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 Born with an insatiable business drive

 

 Proponents of the school of thought that says "focus on your core business" may frown on Lennin Marule's business. His company, Marule Property Developers Holdings, does student accommodation, property development, property valuations, auctioneering, general construction, transport and catering. Oh, and he also owns 52% of a coal mine.

But those who knew Lennin as a child would simply have to shrug and accept that it was always in him, an insatiable drive to work, wheel and deal and to grab any opportunity that came along.

It was already evident when the scrawny 12-year-old Soweto boy went to knock on the door of a newspaper press in downtown Johannesburg to ask for a weekend job. He helped load newspapers into the trucks destined for the rural areas until 10 o’clock every weekend night, then slept at Park Station with a stack of newspapers as a cushion, so that he could be ready to sell them to the early-morning commuters.

It was evident in the way in which Lennin, one of six siblings, sold clothes from door to door in the streets of Soweto which his single mother sourced from the clothing factories she worked in. Or, when he went to live with his grandmother to complete his high schooling in Dennilton in rural Limpopo, how he cycled 30km to buy cabbages on farms which he sold in the village. And how he turned student dining halls into bioscopes showing karate movies in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) where studied mechanics at the technikon in the mid-1970s. He returned home triumphantly in his own car even before he finished his studies.

For about twenty years following his studies his overt entrepreneurial drive seemed to go dormant as he worked for corporate companies, first for Sasol, then Putco and then a long stretch for Samancor Chrome in Witbank, which he made his home.

But the drive was in him all the time, only channelled into improving his skills. He started off as a technician with a mechanics diploma, became a trainer, got into the human resources side of things, was promoted through seven divisions of the metals giant Samancor. By the time he resigned in 2002 to start his own business, he had years of senior management experience behind him and a masters degree in industrial sociology.

Lennin says his length of service at Samancor was a point of pride for him and had its own satisfaction that went beyond a good salary package. But the business opportunities outside were simply too enticing for the entrepreneur in him to ignore.

Witbank, where Samancor was based, was a very fast-growing town which serviced several mines and as such formed a major technical training hub, especially since the Tshwane University of Technology opened a campus there. As manager in charge of interns, Lennin became aware of the acute shortage of student accommodation. He bought a house as an investment and set it up for student accommodation. It turned out to be so lucrative that all his doubts about resigning to start his own business disappeared.

Soon after starting up he had a dozen houses set up for student accommodation. He became adept at buying suitable properties at auctions, fixing them up to sell, or, if they were suitable for students, adding rooms and renting them out.

Occasionally, he would need finance for one of the transactions and he managed to build a good relationship with the banks, but they all baulked at his proposal to buy a 120-unit block that was ideal for student accommodation. Only Business Partners was willing to finance the project, which put his business onto a whole new level. Subsequently, Business Partners also financed another apartment block of almost twice the size for Lennin.

One of the most important things he learned through his promotion through the corporate ranks was how to study a new field and master it. He did the same with the property market and has been doing it ever since with every new subsidiary of his group.

Although his wide range of businesses seems like a random collection, Lennin explains that many of them are intricately linked. His transport services were borne out of the need of the students in his buildings to get around. His catering services had similar origins, and his construction division is a natural outflow of buying and fixing properties.

How does one entrepreneur keep control of such a sprawling group of businesses? He can’t, says Lennin. The group is built on the strengths of a tightly knit family business, with Lennin as chairman, his son, an MBA graduate, as CEO and his wife and daughter, who is studying toward becoming a CA, as directors.

He has developed a system of control which revolves around set meetings with the heads of each division on Monday and a written report from each every Friday.

As for the future, he sees more growth and even more diversification through grasping new opportunities. For Lennin, it has always been this way.

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