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 Business driven by a mission to serve

 

 Most dads would at the very least be relieved, if not bursting with pride, to hear that their son had found a job at one of the big four accounting firms. Not Mokgadishi Makola’s. He remembers returning to his family home in a village in Limpopo to tell his father, Isaiah Makola, that he had just got a job at Deloitte. From the expression on his face, he could see that his father was thinking: “You are making a mistake.” It took Mokgadishi years to realise just how right his father was.

​His dad was a born entrepreneur, says Mokgadishi. He could spot a business solution where others only saw poverty and despair. He would buy second-hand clothes by the bale in Johannesburg and sell it to farm workers who never had the opportunity to get to a clothing shop. From the farm he would load up his vehicle with fresh produce to sell back at his general dealership, which he started as a tiny paraffin retailer. Every month he would help hundreds of state pension recipients turn their grants into affordable grocery hampers at wholesale prices.

As the last-born child, Mokgadishi spent days with his father on the road and at the shop. “I learned everything from my father. He taught me more than what people learn in a R300 000 MBA," he says. 

Isaiah clearly also saw his son Mokgadishi as a born entrepreneur. He wasn't wrong. 

When Mokgadishi left to study commerce at the University of Johannesburg he used his registration fees to buy a set of public phones that the cell phone companies in those days sold as container-based turnkey businesses to small-scale entrepreneurs, especially in the townships where people couldn't yet afford their own cell phones. 

The gamble paid off. So lucrative was his public-phone business, which he ran after class in Alexandra where he stayed, that he not only made his registration fees back, but paid for his entire degree. The only mistake he made, laughs Mokgadishi, was to boast about it to his dad, who promptly surmised that his entrepreneurial son was no longer in need of any financial support.

After his studies, Mokgadishi joined Deloitte for a year, and then the South African Revenue Services' audit division. At first Mokgadishi felt that he had arrived. In a giant generational leap, he managed to exchange his rural boyhood without electricity and running water for a city life in a nice complex, with a fancy car and the world at his fingertips.

But before long Mokgadishi began to experience pangs of regret for not heeding his father's quiet warning. It wasn't just because he was better suited for entrepreneurship than a corporate career. It was also what he was expected to do as a tax auditor. His job took him out to small business owners who had done well enough to catch the attention of the tax authorities, triggering a tax audit. Inevitably, at the end of the audit, he would notify them of their massive tax debt, very often a fatal blow to the small business and life's work of the owner. As a SARS official, he was not allowed to offer them any advice.

What made the job toxic for Mokgadishi was that they were not conniving tax dodgers. They were first-generation business owners who grew their businesses without any formal education or knowledge of accounting. Many were genuinely puzzled why they should give their hard-earned money to the tax man. Mokgadishi came to the dreadful realisation that the people whose businesses he was shutting down were like his father - successful against all odds, but not schooled enough to find a foothold in the formal business world. 

Over the course of five years Mokgadishi fell into despair, and eventually, in 2013, just resigned without the prospect of another job or a clear plan for a new business, except that he wanted to “fix some of the damage" he had caused, he says. 

He returned his car to the bank, put his house on the market and went back to the room in Alexandra where he had stayed as a self-assured student. Mokgadishi was aware that he had become a stereotypical figure of derision - the overconfident young man who leaves the township in flashy triumph, only to return a few years later with nothing. “I didn't hide," says Mokgadishi, for whom it was a form of penance. He carried his shame back to his parental home in Limpopo, where he found his father gravely ill. His one consolation during this dark period was to see the joy on his father's face when he told him that he has left his corporate career.

Bit by bit Mokgadishi put his life back together, this time by supporting the same kinds of businesses that he used to audit. He shunned corporate contracts and tenders and sought out small businesses in need of compliance advice. It helped that he talked openly to the members of his community about his experience at SARS, says Mokgadishi. Many of his early clients were referred to him by his network of friends and family.

For two years Mokgadishi worked on his own, slowly building up the clientele of Makola Incorporated, before taking on his first employee. A lot of the work happened at the premises of his clients, usually a business owner who was in trouble with SARS. Mokgadishi's approach was to install proper information and control systems at each business, and relentlessly train up the staff to remain compliant. Very often, they would become long-term accounting clients. 

In this way, Mokgadishi was able to expand his tax solutions service with an accounting division as well as an advisory division. Meanwhile, Mokgadishi has finished the legal studies that he started at SARS and has since qualified as a lawyer. He sees a legal division as part of his firm's structure in the years ahead.

In 2019, Mokgadishi was able to buy the building from which his business operates with the help of a financing deal with Business Partners Limited. The property, located in the Pinewood Office Park in Woodmead, is housed in a separate company from which Makola Incorporated rents it. For Mokgadishi, this arrangement is so beneficial from a tax and risk perspective that he did not even consider ordinary bank finance.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, Makola Incorporated has had to put its expansion plans on hold and concentrate on consolidation as its clients' businesses slowed down with the economy. Mokgadishi says it has been harrowing to see the effects of the lockdown and restrictions on small businesses. Makola Incorporated has its work cut out for it, and Mokgadishi is more driven than ever to build a business based on helping other business owners thrive.

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