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 Entrepreneur engineers his freedom from the shackles of an office

 

 Many business owners measure their success by the size of their workforce or square-meterage of their shop floors. None of these yardsticks are important to Francois Mouton, a 59-year-old industrial property developer who runs a multi-million rand business without a single employee, not even a secretary.

“I have my laptop, and I have my phone, and they make it possible for me to work anywhere,” says Mouton, who literally means anywhere in the world. For the past six years he has been spending the South African winters on the Spanish island of Mallorca and the summers in Paarl, and until recently a couple of months in Swakopmund, Namibia, planning and managing the development of industrial properties mainly in Centurion in Gauteng.

Mouton describes a routine that many entrepreneurs can only dream of: He cycles for an hour and a half every morning, enjoys a family breakfast and spends perhaps a few hours now and then working in his study, but without feeling trapped there. He is free to go and look at properties, meet associates or work anywhere where he can open up a laptop.

It may sound idyllic and leisurely, but that hour-and-a-half cycle before breakfast is just one sign of a steely discipline and a drive that has enabled Mouton to engineer his life in this way. He laments an impatience in his character that requires everything to be done with a sense of urgency. “That's just who I am,” he says, although he acknowledges that it is probably an important part of his success.

His lean structure is the result of years of honing his business in such a way that he can pull out any piece of information or document needed from his computer within no more than a half an hour, whether it be a set of financial statements for a bank application, or a set of plans for a municipal approval process.

Another building block of his freedom is the years of work that he has put into his relationships with key players in his operations. For years, he has been working with the same building contractor, engineer, architect and estate agents to develop and sell or rent out his industrial units.

He sees Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) as part of his team. The company has financed a number of his developments, the latest of which is a nine-unit light-industrial complex in Centurion in which BUSINESS/PARTNERS has taken an equity stake.

His reason for choosing BUSINESS/PARTNERS as a financier, he says, is that they understand the property development sector. Banks require a certain amount of off-plan sales and rentals before they will agree to finance a development, whereas BUSINESS/PARTNERS has a much better sense of the requirements of the developer.

Mouton was born and raised in Windhoek, Namibia, where he developed the desire early on to go into business. His parents owned a bottle store, among other businesses, and he found himself working there over weekends. After school, he chose to do a commercial law degree and to join Pick n Pay as a trainee manager specifically to enhance his business experience so that he could venture out on his own one day.

He worked for the group for ten years, presiding over the opening of twelve stores before working his way up to become the group's buyer for fresh produce. While still at Pick n Pay, he started farming ducks as a sideline and ended up building the largest duck-processing plant in South Africa.

He saw his chance of stepping out of the corporate sector when he met a struggling entrepreneur who had landed in trouble with a small spare-ribs processing plant. He took over the business and started selling to restaurants, which at that stage were struggling to process their spare-ribs supplies into the exact portions they required. By simply packaging the spare ribs in the right sized portions, Mouton had struck gold. Soon he was supplying spare ribs to all the Steers and Spurs in South Africa, and within four years he took his company in a joint listing with Mike's Kitchen onto the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Not wanting to go back into the corporate world, Mouton stepped out and started a new meat-processing plant which turned into his first industrial development as he built several small units which he sold off. It also introduced him to the booming pie business.

Again, after coming across a struggling group of five Pie City outlets, he took it over and built it into a group of 27. No ordinary franchisee, Mouton used his entrepreneurial talents to centralise and mechanise the production of the pies for his outlets so that he could maintain a consistent quality and operational efficiency.

Feeling increasingly frustrated at the limits that the franchise group placed on his growth, Mouton took his shops over to the King Pie group when his contract ended with Pie City. Today, his son still runs five of the King Pie outlets as Mouton focuses on industrial developments.

One of the aims of his developments is to take the “hard edge” off the industrial units that he designs by adding space for showrooms and retail, all situated in a pleasant environment. This allows him to draw the best quality tenants, says Mouton, who has never had to sue a delinquent tenant for breach of contract. He keeps a close eye on his tenants and helps those who struggle to step out of their businesses before it becomes too late.

Although his intention is to build up a portfolio of rental stock, Mouton has so far always received good offers from investors to buy his developments. The result is that his property portfolio is almost as lean as his operation – currently consisting of one nine-unit complex and another fifteen-unit complex being built.

For Mouton, there is no end in sight for the number of developments that he can undertake. He is currently looking at potential developments in the thriving holiday rental sector of Mallorca and in the Western Cape, and he is working on a few ideas that will allow him to scale up his industrial developments exponentially. All he needs is his laptop and his phone.

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