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 Entrepreneurial traits breed success, but it's not always easy

 

 One of the reasons why the life of an entrepreneur is so hard is that the character traits that make them successful can also be difficult to live with. An important part of Xolisile Nkosi’s success as an entrepreneur is that her driven and contrarian impulses make her very quick to act, but they have also given her a whole archive full of quirky stories from her business career.

She remembers with a tinge of regret how, as a youngster, she blew the first R100 000 she made on a property deal. Today, as the 36-year-old mother of five boys and owner of Clear Path Projects, a Johannesburg-based architectural, interior design, project management and construction firm, she would have invested it much more wisely. But she acknowledges that it is that same drive, impulsiveness and love of wheeling and dealing that got her the property in the first place, at the tender age of 24.

Nkosi is not sure where her entrepreneurial spirit comes from. She was the only girl in a Soweto family of seven, and the only one to go into business. Her father, a municipal worker, and mother, a teacher, have always struggled to get used to the fact that she never pursued a conventional career as an employee, despite the fact that today she owns a company of 70 workers, part-timers included, and has just moved into a new multi-million rand head office in Parkhurst, just one of several properties she owns.

With the aim of becoming an interior designer, she did a course in architectural drawing after school, supplemented later with one in project management and interior design. Soon she found herself in the world of work, and in a quick succession of jobs at a variety of architectural firms she progressed from doing menial office work as an intern to building models and drafting plans.

Her restless spirit made her resist various opportunities to study at university in favour of short courses and practical work experience. She also learned that office-based work was not for her. “Sitting at a desk drawing the whole day is just not me. I want to be hands-on. I want to be on site where things happen,” she says.

So she focused her career on project management. Her last job as an employee was with a large project-management firm and lasted two years. Then she took what can only be described as a great leap of faith to start her own business.

There was no particular event at work that triggered her decision. Nor did she have a specific business opportunity on the outside, nor a business plan. All she had were two children, a home mortgage, a car on finance and a desire to do her own thing so strong that she called her business Clear Path.

Her optimistic sense of adventure had got her out of employment and into entrepreneurship, but soon she experienced the downside of that characteristic. It took her no less than six months to land any business, and in the interim the bank threatened to repossess her house and car.

A former boss helped her bridge the lean months with a loan, a favour she was able to return years later by contracting him to do an architectural plan after he had fallen on hard times.

So hard were those first six months of her business that she didn’t have the R100 required to buy the City of Johannesburg tender document for the contract that finally saved her. She asked her father, who at that stage did not know that she had resigned, to pick up the document for her.

She won the tender, which was for drawing up the plans for a new clinic for the City of Johannesburg. Nkosi delivered on time, within budget, made a surplus of R300 000 and has never looked back since.

No fewer than five further clinics followed, giving Nkosi a solid base from which to move towards “turnkey” projects, in which all the elements of a new building, including design, planning, engineering, building, interior design and fitting and finishing are combined.

This direction into which she steered her company was contrary to most of the advice that she had been given by consultants, mentors and the judges in various entrepreneurship competitions that she entered. Almost all of them advised her to focus on one element only, such as interior design. But Nkosi characteristically stuck with her gut feeling, and today she is one of the few black-owned project-management companies that can successfully complete a turn-key project.

Her latest move, the acquisition of her head-office building in Parkhurst, was done in her typically sudden, instinctive fashion. She saw the upcoming auction for the building advertised and fell in love with it. She had never been to an auction before, but she bid, won, and then set about looking for the finance.

Her challenge was to find a financier that was willing to lend her enough so that she did not have to liquidate any of her existing properties in order to buy the new one. The banks offered too little, but then she approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), which finances not only on the basis of the underlying asset, but also on the strength of the business and the capacity of the entrepreneur. BUSINESS/PARTNERS lent her just enough so that she could afford to buy it, aided by the careful juggling of the cash-flows of her current projects.

The deal made for a stressful year, almost as bad as that first, terrifying year when she started her business, she says. But now she is looking forward to expanding her company into Clear Path Lifestyle, an interior design branch, Clear Path Projects, and even Clear Path Media.

It won’t be easy, and it is likely to be somewhat unpredictable, but when that sudden drive kicks in, Nkosi always seems to make it work.

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