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 Quest for next entrepreneurial challenge never ends

 

 Magapa Phaweni's 84-year-old father, Rakailana Phaweni, regularly heads off with a load of second-hand clothing to his trading spot and spends the day selling. Financially, he doesn't have to – his daughter has become a successful entrepreneur beyond anything the retired carpentry worker ever dared to have imagined.

Magapa, who has built a diverse and thriving group of companies in recruitment, consulting and property development, worries about these exertions at his age, but she knows that her father needs the entrepreneurial challenge to keep going. “It is just in him,” she says about the drive which she inherited from her parents.

Ever since she can remember, her father and mother, a domestic worker, traded to supplement their wages. They ran a shop from their house in Ga-Rankuwa township near Pretoria and Magapa and her four siblings sold sweets at school.

For Magapa, this “spirit of entrepreneurship” also took the form of a relentless drive to “get things done”. When she gets fixated on a goal, she says, “I can lose 10kg, I won’t sleep, I won’t do anything else until it is done.”

It put her at the top of her class at school, and drove her to finish her microbiology degree at the then University of the North in the early eighties despite the fact that the campus was disrupted by anti-apartheid protests. A student activist herself, she carries the scars of sjambok lashes from those days, but the thought of her parents scraping together her university fees pushed her to complete her degree regardless.

The same unrelenting drive took her through the corporate ranks at South African Breweries (SAB), first in the research lab, where she gained her qualification as a chartered biologist and published three academic papers.

Not wanting to become “a professor in a lab”, she asked for a chance to prove her mettle on the operations side of the business, and soon she was identified for the company’s executive development programme. She worked in every division in the business, except marketing, in a way which would become the hallmark of her entrepreneurial career. She would move into a department, “make it perform”, hand over to other managers and move on to the next thing.

“As soon as the management challenge is done, and it becomes just a maintenance issue, I start looking for what’s next,” says Magapa.

In the early nineties she was put in charge of SAB’s Rosslyn Brewery, the first South African woman to run a brewery, and the plant won several internal company performance awards. In 1997 she was honoured as the Lebone Business Woman of the Year. After 14 years at SAB, she asked herself: “What’s next?” and, inevitably, the answer lay in the uncharted waters of entrepreneurship.

Magapa, together with her then husband and a number of associates, started a recruitment and placement agency, but scarcely a year later it was sold to major corporate. Not wanting to go back to the corporate world again, Magapa bailed out and started her own agency in 2001.

She doggedly stuck to her methodology: accept the challenge, set up the systems, sort out the problems, hand over to competent management and go on to the next thing. Soon she was running a management consultancy alongside the recruitment agency, which by 2006 had reached a turnover of R30m. This was followed by some property investments, which morphed into project management with a focus on housing. With the financial crash of 2008 many of the contractors involved in the projects that her MMI Group oversaw went bust, and Magapa built a construction company herself to finish the projects. She added a catering business and an organic farm to her expanding empire.

Along the way, she identified the growing demand for affordable student accommodation as a business opportunity, and approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) to finance the purchase and conversion of several residential houses, mainly around the University of Johannesburg.

She says BUSINESS/PARTNERS ‘ willingness to risk finance on entrepreneurial prowess and vision makes for a good fit with her business.

Today, she sees the future of her business in growing her property portfolio, especially around student accommodation. But true to her approach to entrepreneurship, she is also exploring opportunities in agro-processing.

How does she manage to run such divergent businesses at the same time? “It’s not easy,” she admits. “You always get drawn into operations all the time.”

The struggle is to find, develop and support competent managers to run her various divisions, she says. She has set her sights on finally being free from the operational side of things by the end of the year so that she can concentrate on the strategic direction of her business.

You can be sure she won’t rest until she gets it done.

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