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 Riding the business roller coaster

 

 Lorraine Chitate couldn’t have asked for a better start of her Zamani Lodge in Polokwane. She opened the doors of her six-room guest house at the time of the watershed ANC conference held in the city in November 2007, and the guests came streaming in.

It was an exhlarating time which confirmed her firm belief in the future success of her business. All the estimates pointed to a huge market opportunity: Polokwane, the economic hub of Limpopo, needed about 20 000 beds for temporary accommodation to house business travellers, public administrators and tourists who regularly visit the city, but only had 6 500 beds.

But when the conference ended and business died down, nagging doubt inevitably started creeping in. “Now that’s where you need a bit of staying power because then you start questioning yourself: ‘Am I going to make it?’” says Lorraine.

Fortunately, business picked up slowly but surely, and today Zamani has no fewer than 30 rooms and two conference facilities in two sites close to the centre of Polokwane. Lorraine’s staying power is still tested every now and then, like that of any business owner. In the past year, for example, the business was hit by the meltdown of the Limpopo government which led to a significant dip in the number of government clientele frequenting the lodge.

But Lorraine points to a difficult balance that an entrepreneur has to strike between being optimistic in the bad times, and, if not quite pessimistic in the good times, then at least keeping the worst-case scenario in mind. One of the most difficult aspects of running a business is to make the right decisions when the business is pumping. “For me it’s been a very difficult lesson (to acquire) the discipline to know that the tough times are going to come. When you are in the flow, when everything is busy, it’s very easy for you to make decisions for the here and the now without thinking: ‘Are you able to sustain these when the tough times come?’”

No doubt Lorraine’s varied background helps her to overcome setbacks in the business. Born in Zimbabwe, she came to South Africa as a qualified nurse with her husband who was working towards his specialisation in Johannesburg. The couple decided to settle in Polokwane with their three children while visiting the town on holiday, and Lorraine helped set up her husband’s private practice.

At that stage, she yearned for a career in the corporate world, especially banking, and she completed first a BCom and later a master’s in business leadership through Unisa. She ended up as head of the management sciences department at the Tshwane University of Technology’s Polokwane campus, and it was her students who pushed her career towards business ownership.

As management lecturer she was teaching New Venture Creation, and working with the students’ business plans got her thinking about starting her own business. She has a passion for travelling, and knew her business would have to have something to do with tourism. Her memories of struggling to find accommodation when the family first visited and fell in love with Polokwane clinched the matter, and she soon identified a house for sale close to the CBD which she could convert into a guest house.

Finding finance in the name of the business proved impossible, and she had to settle for roping her husband in and buying the building together in their personal capacity. The second round of funding – used for doubling the size of the guest house – was easier, and Zamani is currently servicing a R2,5m loan from Business Partners.

Her idea of continuing her job at the university while running the guest house at a distance didn’t last long, and soon she was throwing all her energy into her thriving venture. But her passion for her business is equalled only by her passion for her family, and she still makes sure that she is able to pick up her youngest daughter, now eight, at school.

Future expansion of Zamani Lodge is certain, and currently Lorraine is working on strengthening the business by shifting the concentration of her clientèle away from government workers to the private sector. Her marketing through online tourism information sites is starting to bear fruit, and plans for wedding facilities at the lodge are under way.

One of the best ways to plan for tough times, it seems, is to get your business ready for next upswing.

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