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 Thriving guest house group built on teaching and training

 

 It is hard to tell sometimes which businesses really mean it when they say our people are our greatest asset; or empowerment is what we are all about But with Nomsa Mazibuko, owner of the guest house business Visit Vakasha in Mpumalanga, there is no doubt.

She has fourteen full-time staff members who run her group of five guest houses in Emalahleni in Witbank. One of them goes by the title of “HR and Training Manager”, which sounds rather grand for such a small organisation, but that is truly what she does. The training manager, a qualified, accredited trainer in the hospitality industry, spends every working day training her thirteen colleagues and five casual staff members who service the 66 rooms in the Visit Vakasha group.

The training manager’s importance is clear in the way that Mazibuko describes her core management team. Mazibuko herself is the general manager, her husband is operations manager, and then there is the training manager.

Her staff are about to graduate from a formal on-the-job training course and Mazibuko’s excitement is palpable when she says: “When they get that qualification I will throw them such a graduation ceremony, their family members will be invited. It will be the first time that they graduate in their life. Some of them ended school in standard eight or standard nine, some of them don’t have matric. This will be their pride.”

She dismisses the common fear among business owners that staff will resign and go to work for bigger companies as soon as they receive their qualification. The only formal agreement she has with her staff is that they have to stay for three years after qualifying, but she finds that very few of them ever leave. Empowerment engenders loyalty.

For Mazibuko, it goes beyond any formal course. She has organised visits for her staff to the giant Tsogo Sun group so that they can see how the big players do it. She has paid for her staff members to visit and sleep over at other establishments as guests, because how can you see things from the perspective of a guest if you’ve never been one yourself?

Neither does she skimp when it comes to her own training. When she started her first guest house in 2007 after building up a successful industrial cleaning company she soon realised how much more difficult hospitality is than people generally think. She immediately enrolled in a guest house management correspondence course through the University of Cape Town;“Wow, then my mind started to open,” she says. She then did a course through the Mpumalanga Tourism Programme which she says also helped her a lot”, then an events management course, then one on marketing and another on food and beverage management, and through the Tourism Enterprise Programme she has benefited from an overseas mentor. “Now I feel that I understand the industry,” says Mazibuko, but she is never complacent about her development, making ongoing use of a business coach.

The results are evident. Since 2007 Visit Vakasha has achieved three stars from the Tourism Grading Council and recognition from the AA Quality Assured Accommodation Programme.

The tight combination of business, teaching and training has always been part of Mazibuko’s life. She grew up in Middleburg working in the general dealer of her parents, who were both teachers before, and who encouraged her to get a teaching diploma herself. She did, but could only hold out for five years as a full-time teacher because she was constantly busy with business sidelines. “I sold pots, I sold clothes, I sold everything you could think of.”

She also had a talent for hairdressing, the one sideline that took off. She resigned as a teacher, but never from teaching. Soon her hair salon became a hairdressing college, which was funded among others by the Small Business Development Corporation, the predecessor of Business Partners.

She ran her hairdressing academy for fifteen years until the late nineties when, for the first time, opportunities started opening up for black entrepreneurs in corporate supply chains. With the same passion for training, she built an industrial cleaning operation with more than 200 workers. Some of them have their own cleaning companies today, she says.

Her venture into the hospitality industry started when she struggled to control her student tenants in two houses she owned in Witbank, and she decided to convert them into guest houses. The learning curve was steep, but her timing was right, because the influx of engineers, managers and artisans working on the Kusile power station in Witbank caused a huge demand for accommodation. By now she was adept at handling corporate contracts, and today half of her rooms are contracted out to various departments of Eskom.

The expansion of Visit Vakasha to five guest houses, a conference facility and a catering service with more than 100 workers required finance. The banks were so slow in processing her applications that she felt valuable businesses opportunities were slipping from her grasp, and Mazibuko went looking for the financier of her hairdressing school. She found that the Small Business Development Corporation had meanwhile turned into Business Partners, but they were just as willing to help. Some time after she had already received her first loan from Business Partners, one of the banks called, still wanting to process her application.

For the next round of finance she needed, she went straight to Business Partners. “I didn’t even go to the banks,” she says.
Mazibuko has no plans to scale down, even though the enormous Kusile power station construction project will end. She is planning to put up her first hotel soon to shift the focus of her business from long-term contract accommodation to shorter stays. “I know that with the tremendous support of my employees, clients and suppliers, and my belief that God is the “silent partner” in my business, I can adapt to any challenge,” she concludes.

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