No limits on finding new opportunities
Looking back on the strange turns that his life has taken, Thembekile Sikenqe can see that he could easily have found himself slowly going grey at a desk in a moderately successful corporate career. But one lucky move blew open his mind and sent him on a wild adventure of entrepreneurship which he is still living every day.
In his twenties, Thembekile was destined for a solid corporate career, having been put on an accelerated executive development programme by one of the big banks. But then he decided to try some overseas work first. By the time he returned to South Africa four years later, his horizon of what he could do with his life had widened dramatically, and today he owns and runs a metal furniture factory, a gym, a bar, restaurant and conference centre, a farming operation, and is working on plans for a major mall-based entertainment business.
Thembekile matriculated in 1990 in one of the last cohorts in the official bantu-education system. Not surprisingly, the system failed to give him even a glimpse of his potential, but he was fortunate to be raised by his teacher aunt who made sure that he had enough of a foundation to study further at Fort Hare University.
Largely directionless, he started studying law, finished with a degree in communications, and after his studies joined a bank, where he was put on a fast-tracking programme. His first taste of the business world was a revelation, says Thembekile, who describes the experience as “falling in love” with the business world.
Soon he found himself climbing the banking ladder in Johannesburg, but could not shake the feeling that he was being kept back by old-school South African attitudes. The only way he could find out was to explore the wider world, and soon found himself in the US, working a half-day job as a budget analyst intern for a government agency. His entrepreneurial side emerged when he filled the other half of the day by running a coffee shop.
His next move was to Germany to pursue a romantic relationship and enrolled for an MBA at the Dortmund University. It became yet another formative experience, with mentors who taught him to unshackle his dreams and visions. Through his MBA dissertation he joined the Star Alliance airline network team that pitched its membership to the South African Airways.
He could have embarked on a career in Germany, but Thembekile felt that he lacked the intense specialisation that is highly prized in Germany. In contrast, the wide, general knowledge that he acquired overseas was ideal for pursuing opportunities in South Africa. Back home, Thembekile worked a stint in the car finance industry and later as a BEE transaction analyst.
His German experience once again changed his life when he met some German owners of a metal works factory in a pub in Johannesburg in 2009. The chance meeting grew into a fully-fledged business partnership. The German entrepreneurs were looking for a young partner to take over the fitting-and-turning workshop so that they could take a step back from the business, and Thembekile fitted the bill.
“This is where my entrepreneurial urges really kicked in,” says Thembekile, who found working for himself and employing others tremendously exciting. “It still excites me today,” he says.
Although he knew nothing of the metal industry, Thembekile was able to grow the business by devising a growth plan and raising finance for new machines. He was never quite in charge, however, and expectations of the partners diverged to the point where Thembekile decided to start the afresh, but this time on his own and in the Eastern Cape, his childhood home province.
Making use of government entrepreneurial support funds, he financed a new workshop that has grown into a 20-worker, 3500 square meter factory in Qonce (King Williamstown) that produces fencing and office and school furniture.
In 2016, a friend asked to join him in setting up a gym in a small space in Bisho, next to Qonce. Thembekile, who likes to gym himself, agreed that he had enough free time away from the factory to manage the gym’s finances while his friend took care of the sales. Membership grew well, and soon the Guerilla Empire Fitness gym needed new premises. They put in a bid for a building in downtown which had housed an old car dealership. Thembekile approached Business Partners Limited to finance R2.6 million of the bid, and he put in R300 000 of his own cash. Business Partners Ltd agreed, and the gym opened in its brand new premises in October 2019, a few months before the lockdown.
To help the gym survive, Business Partners Ltd gave Guerilla Empire Fitness a loan-repayment moratorium of four months. Unexpectedly, the pandemic turned out to be good for the business. Since the move to the new premises, membership has increased almost to 450, mainly due to the pent-up demand and a more intense health consciousness driven by the lockdowns.
Meanwhile, using the same approach of partnering with others, Thembekile has started a restaurant, pub and conference centre on the premises of the Old Dalian Union, Dale College’s alumni association, and has just harvested his first 70 hectares of maize, grown in partnership with a local cooperative.
His next big project is a mall-based children’s playground concept that he is currently negotiating for all the new mall developments of a large shopping-centre group. Beyond that, it is difficult to predict what Thembekile’s next venture will be. After all, he does not believe in limiting his range of opportunities.