Wide-ranging skills aid survival in the building business

Leon-le-Fleur-may-2014

La Fleur’s wide-ranging skills built up throughout his career has enabled him to survive the ups and downs of the construction industry.
Leon La Fleur

When you start wielding a welding rod at the age of nine, you are pretty much destined for a career of building things, as the life of Leon La Fleur attests.

The reason he remembers how young he was when he started welding, says La Fleur, was that he got arc eyes, a painful condition caused by the light from a welding flame. “My mother in those days treated it by putting a cloth with used tea bags over my eyes,” says 53-year-old La Fleur.

He is standing in front of a rather rare sight in South Africa: a busy team of builders working on a brand new three-storey apartment block.

To the left of the unfinished block in Bellville, Cape Town, is another set of flats, completed, sold and fully occupied. La Fleur points out that the metal balustrades that grace the building was made by his father’s engineering works where La Fleur as a young boy got his first taste of construction. It is now passing on to the next generation. La Fleur’s own son Roscoe has joined his business, Reid Construction CC, about a year ago and is currently working himself up through the ranks.

To the right of the building site is an open space where there soon will be a third block, bringing the total development to 52 living units.

With the help of Business Partners, La Fleur bought the land in 2007, just before the collapse of the property market. However, it was not the financial crisis that delayed the building process, but rather the other main pain point for developers such as La Fleur: municipal zoning and planning processes.

It took no less than four and a half years to get the property rezoned from a church property to residential, ironically just long enough to bridge the worst of the recession. Just one objection from one neighbour is enough to delay the process for years, says La Fleur. There is more than enough space to fit two more blocks on the property which was previously occupied by a church, but getting approval simply takes too long.

La Fleur’s wide-ranging skills built up throughout his career has enabled him to survive the ups and downs of the construction industry. As a boy, he helped his father build their family home. In the early eighties, he started off as an apprentice heavy-current electrical engineer, but switched to mechanical engineering because it offered more training opportunities. Very soon after his training, La Fleur became a self-employed contractor, thereby laying the foundations for the administrative skills needed to run his own business.

By the age of 28, he had built his own home in Belhar, Cape Town, for his young family, but decided to relocate to Johannesburg where he could earn more as a contracted mechanical draughtsman, and on the side he studied architecture.

When the family returned to Cape Town in the mid-nineties, he was determined to start his own mechanical engineering company, but “it was a very close-knit industry at the time and it was very difficult to penetrate those markets”.

“Then I made the decision to go into building,” says La Fleur. With his savings, he bought four plots in Durbanville, and set about building a house on one of them. It was sold five months after he finished it, allowing him to start building the second one.

In this way La Fleur gradually left off his engineering contracts to focus on building his construction company, taking on increasingly bigger developments.

At one point he had 80 employees, but in order to increase productivity and ease labour relations, he re-engaged many of his employees as independent contractors.

The restructuring gave him life-saving flexibility when the financial crisis struck. He was in the middle of building six houses in Kuils River when the market dried up and quickly had to scale back his operations. His wide-ranging skills also helped, allowing him to do the plumbing of the development himself in order to save costs and complete the project.

Unable to sell many of the units, he recruited tenants, which were gradually replaced by buyers as the market turned. The experience taught him to avoid residential rental management as a business, because he found out that he does not have the heart to evict non-paying families.

La Fleur says the market is not yet back to the levels seen prior to the recessions, but it is slowly coming to life. He is optimistic about expanding his business also outside of Cape Town, particularly in the Southern Cape, as long as he and his son can maintain a hands-on presence on site. “One mistake can bring the business down,” he says.

La Fleur is particularly optimistic about building opportunities in the below-R500 000 housing market.

In between development projects, La Fleur does building projects for individual clients who value the quality of his workmanship. The man who bought his first house in Durbanville, for example, phoned him recently to contract him for an extension project. In an industry as rough as construction, it helps to be able to keep your clients for life.