‘Good advice’ not always right for the truly entrepreneurial

Anybody who comes to me today and says he wants to do business but the only barrier to entry is money, I’ll give him a hot klap. Money is not an issue. All you need are creative ideas.
Charles Ngobeni
Serial entrepreneur

Financial advisors preach prudence to South Africa’s youth: “Start saving from your very first salary. Don’t rush out to buy a car. Don’t get into debt.”

As a young science teacher in the late eighties, Charles Ngobeni took his first salary slip, rushed out to buy a car and got himself into major debt. He is living proof that when it comes to financial advice and career planning, one size does not fit all. Today the multi-millionaire owns a fast-growing cosmetics brand, a significant stake in a coal company that will soon list on the JSE, five Wimpy outlets, seven taxis and a filling station. Several other of his ventures have been successfully built up and sold.

In fact, Charles’s story puts into serious doubt the whole notion that anyone should advise the truly entrepreneurial among us, because what advisor in his right mind would have approved of Charles’s plan to leverage his first salary into start-up capital?

He was determined to buy a taxi on the strength of his first salary slip, but he needed money for a deposit. So he convinced a friend of his to trade in his car and buy it back immediately (essentially taking a loan from the car dealer using his friend’s car as collateral). He drove away in his taxi, owing both the car dealer and his friend so much money that it would give an ordinary salary earner (and financial advisors) sleepless nights.

But Charles was never meant to be an ordinary salary earner. While working as a teacher in Giyani, Limpopo, he increased his taxis to five, opened a butchery and a Mr Roosters franchise. As a teacher, he proved that entrepreneurship is part of his approach to everything he does. When he became science teacher at Alexandra High School, he single-handedly raised sponsorship for securing and rebuilding the school’s dysfunctional laboratory, a feat that was featured on national television.

The only way Charles could run his businesses and keep his deep commitment to his teaching job was to learn the art of remote-controlled business management. He picked up business lessons where he could, like the one from the franchisee from whom he bought the Mr Rooster’s outlet: Don’t manage “on the till”, he told him. A business owner who mans the till because he doesn’t trust anyone else with the cash will never make any money. Rather work behind the scenes, and use modern technology and good management systems to control the cash.

His teaching prowess allowed him to become adept at grooming managers, which is essentially a teaching and training process. Charles believes that teaching also practices the ability to project authority as well as good communications skills. “Business is all about communication,” he says.

By the time he bought his first Wimpy in Hillbrow in 1997, he resigned his teaching job out of concern that his teaching would suffer under his increasing business workload.

With characteristic drive, he became a star franchisee in the Wimpy group. Today his sits of the group’s franchise council and his stores are used for testing new products.

He first came into contact with Business Partners when he bought his second Wimpy outlet in Park Station, and needed cash to renovate the site. He was going to use his own money, but Business Partners offered him a good finance deal. True to his start-up history, Charles tries as far as possible to use borrowed money to start a business, and then to plough back every cent generated into growing it.

He believes Business Partners is ideally suited for the type of entrepreneurial finance he needs because all his assets are tied up in his growing businesses and the banks do not regard these as collateral for a loan. Business Partners, on the other hand, looks at the business potential and not only collateral.

Charles says he has never been as excited about a venture as his “own baby”, a range of skin-care products called Art of Skin Care, which he recently developed by from scratch by tapping into government incentive schemes to subsidise production and marketing development for new products. His production is done by renting the down-time slots on major chemical production lines, and his direct-selling network already stretches as far as Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland.

One size does not necessary fit all when it comes to financial advice, but after two decades and a few dozen businesses under his belt, Charles believes that at least one piece of advice is universal: “Anybody who comes to me today and says he wants to do business but the only barrier to entry is money, I’ll give him a hot klap. Money is not an issue. All you need are creative ideas.”