How To Build An Empire: Business Lessons From South African Billionaire Sisa Ngebulana

Early failures, missteps and lessons learnt, plus a strong drive to succeed are some of the things that have propelled property mogul Sisa Ngebulana to become the billionaire that he is today.

“You get these challenges … but you don’t realise that they are going to make you stronger,” he said during an interview at his office, which is furnished in luxurious style in an office block near the Palazzo Hotel in Montecasino in northern Johannesburg.

Ngebulana – a lawyer by training before committing to his property business 14 years ago – had tried various sideline businesses, including furniture removals, renovating and selling property, investing in a coal company and building residential property.

These days, “I stick to what I know best”, which is residential, retail and commercial property.

“I have always been thrown into the deep end. I throw people into the deep end … It is hard being baptised in the deep end.”

One of the most important things that 50-year-old Ngebulana attributes his success to is “hard work”.

“I like people who are motivated and know that great rewards come through hard work. I hate laziness,” he said.

In his youth, Ngebulana, who grew up in Sada close to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, had his first taste of business when he worked in his family’s shop.

Ngebulana has a B.Juris from the University of Fort Hare, an LLB from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an LLM in international finance from the University of Johannesburg (then the Rand Afrikaans University).

“My grandmother believed in proper education. She said you had to have a degree and you had to be a professional. ‘You talk too much and you like winning your arguments, you have logic and you will make a good lawyer,’ she said. In those days, when old people said that’s what you are going to do, that’s what you did.”

Small beginnings

While at university, Ngebulana wrote and passed the estate agency exam. He then registered with a local estate agency and started to sell and renovate homes.

“I paid back all my student loans that way … the following year [at 21], I bought a BMW.”

After university, Ngebulana completed his articles at Jan S de Villiers Attorneys in Cape Town.

When his legal exams were behind him, Ngebulana bought a towbar for his car, hired a trailer and offered his services as a furniture remover.

Later, he bought some trucks and employed people as part of his removals business.

However, Ngebulana’s small removals business ran into trouble and the stress caused him to black out three times.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for the trucks … I was facing threats to repossess [them]. It was a wake-up call and I decided to put the trucks on auction.”

Ngebulana took at job at Eskom’s legal department from 1995 to 2002, where he ended up in the power utility’s treasury section as its legal adviser.

“When I started at Eskom, I had a big debt to pay off [from the removal business].

So I had to do something.

“My Eskom job never paid enough. My salary was R10 000 and my monthly take-home pay was R6 200 and I had a debt of R1.1 million. There was no way that I could dream of paying off R1.1 million,” he said.

“So I decided to buy empty plots at Kyalami Estates … I built about eight houses,” Ngebulana said.

In 1998, then SA Reserve Bank governor Chris Stals pushed up interest rates to 25.5%, which brought the economy to a halt.

At the same time, Ngebulana set up his property development company, the Billion Group, as a sideline business that operated out of Randburg. Ngebulana had cash at the time and he picked up six stands in Kyalami at cost.

After that, he worked on cluster developments in Hyde Park, Bryanston, Dainfern and Pecanwood in Hartbeespoort.

While still at Eskom, a company called Century Carbon, which was listed on the JSE and owned coal mines, ran into trouble.

Ngebulana put some of his money into the company, but 30 months later more problems were discovered.

“I took some leave. My life had reached a point where I could no longer keep a job and also do what I [needed to] do. So I left Eskom. The banks said if I was going to help recapitalise the company, I needed to work full time,” he added.

“There was no money to pay salaries, so every month I needed to put money in. I don’t know how I survived for the first six months,” Ngebulana said.

In late 2003, he started to get involved in commercial property.

“My first building – which is still part of Rebosis today and is valued at R600 million – was bought for R40 million. That was my springboard in the commercial space. I spent R45 million on that building. Twelve to 14 months later, it was valued at R160 million,” he said.

Ngebulana later got into building malls and shopping centres, especially those close to townships and rural areas. Then, in 2010, he set up Rebosis Property Fund.

“Rebosis is a mashup of the first names of my ex-wife and kids. I listed the company on the JSE in May 2011 for R3.6 billion.

“It was the largest initial public offering in (IPO) the property sector at the time and it was the first black-owned company in the property sector.”

Rebosis’ assets today are worth R18 billion, he added.

Ngebulana is chairperson of New Frontier Properties – which owns a UK shopping centre – in which Rebosis has a 68% stake, and he is also chairperson of Ascension Properties, in which Rebosis holds a 59% interest.

Billion Group listing?

Ngebulana is looking at listing the Billion Group on the JSE and will review that idea in February.

“We wanted to list Billion as a development property fund last year. Rebosis’ shareholders have first right of refusal on the Billion properties now. The current deal has been revised and will see Rebosis shareholders buy R5 billion in retail assets from Billion.”

After that deal is completed, Billion will still have R2.6 billion in assets. Seventy percent of shareholders have backed the deal and it should be wrapped up later this year.

“The listing is aimed at unlocking the pipeline of projects and tapping into new funding for Billion,” he said.

Competing property development companies already listed on the JSE include Atterbury Property, Pivotal Property Fund and Balwin Properties.

In the meantime, the Billion Group has big plans and in the two years up to August 2018, the company is planning to spend R6.7 billion on 50 projects.

The projects are a mixed batch of residential, office and retail properties, with retail property making up more than half of the projects, residential property just over a quarter and office projects the remainder.

Some of the major projects include new shopping centres such as in Hebron near Soshanguve outside Pretoria, the Rabie Ridge shopping centre next to Tembisa on Johannesburg’s East Rand and a shopping centre planned in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape.

Totally untransformed

Property was one of those sectors that was “totally untransformed”, Ngebulana said.

“It is one sector where transformation doesn’t matter. Some of the guys have done BEE transactions. It is still hard – with the greatest respect – for the sector to accept a company like mine as an equal.

“We get resistance everywhere with everything we do. We get bad-mouthed … I don’t live relying on transformation – I do my own thing,” he said.

There is no charter in the property sector.

“It has been spoken about forever,” Ngebulana said.

The other major black property firm listed on the JSE are Delta Property Fund and Dipula Property Fund.

“Black companies are heavily discounted in the market,” he added.

Rebosis is trading at a 30% discount to its net asset value, according to Ngebulana.

“It is space where black people are not welcome. There are a lot of good people out there, I’m not condemning everyone in the sector,” he said.

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