At the age of twenty seven (27), Lebo Gunguluza became one of South Africa’s youngest self made billionaires. Lebo’s father passed away when Lebo was still at a very tender age and his mother worked in a clinic as a nurse. At the time, there was hardly enough money to cater for the family and the little money his mother had managed to save for his tertiary institution was only able to take him, his sister and his brother through high school. The late 80s were indeed a turbulent one for the family.
He said “there were so many boycotts at the time that I missed two years of school, so my mother took her savings and sent me to Woodridge College, just outside of Port Elizabeth, which was a multiracial school”. “It was a great move on her part as I managed to get a really good education there, but it meant there was nothing left over for varsity”.
According to Gunguluza, he says his aspiration of studying business was ignited by his high threshold for risk. Even when he had neither funds nor accommodation, he was aware of the fact that he had absolutely nothing to lose. “Whatever you do; the higher the risk, the higher the reward. I had been accepted at the university, but I could not pay the fees so I was not allowed to register. But it didn’t matter – all I knew was that I had to get in so that I could do a business degree and become an entrepreneur”.
Having so much determination early in life, reinforced by his understanding of how essential qualitative education can be, would be of great advantage to him later on at crucial moments in his career. This also showed how determined he was in preparing himself for his future career.
Incidentally, and maybe due to his charm, he was fortunate enough to have met a guy who accommodated him while he was on campus. During this period, the struggled so hard to raise money for his tuition.
“I’ve always been a creative thinker. At school I won a national essay competition on how to launch DSTV. I have applied that skill where possible throughout my life. I knew I had to earn some cash so I went to Edgars and offered to become an agent for the retailer on campus. I would sign up new accounts and they would pay me commission. They agreed, and I did so well that I ended up working in-store. I was making enough money to survive by working during the day and catching up on my studies at night. But it was a struggle to pay fees, so I got a loan to help me get by”.
What this implies is that by the time he finished from tertiary institution in 1994, he had a debt to pay back. However, he had a degree, a little work experience and an incredible capacity to sell. These got him several job offers and he chose to work at the SABC as a sales executive.
“I wanted to be in an environment that was creative. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find out where your talents lie when you are young so that you can make choices that hone your skills”.
At this time, he set certain goals for himself as regards his finances. “I had grown up so deprived that I was determined to make a lot of money and never experience poverty again. I set three goals: to become a millionaire by age 25, a multimillionaire by 35 and a billionaire by 45.”
While he worked as a sales executive at the SABC, he did so well that within two years, he was promoted four times and by the time he was twenty four (24) years of age, he had become the marketing manager for the renowned Metro FM. Howbeit, he remained the sole breadwinner of his family and they all depended on him for a living. Back at Port Elizabeth, his folks believed he was making so much money but according to him, he wasn’t earning enough to take care of everyone.
In a bid to increase his earning capacities, he decided to save up for a broadcasting course which was going to take place in America. However, upon arrival, things did not exactly work according to his plans when he was recruited by advertising mavericks, Herdbuoys.
“My salary doubled, but the ad industry is a tough business to be in. I was working really hard but still not making much headway. There was no way I was going to make that first million. Then something struck me. I was really good at throwing big parties at home. Why was I getting all these people to eat my food and drink my alcohol for free, when I could be making money from them?”
Once again, Gunguluza took the daring route and left behind the comfort of his salary. He was driven by the desire to build an empire that would roll in enough funds to cater for his family and help him achieve his first goal of becoming a millionaire.
He had no capital to invest in the business, but he maximized the advantages of his shrewdness. Apart from being a salesperson, Gunguluza is very good at networking. “There was a night club called Insomnia in Sandston that was not doing too well. I approached the owners and told them I would bring the crowds if they let me take the door. That way they could make their money by selling drinks.”
The idea was a brilliant one and it started immediately. This was more so because there were no clubs for young and trendy black people around at the time. On the first night, Gunguluza made R7 000 which was a really good start. Like many entrepreneurs who have just started out, Gunguluza didn’t separate the business funds from his personal funds but he was able to realize the need soon enough. He did great for a couple of months, but that was until a certain celebrity came and copied his business model. In no time, his customers stopped coming and he had to re-strategize.
Over time, he made a slight shift and became a talent manager. Then again, he started to reel in the cash and he seized this opportunity to build his brand. “I made sure I was on radio all the time and I positioned myself as a local entertainment expert,” he says. Several experiences made Gunguluza to believe that in business as in life, you do not always need money to buy things. There are times when you use other resources when you don’t have cash. “Without funding, tenders or loans, I had made my first million at the age of 27. It’s a principle I still live by today. I never borrow money from the banks. It can cripple you forever. The other problem is that many young people who secure a loan treat it as a lotto win and live the high life on it. That’s why so many projects are abandoned half way.”
Just when it appeared as though he was doing great, he committed another blunder. Clouded by his apparent success, he bought a fancy – Porsche – car and he began to drive around the world. While trying to drive through the earth, he left the fate of his business in the hands of others. He lost touch with the decision making process in the company and when he finally arrived, he met with what he described as the biggest crisis he had yet confronted. Gunguluza lost as much as R7 million worth of deals within three weeks and ran into a debt of up to R4 million. Due to this unfortunate event, he was unable to pay salaries and he had to lay off staff. According to him, this was the most painful time of his life.
Regardless of these, Gunguluza did not see himself as a failure. He sold off his office building for R1 million and he started all over again. This time around, he started a restaurant and with the help of his wife, the restaurant soon became very popular and he started to pay back all his debtors. Over time, his relationship with his wife began to turn sour until they eventually separated in 2008.
After the separation, he handed the restaurant to his ex-wife and started to work on other business ideas he had been growing on the side.
“I hardly ever slept at that time. When I was not at the restaurant I was developing a new media business and creating new partnerships. I had managed to settle all my debt and build a company that had already turned R2 million by the time I was out of Primi (the restaurant).”
Gunguzula wanted to get himself involved in various sectors ranging from technology, hospitality, investment, property and media. “I wanted to use the media business to develop other companies within the GEM (Gunguluza Enterprises & Media) Group of Companies. I was now chasing my R1 billion goal, but I knew that if I started from scratch it would take far too long. My strategy was to acquire an interest in existing companies and triple their turnover by boosting their sales and marketing.”
Indeed, Gunguluza never rests. He launched a car hire company and intends to begin to offer flight services in no distant time. He also acquired interests in many different hotels. Having learnt from experience, he now leaves nothing to chance and is always very careful with his decisions.
In an interview, Gunguluza had this to say: “In the past, my HR was a mess. I would hire people just because I liked them. Today, we have strict hiring policies and procedures and we are particular about the people we employ.”
Gunguluza keeps an open mind and still seeks opportunities in each sector of his business. Never has he forgotten his family or siblings. His folks all have senior positions within the group. His success story is indeed a pointer to the fact that one person can make a positive impact on a family and a community. Logically, he is way more cautious now than he was back in his 20s and 30s. Be it as it may, his ultimate goal of becoming a billionaire by the age of forty five (45) remains firmly within his sights.