Ike Chalumbira overturns many of the conceptions you might have about what makes a successful entrepreneur, but there is no doubt that he is the real deal.

Ike Chalumbira is running somewhat late for our interview at Tasha’s in Melrose Arch, where it’s clear the waiters know him well. He’s jovial, as compact as a rubber ball, and radiates energy, rather like a benign nuclear reactor.

Chalumbira is the founder and CEO of Lionshare Holdings, an investment holding company. His is an extraordinary entrepreneurial journey from hustling township boy to the head of a focused, growing empire.

In contrast to the protagonist of Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Chalumbira tried and discarded the monastic life – too monotonous, he says – in favour of the active life of a businessman and serial entrepreneur. His is very much faith in action, and his wife runs a thriving NGO, One Moment Foundation, fed by his various companies. Money for him is very definitely tied to his sense of responsibility towards those who depend on him, as well as, more broadly, on society as a whole.

It’s no great feat of imagination to see where this link between business success and responsibility comes from. His background was humble, and his tailor father’s income was supplemented by his mother’s small vegetable-hawking business. From an early age, he felt the urge to hustle to make money. He clearly admires his mother who, one gathers, was prevented from reaching her full entrepreneurial potential by the requirement to fulfil the role of a traditional African housewife.

The sense that others depend on him has also given him a sense of urgency – this is a man in a hurry, even now. For example, when he left the monastery, he quickly realised that he needed more education and, “to cut a long story short”, got himself into the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study law. To achieve that, he had to return to Zimbabwe to get his A-levels which he did in three months – “I had black tax to pay,” he says.

After a term at UCT, he realised law was not for him – like the monastic life, it seemed a rather predictable existence, repeatedly applying the same legal principles over and over again. He switched to social sciences but (that urgency again) just didn’t have four years to spare. The dean, Wilmot James (also the former Federal Chairperson of the Democratic Alliance), finally agreed to allow him to do the degree in two years, provided he didn’t fail any subject ever.

The rest, as they say, is history.

UCT’s then-head of career guidance must have been perspicacious beyond the norm because he gave Chalumbira some sterling advice that put him firmly on the path to success. “You’re obviously an entrepreneur through and through,” he told him, “but don’t try and start a business the moment you leave varsity. Rather join a corporate and learn from it how a business is run.”

He joined Procter & Gamble in 1994, where he worked for three years. He was then headhunted by Coca-Cola, where he worked a further eight – the last three in Angola as country manager. Angola, then a new territory for the brand and a country still at war, was the ‘university of life’ he says. He arrived there with no Portuguese, the lingua franca of business, and a can of imported Coke cost US$2 in the marketplace. By the time he left (for family reasons), Angola was one of the biggest Coke markets in Africa, and a locally produced bottle of Coke was retailing for 25 cents – thanks, he says, to the power of the Coke brand and the sophisticated distribution systems he could leverage and learn from.

And then a global corporate reorganisation got underway and gave him the exit opportunity he had been increasingly looking for: “I always knew my path was to go on my own.”

The many virtues of investing in property

A theme that runs through Chalumbira’s business career is property, which has been a source of wealth and a springboard for new business ideas.

It all seems to have started when he began at Coke. He found himself sharing an office with Bobby Mia, a member of the family on whose land Waterfall City in Midrand is built. Like Chalumbira, Mia had also begun with nothing but, over the years, had amassed 42 houses in the Fordsburg/Mayfair area. On his advice, the younger man began accumulating townhouses in Midrand and ultimately flats in Yeoville and Berea during his years in Angola when, as he points out, he was earning dollars.

Incidentally, that’s where the name 'Lionshare' came from – he was trying to accumulate the lion’s share of downtown Jo’burg residential property, a friend quipped. The name stuck because the lion is also his clan totem. He ultimately sold out his residential properties in 2018 to a fund because the market had caught onto the opportunity, and returns had dropped to a measly 10% compared to the 30%-plus he had been getting. By the time he sold, properties he had originally bought for around R20,000 (sometimes using his credit card) fetched an average of R250,000.

He also found it increasingly troubling to have to evict tenants who had nowhere else to go.

He has remained in property, this time focusing on commercial and industrial sites. Further ventures include Lionshare Automotive, which provides service centres for Scania trucks and buses along the N1. A key associate came up with the idea, and they spent six weeks sitting by the side of the highway counting trucks. At the end of the period, there were two market leaders – Scania and Volvo. They ended up working with Scania because they liked its values and culture better. They currently have three service centres along the route, with the largest under construction in Polokwane. Mozambique is next on the cards.

In his view, Africa is full of God-given resources and talent, and those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born here need to use them to make the continent better. “We weren’t born in China; we were born here,” he says.

The property link is evident in another venture – The Fuel Company (TFC). TFC is the outcome of an enduring fascination with the opportunities inherent in the fuel and forecourt business. He began amassing properties on which filling stations existed but realised he needed a partner – an introduction to Kaap Agri, which already had 36 stations and needed a BBBEE partner, was arranged, and TFC was born. It’s brand agnostic, providing the back-end systems and processes for around 45 filling stations. And growing.

Chalumbira’s entrepreneurial journey reached a high point in 2020 when he was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year for South Africa. But entrepreneurs typically do not rest on their laurels. He says that 2021 was a record year for Lionshare, ending with approval for a R1.3 billion project, and he still feels he has lots to do.

“This country’s going to be taken out the quagmire it finds itself in by entrepreneurs,” he believes, and he repeats the same sentiment time and again. He is currently exploring ways of helping to stimulate the many talented young people in corporates and government who could follow in his footsteps but are either afraid to fail or don’t quite know how to start.

As they say, watch this space.

Lessons from an entrepreneur

Some of the thinking that underlies Ike Chalumbira’s success include:

  • Get educated but then apply your knowledge as quickly as possible. “You don’t need a Master’s to be an entrepreneur,” he says. He’s a fan of the short courses that institutions like GIBS run as they give one the skills one needs in short order.
  • Get work experience as soon as you can with a good corporate. Learn from the best how a company is run.
  • Don’t be afraid to be contrarian. Inner-city Jo’burg property in the 2000s? Service centres for trucks and buses in Mozambique? Follow the big returns but be prepared to do what it takes. For example, he had to form his own security company to secure his property investments in Johannesburg but also started a soup kitchen to serve the less fortunate in the same area.
  • ‘Start as a venture capitalist but evolve into private equity’ is a theme he returns to frequently. By this he means that in order to build a sustainable business, it’s important to create a framework and avoid reinventing the wheel. There are many sides to this. One is that he eschews the ‘contract mentality’, no matter how enticing the short-term profits might be. Instead, he looks for businesses with a long-term trajectory that can ultimately yield good profits with minimal ongoing effort and have an impact. (His parable here is an orange tree. You need to spend the first few years nurturing it, providing the right nutrients, and so on, but after that, all it needs is water to yield oranges for many years.) A successful entrepreneur has a 50-year timescale in mind and a clear end-game strategy.
  • Collaborate and build partnerships to scale. The traditional image of the entrepreneur as a lone wolf doesn’t cut it with Chalumbira: in his book, one needs partners to help the venture grow and grow. He references the Gutsche family based in Port Elizabeth who, for three generations, have aligned their business with Coca-Cola: a partnership that has created the largest bottler in Africa. The ongoing relationship between Kaap Agri, the oil majors, Lionshare Automotive and Scania should be seen in that light.
  • Find like-minded individuals, mentors or organisations to help you on your journey. He is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organisation which, he says, has enhanced his entrepreneurship journey immeasurably.

“Finally, if you’re a wannabe entrepreneur but are afraid to fail, you are quite right to be apprehensive. But, as the saying goes, ‘No pain, no gain’. Just get out there and make it happen,” says Chalumbira.

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