Most people who manage to escape the grinding poverty of South African townships find a single goal to focus on – a skill, a career path or a field of study – and climb that ladder step by step. The extraordinary thing about Siyabulela Mandla is that he climbed two ladders, simultaneously, so that others can follow him. Siyabulela not only opened a corporate path for himself from the factory floor to the management suite, but at the same time he built a cluster of businesses in the township where he grew up. Today he combines his corporate and his start-up experience as CEO and co-owner of Rhino Manufacturing, a 52-worker plastics factory.
Siyabulela’s story began ordinarily enough. As the son of a nurse and a factory worker, he grew up in Motherwell, Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), and like so many thousands of his peers he did not have enough money for tertiary education.
Heartbroken, he pocketed his dream of studying law, and found a job as a factory worker at the Gqeberha plant of an international company that supplied electronic equipment to the car industry. There he started his steady climb up the corporate ladder, first as a machine operator and then team leader. Siyabulela made it clear to the management that he was eager to study further, and they agreed to sponsor him. Within eight years he became a qualified electrical engineer and completed an MBA, after which he was promoted to senior management of the company.
Most people find working full time and studying at night overwhelming enough, but somehow Siyabulela found the time and energy to start a car-wash operation in Motherwell at the same time.
He says he was driven by a combination of wishes. He wanted to see if he could replicate the success that he was experiencing in the corporate world within a business of his own. He also wanted to test his belief that if you approach a simple township business with formal business practices it can transcend the limitations of informal survival trade and grow. Finally, he wanted to provide jobs to the youth of Motherwell so that they could follow in his footsteps.
He managed all three. The 469 Car Wash & Cafe grew and soon expanded to include a shisanyama style restaurant, bar, and entertainment venue.
In 2012, while he was still working as a corporate manager, Siyabulela entered his fledgling carwash into the SAB Kickstart programme, a competition for emerging entrepreneurs. He thought his business concept was too simple to make it far in the competition, but he was curious to see how his township business model would measure up. By this stage of his career he was confident about his abilities as a technical expert and manager, but less sure about his entrepreneurial abilities. To his surprise he won, and it turned out to be the first in a string of awards.
Soon thereafter his business won another national competition run by the Small Enterprise Development Agency, and in 2019 Siyabulela was one of 15 finalists in the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year competition sponsored by Business Partners Limited.
His success in those first competitions gave Siyabulela the confidence to step out of his lucrative corporate career in 2013 and run his own businesses full time. “It was a scary thing, and I remember the people close to me saying it was a big mistake, but I said to myself I’ve got this passion and if I’m not prepared to invest in it, no one will do it on my behalf. Also, if I failed, I could always go back.”
Siyabulela did go back to the corporate world, but certainly not after failing. For a few years, Siyabulela put all of his energy into his Motherwell businesses, adding a transport service, a craft brewery and a promotions agency to the stable.
Even as he expanded his township businesses he kept in touch with his corporate network, looking out for new opportunities. It came in the form of Rhino Plastics, an established Gqeberha business that wanted to spin off its manufacturing facility to concentrate on marketing. Siyabulela saw it as a perfect opportunity to meld his corporate experience, his technical and managerial qualifications, and his entrepreneurial experience into one.
After months of negotiations with financiers, he bought the majority shareholding in the factory, renamed Rhino Manufacturing, which he co-owns with the workers and the founders.
The last three years have been a rollercoaster ride which has tested every measure of Siyabulela’s skills, he says. He has had to learn a whole new industry while implementing a turnaround strategy for an established, previously family-owned business.
Rhino Manufacturing produces mainly plastic piping and sheeting for the construction and agricultural sectors. Construction is in a slump, and the pandemic has certainly not helped. But Siyabulela says agriculture is looking up, and with a well-thought-through strategy of diversification and finding new markets, they will pull through.
Soon, he hopes, he will be able to test a few ideas of his about bringing manufacturing to the townships.