Business

Bheki Vilakazi: Earning a reputation as an expansion specialist

2019-10-18 02:03

The executive says taking time to understand the industry you are in is important, and he has a 90-day rule to help him learn as much as he can

Bheki Vilakazi is passionate about growth, and that love has seen him earn a reputation as an expansion specialist in corporate construction circles.

Vilakazi, the managing director of Enza Housing, a subsidiary of the Enza Construction group, has a people-centred growth model that has attracted the right attention.

In conversation with City Press, Vilakazi says he was born in Katlehong in Ekurhuleni and is the youngest of five siblings.

Vilakazi, who turns 50 later this month, explained how he merged a number of his passions from his teenage years at Fumana High School, from which he matriculated in 1988, and consolidated at Wits University, where he graduated with a BCom with insurance and economics as majors.

“Both my parents were general labourers. When I was six years old, my father passed away. I vividly remember my mother used to have a booklet that recorded all insurance premium payments, so when my father passed away and the insurance company declined to pay, that stuck in my mind as she was very frustrated because I wanted to understand this animal called insurance,” Vilakazi says.

He started his career at CWB Loss Adjusters insurance assessors as a trainee loss adjustor at a time when there were almost no black loss adjustors in the country.

“I started off working with the owner of the company as a trainee assessor and learnt a lot working directly under the boss. They were focusing on commercial and legal claims, but what I brought to the table was claims for homeowners and household contents, and I managed to get major state-owned clients via an underwriting company that was part of Zimisele.”

He later joined Zimisele Underwriting Management Company as a portfolio manager, but left after being appointed the acting managing director five years later.

“We grew Zimisele from R30 million to more than R250 million in turnover. So the vision was always to have that company be the first black-owned insurance company. When I left, I started an investment holding company with Maurice Radebe called Balisa Holdings,” Vilakazi says.

Three years later, Balisa boasted a portfolio worth more than R80 million across eight companies in various sectors and, with Vilakazi as the CEO, he sat on the boards of all eight entities.

“It was getting too much because I was assisting all the companies with business development. So we parked the company [Balisa] without disinvesting and I joined Egoli Gas in 2009, which was one of the companies that we had already invested in and I had been on the board with since 2006,” he says.

He later sold his shares in Balisa Holdings, but remains close to Radebe.

As managing director of Egoli Gas, Vilakazi expanded the business to drive its turnover from R230 million to more than R400 million in three years.

“We just had to broaden the scope of the targeted clients and we ensured we got commercial clients rather than having 80 clients with 80 problems.

As managing director of Egoli Gas, Vilakazi expanded the business to drive its turnover from R230 million to more than R400 million in three years.

“With commercial clients, it might be the same 80 challenges, but it’s a single client,” he says of his strategy to grow the company’s turnover rather than just the client base.

Vilakazi’s steering of Egoli Gas did not go unnoticed. Construction giant Stefanutti Stocks recruited him as the managing director of their then ailing housing division.

“I have never had to apply for a job in my life. I have always been approached. At Stefanutti Stocks, it was the same thing really. The mandate was to grow the business and ensure profitability,” he says.

Heading up the housing business of that company, he says, was a great experience, and he increased its turnover from about R250 million to more than R700 million.

“I stuck to the same principle of targeting bigger clients. That was one of my career highlights because I was more exposed to social housing.”

At Stefanutti, his performance prompted the company to offer him a position to be part of the executive committee of the group and an understudy to the CEO.

The decision to take up the offer saw him relinquish his position as managing director of the housing division.

The CEO handover did not work out, and that was when he was approached by Enza Construction to join the company to establish Enza Housing in January last year.

“I have always been in a space where I either have to start something or grow something. When I started at Enza Housing, it was a natural progression because I have always been in infrastructure [development] in one way or another. Anything to do with structure and bricks and mortar, that’s me,” he says.

Vilakazi says starting the subsidiary proved to be challenging.

“Getting clients did not happen as quickly as anticipated. Another challenge was working capital, because you needed to feed this baby. Fortunately, the shareholders were patient. They stuck it out,” Vilakazi says.

The company has now bagged some major social housing projects.

“You don’t want to grow for the sake of growing,” Vilakazi says, emphasising that, in growing the company, he ensured that he was not overstretching the resources.

He also consolidated the client base.

Taking time to understand an industry, Vilakazi says, is very important in any business, and this does not happen overnight.

“You don’t want to grow for the sake of growing,” Vilakazi says, emphasising that, in growing the company, he ensured that he was not overstretching the resources. He also consolidated the client base.

“I normally talk about the first 90 days. When I go into a company or a sector, I will meet the top 20 clients, the top 20 suppliers, the stakeholders, staff, shareholders and the regulator within the first 90 days.

“The intention is to immerse oneself in the industry and understand the expectations of the stakeholders. It is also important to be at the coalface so that when you expand, you know exactly what it takes, because being a managing director is about the people,” Vilakazi says.

The keen reader of business publications and a family man, Vilakazi is also a deeply religious lay pastor and passionate business mentor.

He considers his former partner at Balisa Holdings and current vice-president of energy business at Sasol, Radebe, as his own mentor.




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November 10 2019