How Xoliswa Daku Took Her Business From R18-million to R100-million in Under Four Years

Xoliswa Daku believes in creating wealth through property developments. This principle has been her guiding star, helping her take an R18 million business to R100 million in under four years.

By
You're reading Entrepreneur South Africa, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Vital stats

  • Player: Xoliswa Daku
  • Company: Daku Group
  • Launched: 2003
  • Turnover: R100 million
  • What they do: Investment, infrastructure and property development
  • Visit: www.dakugroup.co.za

Xoliswa Daku completed her law degree knowing she would one day be an entrepreneur. At the time she thought she would eventually have her own law practice, instead of heading up a R100-million property development business, with R800 million in assets under management.

Supplied

These are her lessons for growth.

1. Do what you love

If there is such a thing as the first rule of successful business ownership, it’s this: Do what you love. True passion will not only see you through challenging times, but keep you focused on your ultimate goals as well.

Too many businesses water down their value propositions or get distracted chasing revenue, to the ultimate detriment of the company’s long-term growth strategies.

Xoliswa learnt this lesson the hard way, but has significantly grown her asset base and margins since realising her company was losing its way.

“I began my corporate career at a legal firm, and within a year was head-hunted and offered a position at Wesgro, the official tourism, trade & investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape,” says Xoliswa.

“Wesgro was full of economists, but they needed a legal person to assist with policy. The move introduced me to the worlds of business development and marketing, and it was then that I fell in love with the whole process of finding greenfield spaces and packaging an entire development deal, from the investors to other business partners. 

“When I left the agency a few years later to join an entrepreneurial business that was in the incentives field, it wasn’t long before I gravitated back to this space. My love for it was the deciding factor, and it’s what has driven me, even when things got tough.”

As with many growing businesses, Xoliswa was so busy chasing growth that she lost her way. “When you start out, you’ll do anything to keep cash flowing into the business. I was consulting as well, and would tackle any needs a client had, from legal issues to BEE and marketing queries.

The problem was that it diluted our brand. We had grown to a business with an R18 million turnover, and people were constantly asking me what it was that we actually did. I realised my entire business model was reactive, rather than proactive, and it was entirely my fault. I had no chance of growing a large business if we didn’t focus on our core areas.”

Xoliswa made the decision to offload some of the company’s products and focus. This is where passion played its role, because it helped her determine exactly where she wanted to focus Daku Group’s energies.

The lesson: High-growth organisations are proactive, not reactive. No business can be the master of everything. Choose your niche, focus on which opportunities give you the best margins and above all, ensure you’re following your passion. The more specialist a business, the more successful it tends to be. 

2. Capitalise on your base

The most successful businesses (and business owners) are exceptionally good at developing a base and then growing it.

For example, Xoliswa launched the Daku Group when she was approached to join the development team for The One and Only Hotel as the project’s BEE partner and shareholder. The reason the team approached her was because of the reputation she had built at Wesgro. Because she came in while the deal was being structured, she was an active partner throughout the deal and development of the hotel.

“If you’re good at what you do, one partnership leads to another,” explains Xoliswa. “The more a market gets to know you and your reputation, the higher your chances of securing a deal. But you also can’t just sit back and expect work and contracts to flow your way. You have to take that solid reputation and make sure you’re getting noticed by the right people. And that takes planning.

“I started out helping other businesses to grow, and then put those lessons to good use in my own company. I also learnt as much as possible about my sector: The various players, the challenges my potential partners faced, and which opportunities worked and which didn’t.

“There’s so much out there, but you need to understand the landscape and what you have to offer before you can approach potential partners and pitch for deals. No one will come find you and offer an amazing opportunity — you have to go out and find it, and prove that you’re the best fit for the deal. To do that, you need a strong base, and that’s built on knowledge, experience, and successful projects that cement your reputation in the market.”

The lesson: If you’re planning for long-term success, approach every pitch, deal and even research strategically. You need to become the expert in your field; your future partners should benefit from working with you, and you need to be able to prove this. 

3. Under-promise and over-deliver

Understand your company’s capabilities, and work within them to ensure you over-deliver, rather than over-promise and then let your clients down.

“We were very strategic about the sites we pitched for within the Prasa tender,” explains Xoliswa. The Prasa deal is everything Xoliswa loves: A greenfield infrastructure development project that called for local developers to pitch their ideas around what could be done with the land around Prasa’s interchanges.

“Prasa published an expression of interest. I always pay attention to what’s happening in the space, looking for development opportunities. Once you find out about a project, you then need to market yourself, and think strategically about what the client needs for the entire project to be a success.

“These pitches are at your own expense, so you want to ensure you’re aligning yourself with their needs — otherwise it’s an expensive act in futility that just wastes everyone’s time. When I was at Wesgro, I was mentored by an economist who was nearing retirement. He was extremely knowledgeable and insightful about what makes certain projects a success, and others a failure. For example, he thought Century City in Cape Town wouldn’t work, because the project didn’t include a transport interchange, or residential and office space. He was right. The original developers sold the project and it’s being reworked.

“This gave me great insight into what Prasa needed to successfully launch a national transport interchange. Whilst Prasa presented various opportunities to developers on an open tender system, I opted for three sites and those were awarded to me. I assessed and recognised that I couldn’t do more than that. I believe it’s important to avoid taking on more than you can chew, even at tender stage. It was important to me that the entire project was a success. 

“If I’d pitched for more than three sites, I would have been spreading myself too thin, and I knew it. Remember, all the risk areas of the project belong to you as the developer. You’re bringing three things together: The site, resources and capital. But ultimately the risk is yours — the rewards too — but successful projects are completed because the risks have been mitigated.”

This isn’t to say Xoliswa has any interest in being a small business. She’s always aimed high, and wants to move through Africa and beyond. But she’s building careful foundations to ensure a sustainable business that can handle growth and build on it.

The lesson: It’s always good to aim high. Most entrepreneurs have the mantra that they’ll say yes first and then figure out how to do it. In this way, great things are achieved. But you also have to be realistic. Plan for success, ensure you have all the components in place, and then deliver — but don’t over-promise. If you know you have certain limitations, work within them and deliver an exceptional product, rather than over-extending yourself and only achieving a mediocre result.

4. Learning is the gateway to growth

In 2010, Xoliswa enrolled in an Executive MBA at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. When she entered the programme, Daku Group’s turnover was R18 million. By 2014 it was R100 million. During the two-year programme her company’s turnover dipped. This was expected. Running a company while completing an MBA is no easy task, and there were gaps in the business while she focused on her personal and business development.

It had been a strategic decision — some short-term pain and losses for long-term gain.

“My business was seven years old, and I recognised that something was holding us back. We were experiencing growth challenges, and I wasn’t finding a way to move us forward. We had some incredible projects under our belt, but we had hit a ceiling.”

Xoliswa took stock of what she was facing. “First, I was playing across a lot of spaces: Investment and trade, the legal field, women empowerment, and I was struggling to find mentors. People were coming to me to mentor them. That’s flattering, and I want to give back, but mentors have always been critical for me. I felt that my personal development had stalled.”

Studying further seemed to be the only solution. Xoliswa had already completed her law degree, a certificate programme in Economics, the Management Development Programme (MAP) at Stellenbosch University, and a project management course through Cranfield University. An MBA was the next logical step.

“As a lawyer who structured deals, I understood that growth comes from following a clear path. I’d worked on a lot of different elements and now needed to pull those loose threads together. I believed the tools an MBA would give me would help me do that.

“It’s a tough choice. It’s hard work, and you’re spending hours away from your business. I saw the impact of that first hand. Our turnover dropped. But, without the tools and lessons the MBA gave me, I wouldn’t have reached the next level. My growth had stalled. I’d been working on my expertise, my name and reputation. Now I needed to get the right foundations and systems into place for the business.”

The lesson: Great business leaders never stop focusing on their own personal development. The more you learn — particularly across disciplines — the more you’ll achieve. Business courses, business books, podcasts, mentors and associations are just some of the ways you can hone your skills and learn from your peers. 

5. It’s all about the balance sheet

One of the biggest lessons Xoliswa has learnt along her journey is that in many respects, a high turnover is just vanity. 

“For a long time we were chasing cash, and it led to far too much diversification in the business. For example, I launched a construction company so that we could build our own developments. The result was two-fold. We diluted ourselves too much, instead of staying niche and focused, and we increased our risk exponentially. 

“It’s great to say you’re developing a project worth more that R200 million, but your exposure is R7 million. In those terms, it’s not as valuable. Instead, we made the decision in 2014 to partner with experts, shorten our turnaround time for implementation, focus on maximum returns instead of turnover, and to build our assets under management.

“As a result of this shift in strategy — which is designed to build real wealth — our turnover hasn’t grown since 2014, but we’ve grown our assets under management to R800 million, and we’ve increased our margins. The business is in a much healthier space.”

The lesson: Understand your strategy, and what you’re trying to achieve. A high turnover is meaningless if you’ve got poor cash reserves and limited assets. On the other hand, higher margins can be far more valuable than a high turnover. At the end of the day, it’s all about the balance sheet.

Lessons from an MBA

An MBA is a large investment, from both a monetary and time perspective. Given the hours of sleep she was losing, Xoliswa was determined to make the most of her Executive MBA through GSB, and to implement what she was learning in her business.

“The reality is that you can be the darling of your industry, with an exceptional reputation, and a decent business — but then the realities of growth set in. Cash flow is a problem, management issues, client issues. These happen to all growing businesses. The question is, what are you going to do about them?”

Here are the key gaps Xoliswa identified for her own business.

1. What’s my unique selling point? 

I realised that I’d become a jack of all trades within my industry. Daku Group had no clear selling proposition. In fact, we were often asked what it was exactly that we did. You can’t be the go-to player in your industry if no-one is sure precisely what you do. We needed to pare down what we offered, and be more focused and niche. It’s scary at first, but we’ve built a far more robust business by not taking on anything and everything that comes our way.

2. Delegate

I realised I had a disjointed team, with no clear leadership when I wasn’t around. No business owner can be everywhere at once. I needed a senior management team who was on the ground and could build a competent, efficient team. I was outsourcing too much as well, instead of bringing in specialist talent. I realised that I was boxing the business, but not the people. First you need a great team, and then you can build the right financial systems.

3. Understand your strengths

I have no interest in the small stuff. My focus is on creating long-term opportunities through analysis, and providing the right opportunities to investors in synergistic environments. The problem was that even though I don’t like the small stuff, I wasn’t employing people who excel at the finer details. This affected my capital. 

As a business owner, your drive, work ethic and independent approach and offering are so important. But you also need to let go. Your teams are the best tools you have to grow your business, but only if you give them the opportunity and space to thrive. Understand what you bring to the business and where the gaps lie, and then find the best people to fill those gaps.

Nadine von Moltke-Todd

Written By

Entrepreneur Staff

Nadine von Moltke-Todd is the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur Media South Africa. She has interviewed over 400 entrepreneurs, senior executives, investors and subject matter experts over the course of a decade. She was the managing editor of the award-winning Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa from June 2010 until January 2019, its final print issue. Nadine’s expertise lies in curating insightful and unique business content and distilling it into actionable insights that business readers can implement in their own organisations.