The Business Case Behind Maboneng, Joburg's Inner-City Regeneration Project
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- Players: (Right) Jonathan Liebmann (founder and CEO) and Ricky Luntz (MD)
- Company: Propertuity
- Launched: 2007
- Current property portfolio: R1 billion
It’s called the founder’s trap, and it’s the hardest part of building a high-impact organisation: As the entrepreneur, there comes a time when you have to let go. You have to trust others (an exco, management team, and perhaps even an MD or CEO) to take your vision and implement it. You have to learn that truly scalable and successful businesses are built by teams. And you have to let those teams do what they were hired to do.
The entrepreneurs who have successfully transitioned from start-up ‘jack of all trades’ to visionary founders who rely on strong management teams for the day-to-day operations of their businesses include Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
Those who can’t — or won’t — make the transition, either continue to run reasonably successful businesses that are unable to scale, and will never be sold as assets of value, or they slowly stop moving forward, which is followed by irrelevance and eventually decline. Why? Because great businesses are built on incredible teams. That’s the role of the visionary leader, and that’s how business owners avoid the founder’s trap.
At the crossroads: From start-up to high-growth
When Propertuity’s current MD, Ricky Luntz walked into Propertuity’s offices four years ago, he was greeted by the very definition of a lean start-up: Six people in a single, open plan office. No systems; no processes. There wasn’t even a bookkeeper.
At that point, Maboneng had already established Arts on Main, as well as a portfolio of residential buildings, a hotel and some retail businesses and restaurants. Founder Jonathan Liebmann’s vision was clear, and people were buying into it. They wanted to be a part of an urban city renewal project, to get in on the ground floor and be integral to the growth of a new community. Walking the streets of Maboneng, you could feel the buzz of energy and excitement.
This is what visionary entrepreneurs do. They take a dream and not only turn it into a reality, but bring hundreds — thousands — of people along for the ride. That’s Jonathan’s super-power. But he’s not an accountant.
Ricky had completed his articles at Grant Thornton, and Propertuity’s investment partner had reached out to their internal recruitment division. “The business was looking for a financial manager, and they thought I might suit the position,” he recalls.
Ricky didn’t want to join an established firm, where his role was rigid and clearly defined, but wanted to play a key role in a start-up instead. He wanted to help build something unique and ground-breaking. Propertuity was an ideal fit.
“Jonathan and I clicked immediately, and I could see that he was a visionary who had a big idea, and the scope and vision to see it through. We both believed that for Joburg to work, the inner city must work — the path to economic growth is through the inner city.
“But I also knew that successful businesses need both a grand vision, and a strong back-end to support that vision. And this was what Propertuity was lacking.
“When I agreed to join the business, my handover pack was ten pieces of handwritten, A4 papers. There were no books. No processes. No structures or operational management to speak of. My wish had come true: I was joining a business with a handful of successful projects under its belt, but with a massive vision. It was time to get to work.”
It was 2013. Jonathan had convinced an investor (Buffet Investments) to come on board and support his idea a few years earlier. He’d started with Arts on Main, because he knew that if you can get the artists to support you, the rest will follow. Every project, product or service needs early adopters, and in the urban space, that’s artists. Maboneng stretched across a few blocks. It was on the map. It was generating great PR and public interest.
But as a business, Propertuity was at a crossroads. It could remain a ‘one man band’, or become a full-fledged business able to achieve Jonathan’s vision.
More than R1 billion has since been invested in Maboneng, with a further R1 billion earmarked for the urban renewal of a six-block land parcel recently purchased by the business. Propertuity has launched Rivertown, an urban renewal project in Durban, and a bespoke JV in Hyde Park. It also has plans to launch in Cape Town once a suitable project is found; the team is currently reviewing a number of potential deals.
Rand Merchant Holdings has invested in the business (its second ever property investment), and in June this year, Jonathan launched DiverCity, a R2 billion property fund in partnership with Tallis and Atterbury.
On high-impact growth: 5 Lessons
In 2013, Jonathan was at a crossroads. He chose to avoid the founder’s trap, lay strong foundations, build an incredible team and take Propertuity to new heights. This is how he did it.
1. Know who you are
“Theoretically, I’ve been aware of the founder’s trap since I became an entrepreneur,” says Jonathan, who was 24 years old when he registered Propertuity ten years ago.
“I owned laundromats before I launched Propertuity, so I’ve been a business owner all my adult life. An awareness of what I don’t know has driven me to learn as much as I can — from biographies, business books, magazines and other entrepreneurs — anything I can get my hands on and learn from. I’ve exposed myself to business theory, and used it to figure out my entrepreneurial path.”
A critical element of Jonathan’s business journey has been to determine who he is as an entrepreneur. “We all have multiple influencers who shape who we are and how we understand our roles in business. The first successful person I was exposed to was my dad. He’s a perfectionist and micro-manager who ran his own law firm. It was cash generative and successful, but unscalable because of his management style.
“My second exposure to business leadership was through my first mentor and founding investment partner. He’s a delegator. Through my exposure to two completely different leadership styles and personalities, I started to understand where I was on the spectrum, and that you need to lead from a point of example and energy.
“I’m comfortable in a leadership position because I’m happy to delegate and I don’t micro-manage. I’m inspired by Jack Welch and Mark Zuckerberg. I want to grow and lead teams. This realisation helped me to shape the organisation we have today. We’ve achieved scale and success because of the people we’ve brought in, such as Ricky. He joined us as financial manager and is now MD because he’s grown with the business and been instrumental in putting proper operational controls in place.
“That’s not where my strengths lie. I’m the innovator and strategist. Elon Musk has been a huge inspiration to me in this regard. You need to know yourself, and most importantly, you need to be able to hand the operations of the business over to concentrate on your core areas. Where do I provide the most value? What do I do that pushes the needle? And where should I not get involved? Where could I actually do more harm than good? I’m not good at the small details. But I have been able to step back and let people who are take ownership and run with it.”
2. Strategies need to evolve
In the beginning, Propertuity’s mission was simple: How can we contribute positively to the city? The first four years of the business were focused on catalytic growth, getting early wins and breaking the mould to gain a foothold in the sector and neighbourhood.
The lynchpin of the strategy was Arts on Main — bring in the artists, and use culture-led regeneration to gain traction.
“We learnt so much in the early years. Our original focus was on retail, but we realised that to build communities, we needed to start with the residential component. For a community to work, you need people living there, working there and being able to shop there.
“This has become our north star: Community numbers. How do you get a community to a size big enough to sustain itself?
“I’ve lived in eight different apartments in Maboneng. I don’t know another entrepreneur who literally lives in their product. But it’s allowed me to understand what we’re doing from the ground up, which has shaped how we’ve grown and developed the business and our focus.
“In particular, we’re a development business. Our first model purchased buildings and reconditioned them, maintaining the original structure as much as possible. Because many inner-city buildings are only a few stories, we’ve had to build up in some cases, but the idea was regeneration, not knocking down and starting from scratch. We’ve wanted to preserve beautiful architecture in the inner-city as much as possible. Going forward, and to meet market needs, most of our future pipeline is new builds.
“Ultimately, to continue developing the area, we need cash moving through the business. Our model is to buy, develop and sell but we hold onto the management of the buildings. Cash from sales is reinvested into new developments and projects.”
As a company achieves its goals, strategies need to shift. What worked in the early days of Maboneng has developed into a model that can be replicated, enabling Propertuity to achieve sustainability
“Our next phase is to use the principles we’ve learnt and expand into other markets. We opened a Durban head office in 2014 and have started regenerating an old industrial area near the ICC and beachfront called Rivertown. I’m from Durban, and even though we’re replicating our model, we know that it’s not plug and play. Durban has a different economic cycle to Joburg and Rivertown is about combining beach and city life.
“If you don’t pay attention to your market, you won’t deliver the right product. That’s been a big lesson for us, and one of the drivers behind adjusting our strategy where necessary — communities will buy into your vision, but you also need to allow them to lead. If we tried to exert too much control, we wouldn’t have achieved so much in such a short space of time.”
As Jonathan has grown as an entrepreneur, and as his business has developed, his business model has had to follow suit. He started out small: A catalyst to bring people in, keep them here, then lay roots and a foundation, and finally, help shape a vibrant, self-sustaining community.
“It was my fascination with Elon Musk and his Master Plan — and Master Plan Part Deux — that helped me pull the various threads together of what we were trying to do, and concretise them into the need for our new volume-based product that we can roll out and scale to achieve real urban renewal.”
In a nutshell, here are Elon’s Musk’s Master Plan, and Master Plan Part Deux (published ten years later as the first Master Plan was coming to fruition):
- Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
- Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
- Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
- Provide solar power. No kidding, this has literally been on our website for ten years.
In short, Master Plan, Part Deux is:
- Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
- Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
- Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
- Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it.
The reason behind the first Master Plan was to help consumers see that Tesla wasn’t meant to be a new, expensive sports car because there was a shortage in the market. It was a very specific way to lay the foundations for a much grander vision.
Tesla’s scale is larger than Propertuity’s, but the foundations are the same: Build something that matters, and use each step of the strategy to bring you closer to an ultimate, enormous, audacious goal.
As of 2016, Tesla and Ford were the only American motor companies that hadn’t gone bankrupt post the recession, so it’s safe to say Musk is doing something right.
3. Strong teams build incredible businesses
Integral to Propertuity’s overall strategy has been to put strong teams in place, starting with the appointment of Ricky Luntz as financial manager in 2013. Over the past four years, Ricky’s role has grown and today he is MD. Alongside this growth has been the development of an exco, including a director of asset management, a CFO and an HR strategist.
“We hired an HR strategist five years ago as part of our second phase of development. HR is a huge focus for us because we know that great businesses are only built with the right people in place,” says Jonathan.
The key is finding people who want to be involved in entrepreneurial businesses, because the rewards can be great, but it takes hard work and dedication.
“I came in as a financial manager, but what I actually did was my role, plus data capturer, bookkeeper and financial director,” says Ricky. “Most early start-up positions look like this. It looks flashy and fun from the outside, but the reality is that it’s the hardest work you’ll ever sign up for. You need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and help out wherever you’re needed.”
This takes a strong focus on staff appreciation and incentives. Ricky worked 20 months straight without a break, and he wasn’t the exception to the rule. “There are no segmented approaches in start-ups. You can be the operational director and the plumber, and you need to always be willing to put in 15 out of 10.”
Finding the right candidates, who are willing to pour passion and hard work into your business, isn’t always easy. When you find the right individuals, you need to keep them.
“I’ve always believed in sharing risks with rewards,” says Jonathan. “It’s one of the ways that our philosophies align with RMH. They believe that there should always be an alignment between exco and the rest of the management structure to ensure continuity in a business. They encourage wider participation. It promotes scalability as well because people perform better when they have ownership over something.”
This was one of the reasons why Ricky was promoted to MD in 2016, when the RMH deal closed, and why he received shares in the business as part of the deal.
Across the organisation, Jonathan has always implemented shareholder-aligned bonus schemes, as well as creative incentives for all staff members based on outcomes and outputs that are more creative than a thirteenth cheque.
Over the past four years. Propertuity has grown from seven employees to over 120.
“One of the first things we did was open a Durban office so that we could have a dedicated team with a strong GM on the ground. If you don’t trust your people, you’ll never reach true scale. They make it possible.”
Having a dedicated GM in Durban has played an integral role in helping the business to scale geographically.
4. Make marketing work for you
Urban renewal projects will naturally garner attention. On the one hand, this means marketing is happening for you, without even lifting a finger. On the other, there are certain responsibilities the business needs to take on to ensure a consistent message is heard and understood. The first is putting your golden thread in place.
“We’ve focused on ensuring that the precinct is easy to navigate. We pay a lot of attention to detail, and we’ve developed certain urbanism and design principles that we implement in everything we do. Propertuity buildings and areas are easy to pinpoint as a result,” explains Jonathan.
“This ties in with our understanding that successful precincts and neighbourhoods must be accessible and desirable. That’s the secret sauce. No marketing in the world will be successful without those core ingredients. Businesses don’t operate in isolation — your product or service must have a symbiotic relationship with your customers.”
This understanding of how to market property as an idea, and not just a building or collection of buildings, has led to Propertuity’s current JV with Narrative. “The Hyde Park venture is new for us — it’s bespoke and high end, which hasn’t been our mandate in Maboneng, but the principles are the same. We’re the design and marketing guys. This has become our niche, based on our experiences building a precinct and community from the ground up.”
5. Focus, focus, focus
When you’re an innovator, you’re bound to make mistakes. You’re travelling new paths, trying different things and learning a multitude of lessons along the way. This may mean you have to pivot as well. But that doesn’t mean you should lose focus.
“We haven’t always been right first time round,” says Jonathan. “Some mistakes are more expensive than others, but we always learn from them and make sure we don’t lose focus when something derails us.”
A recent example is 8 Morrison, a building in Durban’s urban renewal project that started out as a retail centre. “Within a year we realised it was too soon for retail to succeed there. We converted the building into an office space. We were wrong, and we had to take the hit and move forward.
“When that happens, it’s essential not to lose focus. That’s been my biggest shift this year. I’ve evolved as an entrepreneur and founder. I’ve built an incredible team, and I leave them to do what they do best. This has opened up my time to focus on what I do best: Innovation and strategy. I have a list of 13 key things that I’m focusing on this year. Every day I look at that list and remind myself that these are the most important things for 2017. Everything, unless it’s an urgent operational issue, must link back to one of the 13 things on my list, or I don’t do it. That’s how you push the needle.”