7 South African Self-Made Millionaires Who Started With Nothing
Humble beginnings aren't the only thing these seven successful business owners have in common, but simple childhoods led to abundance later in life.
At 29, Bertus Albertse had built a R80-million franchising business that launched in the US in 2018. Marnus Brookryk became a millionaire before his 25th birthday. Priven Reddy left the streets of Chatsworth to build a billion-rand empire by age 36. Max Lichaba owns five successful business after losing everything a few short years ago.
These are the stories of men and women who weren’t born with much, but built themselves up to self-made millionaire status anyway. Here’s how they did it.
1. Marnus Broodryk was a self-made millionaire at 24
“There wasn’t any money for me to study,” says Marnus Broodryk, founder and CEO of The Beancounter and sme.africa.
“I was going to need a job to pay for my degree if I wanted one. I’d read an article in Rapport that CAs were the best paid professionals, so I applied for bursaries and internships at local auditing firms in Harrismith in the Free State and applied to study accounting through Unisa.
“A local auditing firm offered me a position to do my articles with them, and that was how I got my degree — I studied through Unisa and worked at the auditing firm, earning a tiny salary and doing my articles. And I worked hard.
“Every day, from 5am to 10pm I was working for this terrible salary, generally in the filing room, and studying at night. I did that for four years. In my last year of articles, I was part of an auditing team that was heading up a big Afrimat audit as part of their bid to list on the JSE. I realised that I hate audit procedures. I wanted to add value to companies, and I just didn’t see how audits did that.”
It was this realisation that spurred Marnus into action. The idea for The Beancounter was forming — an accounting practice that would help SMEs build bigger, more sustainable and profitable businesses — but he also knew that Harrismith wasn’t the right place for his business.
So, the small-town boy packed up his life and moved to Joburg and launched his wildly successful accounting firm.
“The problem was that I was in my early 20s, I’d had some success with The Beancounter, and I started to think that I could solve the world’s problems. I started feeling invincible. And so, I left my employees to run The Beancounter, checking in through once-a-week status updates, and spent four years focusing on other projects.”
Those projects included designing an app and then launching an app company, starting an IT consulting business and becoming a Sage Pastel reseller, and launching a tech start-up called Virtual ID.
“I also got involved in a frameless glass company, a construction company, and bought a vegan restaurant,” he adds.
How to build a R1 billion business
“The secret is really just focus. The whole experience taught me that you can build five to ten average companies, but you can’t build a R1 billion business simultaneously with others — that takes focus and dedication,” says Marnus.
“I knew that I wanted to build something big, and I was never going to do it like this, with my focus spread across so many different businesses. I sat down and asked myself, ‘where’s my biggest opportunity?’ The answer was clear. The Beancounter.”
Marnus says he had more success in two years with proper focus than in the six years prior to that. “Success with The Beancounter really only started once I gave it my full attention.”
Interestingly, The Beancounter isn’t the biggest accounting firm in South Africa — but it is the most profitable. Marnus and his team have figured out how to offer an affordable solution to SMEs that is also profitable and highly scalable.
2. Sisa Ngebulana built his property empire brick by brick through perseverance
When Sisa Ngebulana left Mthatha to pursue his dreams, he had high aspirations for himself. He didn’t know what path his career would take, but he did know he wanted to achieve greatness.
For the founder and CEO of Billion Group and Rebosis Property Fund, SA’s first black-managed and substantially held property fund to be listed on the JSE, every victory has been hard won after learning a devastating lesson: From adversity comes success.
When you are faced with insurmountable challenges, know that you are being honed for something great. Use the lessons and the pain and build something stronger than you were, smarter, more able to withstand further hardships.
This is a mantra Sisa lives by. It’s also a path he has walked numerous times. His first business caused him so much stress that to this day he believes it almost cost him his life.
Yet he pushed on. He has faced ruthless competitors, paid back millions in debt, weathered bad press, survived industry collusions attempting to freeze him out and halt his projects, and still, he has pushed on.
“When I was growing up, at any given time, there were between 12 and 15 of us in the house, cousins, brothers and sisters, and we were all always working.
“Every day, my grandmother woke us up early and instructed us to find something to do. ‘You have two hands and two eyes,’ she’d say.
‘You’re blessed. Now go and use them.’ She gave us the tools to make something of ourselves, but it was up to us to use them.”
When Sisa went off to university, he was one of five grandchildren heading off that year. His grandmother had saved enough to pay for one year for each of them.
Thereafter it would be up to them to achieve good enough marks to secure bursaries or loans. Sisa took her sacrifice to heart.
Adversity is a necessary panacea to success
“You can be abundant one minute, and have nothing the next, but if you keep moving forward, you can build that abundance again. You just need to get started and then build on each small success,” says Sisa.
For him, the real secret to success is the ability to take hard knocks and forge ahead anyway. The right attitude, an ability to learn from mistakes and a desire to overcome adversity are the core ingredients to building a successful business.
3. Priven Reddy went from waiter and chicken hawker to self-made millionaire
As a kid growing up in the 90s, Priven Reddy had a rough childhood after the passing of his dad. “After my father unexpectedly died, my mom settled down with a man who later became an alcoholic. There were times when we wouldn’t have food to eat,” he candidly recalls.
It’s a stark reality, but one that laid the foundations for the man Priven would become, and he doesn’t shy away from unpleasant memories as a kid from Chatsworth, Durban.
Instead, young Priven soon figured out that he needed a paradigm of how he viewed the world, or he would be consumed by it.
Over the years he has built up a framework of personal codes that he not only lives by, but believes have shaped his success and more importantly, the mindset that has been instrumental in achieving that success.
By adopting them he has turned his life around and then used them to rapidly climb the success ladder of the corporate world once his foundations were in place.
For Priven, the pivotal moment that forced him to shift his attitude in life is still a fresh memory, despite the intervening years.
“I was 20 and waiting tables at a restaurant at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping. One of my customers had finished eating and gestured over his plate containing some left over, half eaten pizza. ‘Here, this is for you,’ he told me with mistaken generosity. ‘Put it in a doggy-bag and take it home.’ His words were like a sucker punch to my dignity. I couldn’t believe it. Was this how our society treated its poor?”
It was the last straw in a series of blows that Priven had endured that day.
“My dad taught us the value of working hard from a young age. My four siblings and I were always competing in entrepreneurial games,” he recalls.
“I think my dad knew that by giving us these business principals, skills and tools at a young age, he was laying the foundations for our future independence. He knew this was more valuable than any trust fund he could set up.”
Today, all Priven’s siblings are successful entrepreneurs operating their own businesses in diverse industry sectors. It’s taken 12 years, but not only is Priven a self-made millionaire at the age of 36, he sits at the helm of five companies and 380 employees, and his companies have R4 billion in assets.
Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone
“I’ve learnt that people operate at their best when they leave their comfort zones. That’s when the adrenaline kicks in and the magic happens,” says Priven.
“But you also need to develop a success mindset. You need to know who you are and what you stand for. Without a firm set of values – or codes – you can lose your way.”
4. Tim Hogins’ multiple failures led to multiplied success
As a poor township kid, Tim Hogins watched kids pile into buses heading to Sun City every weekend, knowing he couldn’t afford to join them.
He was a youngster, but he made a promise to himself. One day he would build parks that anyone could visit — especially underprivileged kids like himself.
Tim always helped his parents to sell stuff. They were traders. His dad had a small café selling burgers and chips, and his mom baked.
“I matriculated in 1996, and even though I had an exemption, tertiary education wasn’t on the cards for me,” he says. “We just couldn’t afford it.”
But Tim had a plan. His cousin told him about a free four-week course to become a security guard, and Tim aced it, securing a position at one of the firm’s top industrial sites.
Two years into his career as a security guard, Tim heard about another opportunity — a free programming course teaching COBOL, a back-end system used by the financial services industry.
“I had zero programming experience — I’d never touched a computer — but I knew how valuable these skills were, and here was an opportunity being handed to me.”
After his second attempt at the course, he passed, found a job at a small IT firm and built up his IT acumen. Over the course of his IT career Tim worked for Dimension Data, EOH and SITA.
In his final three years he applied for an account management position and moved into sales. His goal was to become a business owner, and so he diversified and learnt what he could about business.
He also paid attention to the world around him, looking for a business opportunity or problem he could solve. He dabbled with some ideas, but the one he kept coming back to was outdoor gyms.
When his employers found out they made it clear that they didn’t like Tim’s attention divided between his job and his business idea. Despite this, Tim continued to focus on his entrepreneurial play, and within a few months he’d been retrenched.
Although it was an unexpected financial blow, it gave him the opportunity to focus on his business full-time. Green Outdoor Gyms was officially launched in February 2012 and achieved turnover of R3 million in its first year – and orders were flooding in from municipalities throughout South Africa.
“I’m here today because of my childhood experiences, but before I could invest in this dream, I needed to start small and build up my reputation and cash reserves. To achieve my ultimate dream will take a lot of investment, so that’s the focus.
“When someone says something is impossible, I want to know why, and then try anyway. That’s how you achieve great things. That’s how you realise your dreams.”
Poverty can be a good thing
“Growing up poor makes you creative, and that’s an incredible power if you know how to use it,” says Tim. “I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that – I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this.”
5. Max Lichaba’s upbringing grew his grit and his ability to start and run multiple million-rand businesses
“I grew up living in the garage of a friend’s house in the small town of Virginia outside Welkom. My dad lived on the mines, my mom had five kids and nowhere to live, and he gave us a roof over our heads.
It was a mining town, and I was expected to become a miner,” says Max Lichaba, founder of Lichaba Creations (an international gold jewellery manufacturer), Kwa Lichaba (Vilakazi street and Lesotho), Lichaba Custom Rides and Lichaba Refinery.
“But, my mom wanted us to have an education. She never blamed anyone for our situation — she just tried to make a plan. School was one of those plans. But, it needed to be a school close to home, and free — or as close to free as possible. That left only one option: A remedial school in Virginia.
“Looking back, it had its pros and cons. I got to work a lot with my hands, and discovered I was good at it. But the school ended at Grade 10, which meant I would never matriculate, and my maths and language literacy skills weren’t great by the time I left. I was never challenged, and an unchallenged mind doesn’t grow.”
By the late 1990s Max was 16, helping his mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and his school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself. Harmony Gold owned the mines in his area and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill the local community.
“I wasn’t satisfied with my Grade 10 qualification. I didn’t want to be a miner, and I wanted more than selling fruit and veg on the side of the road. I knew I was good with my hands, and I saw the jewellery school as an opportunity.”
That decision would chart a rough course of becoming a business owner, losing his business and rebuilding Lichaba Creations to what it is today – a R120 million business.
Look for your own opportunities
“When I look back at my life, it was tough as a kid. There was so much pain and embarrassment. Kids laughed at me because I sold fruit and vegetables at the side of the road and went to a remedial school. I was driven to prove myself. I’m a human being and a man,” recalls Max.
“It’s my life, and only I can prove myself. I wouldn’t let my circumstances hold me back. I saw these things as challenges and obstacles I had to face, but also as opportunities. You need to look for opportunity. No one else will do that for you.”
6. Bertus Albertse took his business from his living room to the world
Other than a good education, Bertus’s childhood years are characterised by having as little as you can possibly start with.
His childhood is shaped by memories of the all-too familiar feeling of a car running out of petrol, or of his mother waking him and his sister up in the middle of the night, so that she could take them home for a few hours before returning them to their 24-hour créche before starting her next shift as a traffic cop.
These were all factors that the future entrepreneur buried when he went to school, directing his energy into his studies and sports instead.
“There were so many things we couldn’t control growing up. My mother did the best she could do, but the reality was that we had very little.
“I realised that control was important to me, and that I could create my own success if I was disciplined, and so I focused on the things I could influence: My marks and how much I trained. I’d grown up watching a level of perseverance in my mom that influenced the way I viewed work as well.”
Bertus has never been employed. He started out self-employed while still at university. He chose to discontinue his studies and dive into entrepreneurship instead, opening a supplements store in Cape Town. But Bertus knew it wasn’t enough. “I was just making ends meet,” he says.
Bertus launched Body20 from his living room in 2013. He had R85 000 in an Allan Gray investment fund that he’d started while he was still studying.
He decided the time had come to draw that cash, but it still wasn’t enough. A friend had introduced him to Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) technology, and the whole set-up was R220 000.
Luckily, this friend believed in the concept, and agreed to invest in Bertus’ business idea. “I paid the loan back within a year, but he was really investing in the purpose, and he and his wife received free training. It was exactly what I needed to get me started.” He went in with a different differentiator in mind: Service.
“At the time, I just wanted to move out of my living room and into a studio. I had no plans to franchise. I believed that my passion and willingness to serve would set me apart.” And it did.
Franchising has been an incredible experience for Bertus and Body20 has gone from strength to strength, growing from one studio in 2013, to franchising in 2014 and encompassing 38 studios in early 2018, including three studios in the US.
Effort alone isn’t enough to carry you through
“Success equals strategy plus effort. Busyness and success are not the same thing, nor are busyness and effectiveness,” says Bertus. “Effectiveness happens when you’re busy with the right strategy. This has been huge for me — finding the balance between strategy and effort.”
7. Sibongile Manganyi-Rath learned valuable lessons selling produce with her dad as a child
Being born into an entrepreneurial family didn’t immediately lead Sibongile Manganyi-Rath down the self-employment path.
“My father unwittingly set me on the path very early,” recalls Sibongile. “He had a small business in Soweto where he sold used bottles back to larger corporations such as Makro and various other glass bottle recycling agents. I often joke with people that my father was in the recycling business before it became fashionable.”
It was the early exposure of working in her late father’s small businesses that taught Sibongile the crucial principles and values that have helped her build the successful business that Indigo Kulani Group is today.
“I consider myself very fortunate that I grew up in a family that was considered financially and materially poor. The fundamental principles my father taught me of running a small operation — such as financial discipline, hard work, sacrifice and persistence — were extremely valuable.
“I learnt the importance of customer service when I was 12 years old and ran one of my father’s fresh produce stalls at Dube village train station. I had to observe why our sales were declining or increasing and each evening I had to report the daily revenue to my father. It was often in the region of R150 per day.
“I also had to make recommendations on improvements to ensure that we could offer better fruits and veggies than the other older ladies that were next to our stalls. At the time I didn’t realise the value of the lessons I was learning from this process. It is these lessons that gave me the courage to quit my job in 2006 and start my own company.”
The power of pursuing your passion
Sibongile quit her corporate job at 26 and established infrastructure and real estate development company Indigo Kulani Group. Today her business has expanded to include IKG Start-up Capital, which is dedicated to creating world class entrepreneurs throughout the African continent, with a turnover of over R100 million.