How Max Lichaba Built a R120-Million Business With Only a Grade 10 Education
Max Lichaba grew up in a friend's garage in a small town outside Welkom. He finished school with a Grade 10 and no prospects, except for a burning desire to do more with his life than become a miner like all the other men in his community. Today, his jewellery business has a R120 million turnover, and he's only just begun to achieve his dreams.
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PLAYER: Max Lichaba
BUSINESSES: Lichaba Creations (an international gold jewellery manufacturer), Kwa Lichaba (Vilakazi street and Lesotho), Lichaba Custom Rides, Lichaba Refinery
CSI PROJECTS: Lichaba Foundation and Lichaba Legacy
TURNOVER: Lichaba Creations: R120 million
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. 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 really 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. I've only recently completed some financial literacy courses so that I can run my books and understand my numbers.
I'd left that to my accountants, and learnt it's unwise — you have to be on top of your numbers. I didn't have these skills from my youth, so I needed to go out and get them, ten years after starting my own business. But, if you're serious about growth, it's never too late.
By the late 1990s I was 16, helping my mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and my school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself.
Harmony Gold owned the mines in our 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.
I applied late, but that didn't stop me. Every day I went to the school, and sat in the waiting room, determined to secure a spot if one opened up.
There was one student who hadn't pitched at the start. I pestered the registrations office to let me take her spot. I was relentless. One day I received the call: "Fine, the place is yours. When can you start?" I replied that I was on my way. Everyone at the school had completed matric.
I was the youngest person in the room with the lowest qualification — but I was good with my hands and hungry for success. Six months later I was one of the best in the class. I spent all my time there, practising and getting better and better at my new craft.
I realised that I wanted to make beautiful things I could sell — I was already thinking about a small business. As we were finishing our course, a local jewellery manufacturer, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students. I was chosen, which secured my first job in the sector. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it to South America. With 3 000 employees, it was a major employer in our community, predominantly of women.
After nine months, I had the down-payment for my first car, and had just moved into my first flat, when we arrived at work to closed gates. Overnight, and with no warning, the company had closed down. We were all given a letter, stating that we would receive our salaries at the end of the week, and that the business had been liquidated.
Finding A Light
The women around me — many of whom were the sole breadwinners in their households — were kneeling and wailing in shock. I was also in shock, coupled with a good healthy dose of anger. And then I started thinking. I had no dependants. No children relying on me to be fed.
I was 19 and I'd find a job. But what about these women? I couldn't help everyone, but there were four gogos I knew. In my community, gogos are the backbone of everything. I didn't hesitate, I just said to them, let's start something together. Let's meet at my house tomorrow. We can make this work.
Here's the problem. A machine costs between R50 000 and R100 000. We didn't even have R5 000. We needed to start small. Putting our heads together, we realised that the simplest thing — and one we could afford — was beads. We needed to start bringing in cash, and this was the fastest, simplest way.
Between us we collected R1 000 to buy beads and start working from my flat. The local Nigerian market loved them, and then we had a stroke of inspiration — we approached church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear at competitions. This became a steady source of income.
We spent 18 months focusing on beads, and then I started looking at our growth opportunities. The business was very hand to mouth — we used our cash to buy more materials. There wasn't room for expansion, and after a year and a half I wasn't any closer to buying machines.
So, what could we do? After researching SME support programmes, I found SAB's Kickstarter competition and we entered. We won in our region, and with the R20 000 prize money were able to buy small machines. We didn't have an innovative business, but we were operational. I believe that gave SAB faith in our business.
Start small, but start — that's the key. I could have gone out and tried to figure out how to raise R100 000 for fancy machines. I didn't do that. Instead, I focused on trading — bringing in cash to feed and support us.
The equipment took us to the next level, and I was able to look for our next opportunity, which was a programme run between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Dti that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas.
There were many forms to fill in and our capacity to deliver if orders came in was checked, but eventually we were approved for the programme. We were still in my flat, and we needed more space — but we couldn't afford rent. We found a tiny shop and convinced the landlord to let us move in, if we agreed to start paying R500 per month as soon as we could.
Always ask — you never know what the answer will be. If you're polite and friendly, people often want to help you — or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.
When Everything Goes Wrong
While we were gearing up for our first foray into global markets, I concentrated on local growth — and that meant Joburg. I didn't have a car, and couldn't afford transport, so I hitched rides, wearing a suit and tie. I had a jewellery business and needed to look the part. I made sure I was always the smartest looking guy in the room. If you take yourself seriously and project where you want to be, others will take you seriously too.
I really struggled to get our jewellery into local stores, but we finished the dti's six-month programme and were considered export-ready. Step one was making the products. The African element was popular, so we focused on that.
Our choir market had grown, and we were able to use the cash to manufacture more products for export from those sales. Our first trip was to Nairobi and we received immediate orders. Our second was to London, and we realised we were onto something.
The Dti gave us an incredible opportunity. They work on turnovers, and move you into different regions based on your level. We worked with them until 2015, and gained a foundation for growth. They also helped us build up our cash reserves.
At the time, we were exporting our jewellery successfully, we'd won Kickstarter and had deployed those funds into the business. But, I was looking for more. Success makes you feel invincible, and my experiences with the Dti had been positive.
Then I found another opportunity: We could open a school, similar to the one Harmony had run, and give youth the opportunity I'd received. The Dti funds initiatives like this, which meant we could give back to our youth, with government support.
achieved the NQF accreditations I needed, and set up the school at a cost of R900 000. We were told we'd be paid within 60 to 90 days of each student enrolling, and we took the plunge.
But harsh reality stepped in. I took my eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school at a time when we'd moved into new, bigger premises to handle our increased international orders.
The first payments came through 12 months later than expected. Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school, and the result was that we couldn't pay rent for the jewellery business. After two months our landlord told us he was locking our doors. I begged him for more time, promising I'd pay him soon. I kept hoping the Dti payments would come through, but they didn't. I was in Joburg trying to get paid when I received a call from someone I thought was my friend — he was laughing.
Our doors had been locked and all my equipment was being auctioned off. I raced back to Welkom but couldn't stop it. I owed R30 000 and couldn't pay it. I watched my machines get sold for R300, and I couldn't even afford to buy them myself.
At the same time, I realised that as I'd built the business, I'd paid less attention to family, and more to friends — and I was learning that they weren't very good friends. They'd laughed at my fate and told me that they hadn't expected my good fortune to last. I realised I was surrounded by people who didn't truly care about me, or believe in me, and some were even satisfied at my loss. It was time for change.
One of The Toughest Things You'll Ever Do
Starting over is one of the hardest things in life. I had nothing, and worse, I'd failed the people I had wanted to protect. They were all jobless, my old ladies and my new staff. The younger staff who hadn't been with me at the beginning were particularly angry and wanted their salaries. I was devastated.
The one light at the end of my tunnel was the support of my brothers, who came back to Welkom from Joburg to help me. It was a stark and humbling reminder of the value of family. I'd been open and shared my story, asking my friends for assistance.
They all said no. I realised these were just ordinary people, and I'd put too much faith in them. My brothers were the opposite. They each took out a R3 000 loan that they couldn't afford to help me pay my staff and settle some debt. And they did it in faith, believing I would make a plan to pay them back.
I would never neglect my family again. I needed to get back on my feet, and I no longer had a business, or the school. I started by reaching out to my old school — could I teach there?
For six months, that's what I did. I taught and saved every cent I could. I sold most of my furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When I had enough cash in the bank, I started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom. I knew my equipment was specialised, and I had a feeling that the people who had bought it wouldn't be able to use it. I was right — I started to find my machines at different pawn shops. Piece by piece, I bought them back.
It took eight months, but I was able to get back up and running — at a very small scale. I worked from my flat, exporting to India and the UK. I was totally focused. I vowed I would never lose sight of my core business again, even if I pursued other ventures.
I finally got the cash I was owed for the school, and paid my gogos' retirement packages. I then made my second biggest mistake. No matter what we did, we couldn't get into retail stores in South Africa. There isn't enough of a funnel for gold jewellery in the local market.
But, we didn't want to admit defeat, and so we opened our own stores in a Pick n Pay centre in Welkom, in Randburg, and in Orange Grove. The money we made overseas went into these black holes — and we did it for three years.
Having a personality that won't admit defeat has its pros and cons. It's kept me going in the face of enormous adversity, but it's also sustained me when I should have admitted defeat and moved on.
We spent too much on stores for limited returns. Maybe it was because I didn't want to admit a second defeat so soon after the failure of the school. Whatever it was, I held on too long. But, you live and you learn. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.
Starting Over and Pursuing Passions
I wasn't done trying new things though. I've always loved cars. When I was at school, we learnt to fix cars. I'd had this idea for a while: A luxury car wash where you could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama and drink a beer while you waited. I thought the combination would attract more people. At that stage, we'd closed down two of our Lichaba Creations stores and only had one still operational.
I bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and started building my dream, brick by brick. It's a big building, and it took my whole family a year to finish. It was funded through the jewellery business, so we built on and off, depending on cash flow.
I wanted to launch in December, so towards the end of 2013 we all put our backs into getting it finished. My brothers travelled from their homes in Vereeniging every day, and together we got it ready. We opened on 16 December and haven't looked back.
Kwa Lichaba gives us incredible returns. We chose to charge an entrance fee to attract a specific clientele. It was trial and error at the beginning, but slowly we've shaped one of the go-to venues in Soweto, with a vibrant, loyal clientele.
We realised we had something worth more than gold: Access to a captive, middle to upper-middle class black market. It took us a year to get traction with the concept, but we now host corporate-sponsored functions throughout the year, giving brands access to our clientele.
It's an incredible model, and one we replicated in Lesotho — my grandmother's place of birth — in 2016, and this time we didn't lay a brick ourselves. Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customisation and sound business, followed, reflecting my passion for cars. We also opened a refinery to recycle precious metals ourselves, so that we can supply the gold we need for Lichaba Creations, which continues to do very well overseas.
I'm in a good place. I know that life — and business — have their ups and downs, and I have no doubt there are more lessons to learn on this journey. As long as I apply those lessons and keep picking myself up, I will always have something to show for my hard work, and a legacy to leave for my children and the people I love.
Know your numbers. This sounds so obvious, but I trusted people with my books for years — mainly because I wasn't financially literate. I reached a point where I would no longer accept that I couldn't run my own books, and so I upskilled myself. I took business management, bookkeeping and finance courses. It's never too late to learn something new.
Education is everything. This is one area where I'm lacking. I'm filling the gaps as much as I can in my later life, and determined to give my children a better education than I had. I also want to help other children. Through the Lichaba Foundation, we close Kwa Lichaba on Wednesdays so that we can feed Soweto's children and gogos in need once a week. We also have social workers and educators on site, to try and do as much as we can. Once a week isn't enough, but it's a start — and you always need to start somewhere.
Pay it forward. There are so many people who have helped me over the years. Never forget that you don't achieve success alone. It always takes a village. I believe it's our duty to give back if we succeed. We started out making boerewors rolls from the boot of our car and handing them out in townships. Today we have the Lichaba Foundation.
We support the children of Soweto, have a magazine that supports local businesses and gives them free marketing, and the Miss Lichaba competition, an annual pageant for Soweto-based teens. The winner receives free university tuition, and is the face of all our businesses for a year. She is also expected to give back to her community, paying the idea of social awareness forward.
Work as a community. All of our businesses operate within a community — which is true of all businesses. You can't operate as an island, and ignore those around you. And why would you want to? It creates goodwill, a vibrancy that operating alone could never achieve, and encourages everyone to work together towards shared goals.
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. 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.