Vuyo Hlati is the founder and Managing Director of Billicon Holdings (Pty) Ltd, an investment holding company with a primary focus in infrastructure development and maintenance (construction services). It is an entrepreneurial company seeking opportunities to partner and operate scalable businesses in diverse sectors.
The “outliers” I write about are people I, personally, have had the pleasure of interacting with. This gives it a more relatable and authentic touch to it (as opposed to profiling distant figures who I can only speculate about). Mr Hlati and I are cut from the same cloth having gone to the same high school, Queen’s College Boys’ High School (but he matriculated a year before I entered high school).
I identified him as an outlier because he himself will agree that he chose a path less traveled, particularly by his peers as he points out. Entrepreneurship is a scary path to embark on as it doesn’t guarantee you the security that most people yearn for. Those who make it hit the jackpot, and those who don’t (the majority unfortunately) get left on the wayside. He is a young and ambitious man from the Eastern Cape using entrepreneurship as a vehicle that will not only uplift him from where he comes from, but contribute to the overall development of the province, which is much needed.
I structured my interview with him as meticulous as I do with others as I seek to find out the kind of mindset, advantages and strategies that have helped him along the way. Perhaps this can also help us predict the motives to the moves he makes in the future as he climbs higher and higher in the ladder of success.
PART 1: Getting into the mind of the entrepreneur
Certainly entrepreneurs think differently from the rest of society, and rightly so because you are competing in the market place to stand out from the rest who offer what you offer. The business mindset is definitely something I believe can be consciously developed overtime. However some have a head start to others as they grew up in environments that fostered that way of thinking. Either way, an entrepreneurial or leadership mindset is created. Let’s see what Vuyo Hlati has to say…
Describe yourself in one word.
Is there anything in particular about your upbringing that has made you entrepreneurial?
A: Not really. I grew up in a family of civil servants with no real entrepreneurial ambitions but that offered me a very secure upbringing. However, even with that sense of security I have always had the desire for more in life, a lot more, and I was willing to risk the security I was used to and encouraged to pursue, to achieve and acquire more.
Tell me about the Vuyo in high school, where did he see himself in the future?
A: Well I went from a small private school in which I had spent seven years of my life, leaving as a prefect and house head, to joining Queen’s College which changed my perspective in life. I was just an ordinary student in the last three years of my high schooling; the correct term at the time was “College Matric”. But I became exposed to a lot more, a different environment, and I started reading a lot, anything I could get hold of that could open my mind.
I initially intended to be a civil engineer or architect, but very early in Grade 10 I realized that I didn’t have the patience for mathematics, physical science and technical drawing (EGD). So I subsequently changed subjects to the lessor potent mathematical literacy, business studies and history. Almost ten years later, I’m glad I made that decision and I would do the exact same thing if I could go back. It broadened my mind and forced me to think, engage, and communicate better. I decided to pursue business studies, in which I excelled, with an intention of following my entrepreneurial ambitions. Today, I’m doing exactly what I decided ten years ago through Billicon Africa.
What mindset or set of beliefs got you to where you are today? (This does not include skills and knowledge, but rather emotional attributes that are necessary for success in life.)
A: I believe that I’m a risk-taker, and that I’m self-driven.
Do you read a lot? If so, what kind of material do you enjoy to read about?
A: Yes, I’ve got an overloaded bookshelf at home, some of the books there I’ve had for over a decade. My entire collection is mostly business advice material, educational, and biographies of successful entrepreneurs. I find that these books have contributed immensely to the way I think and make career and business decisions today.
Who do you look up to?
A: I look up to fellow entrepreneurs that have made it despite major setbacks and challenges, and I look up to specific people for specific attributes. I look up to Mr. Ndaba Ntsele of Pamodzi Holdings for his “hustling” attitude; I look up to Mr. Sisa Ngebulana of Billion Group and Rebosis Property Fund for his tenacity and sharp decision making skills in a very tough property industry. I also look up to people like Mr. Aliko Dangote, Mr. Lebo Gunguluza, Mr. Tony Elumelu, Mr. Richard Maponya, and Mr. Femi Otedola.
PART 2: Creating sustainable enterprises
It’s great having the belief system that you can achieve whatever it is you set out to achieve, and it’s also great to identity a need or gap in the market. The real challenge, however, is creating a business around the belief or opportunity. There are many functions involved in the business system and having all those parts work in harmony with meeting the goals of the business is a constant challenge. Let’s see what Vuyo Hlati has to say…
What would you say has been your most dominant strength or skill when it comes to running a business?
A: I would say that I am a quick decision maker and I’m not afraid to change my mind. That makes our business quite agile and quick to respond to market changes and opportunities.
When I spoke to the Founder & CEO of Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN) he expressed to me that the most important characteristic of achieving success in anything is PASSION. His passion is making quality supplements at a competitive price and therefore promoting a healthy lifestyle for people. What are you exactly passionate about?
A: Our slogan at Billicon Africa is “Enabling Potential…”, and I think that is precisely what I’m passionate about, to enable the potential of African communities, businesses and governments, allowing them to thrive and progress in the continent.
Tell me about your business experience prior to creating Billicon.
A: After matriculating, I enrolled for a Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurship degree at Unisa, via correspondence. That didn’t work out because I felt that I needed to have a routine and a strict program. The following year, I pursued a London School of Business and Management BTec Higher National Diploma in Business, followed by a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with Heriot Watt University of Scotland, both conferred by the Pearson Institute of Higher Education (CTI).
While studying, firstly I decided to register an investment holding company that would idle on the side while I completed my business degree and thought of what industry I’d go into.
Secondly, I started doing business consulting and freelancing work for local SMME’s. I. did this to apply the knowledge I was acquiring academically and to gain experience.
In my third year, I decided to join a global real estate franchise, Harcourts Real Estate, and became an intern property consultant. I did this to gain more knowledge about the property industry and also to gain sales experience.
When I completed my degree, Pearson Education, the parent company of the Pearson Institute where I studied, recruited me to join their graduate sales programme, which exposed me to new markets. I managed a database that varied between thirty and one hundred schools in the Eastern Cape, spent some time in their Johannesburg office and formed part of a young national team of sales associates.
When I left Pearson at the end of the programme, I joined Famous Brands Limited as a Training Consultant, until I resigned to join Dimension Data on their Enterprise Development Programme. After this, I decided to start operating my investment holding company, which became the Billicon that it is today. I decided to have a primary focus of construction, property and facilities services, and started forming partnerships with other companies; I also invited my former Pearson colleague and current business partner, Zimi Mantyi, to become our Business Development and CSI Director. The rest is history as they say…
What is the value proposition of Billicon Holdings and its divisions? Is there something about its vision and mission that makes it stand out from other players in the industry?
A: The name “Billicon” was formed from “a billion consumers of Africa”, which was inspired by the future of Africa as an emerging economy with the youngest population in the world. Our philosophy therefore is to assist in building, providing and operating a sustainable infrastructure, to enable African economies, businesses and communities to thrive. We leverage our business expertise and our partners technical expertise to offer our clients the most effective, efficient and economical solutions to our clients.
How do you decide on what to focus on?
A: We have a predetermined business strategy internally, and our structure allows us to be agile and pursue any opportunities that are lucrative, provided we have the resources and capacity to pursue them. So we prioritise everything that is closest to our strategy, structure and vision, and focus on that.
One of my favourite books is called Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. And in this book the author points out that every leader has, what he calls a “Master Mind”, which is basically a strong team of people who support the leader. What kind of people do you have around you that help you make tough decisions?
A: I’m more of a strategic person. My role in the company is to create and direct the vision and strategy of the company. So I often partner and surround myself with people that are more functional and technical to get things done and follow through.
How would you describe your leadership style? (Are you hands-on or do you prefer to delegate and let people be creative?)
A: I am very hands-on. Partly because we’re still a small company with a small team. So beyond fulfilling my role as Managing Director, I assist in Business Development, Marketing Management and most importantly, Project and Operations Management.
What is the most devastating challenge you have experienced in business and how did you overcome it?
A: I wouldn’t refer to a particular event, but as a small business, access to markets has often been the biggest obstacle which we still struggle with today. We overcome it with every successful deal or project by being focused, consistent and persistent.
For now Billicon is a private company, do you and your partners have any intention of taking the company public?
A: We’re primarily a diversified investment holding company that has three related core divisions, and special purpose vehicles that allow us to invest in diverse sectors. The intention is to keep our core divisions private, and later unbundle our SPV’s to go public, individually, as the need to raise substantial capital arises.
PART 3: A political economy for business + education system.
There are many challenges facing businesses in South Africa today, many of which are almost beyond their control. Let’s see what Vuyo Hlati has to say about the political-economic landscape and educational system in the country…
We know that businesses thrive in a political-economic environment that is conducive to empowering them. What do you think government can do to make it easier to start and run a business in South Africa?
A: The government should focus on simplifying and speeding up the process of compliance for SMME’s, create and enforce policies that allow us to access markets, finance and workforce easier, and then leave the rest to the private sector.
What other industries do you find interesting and you think need disruption? (They don’t necessarily need to be industries you are or considering venturing into, but you find interesting as an observer.)
A: The public transport industry in South Africa is screaming for innovation and advancement. What holds the industry back is the public and the government allowing themselves to be bullied by minibus taxi operators. They are literally self-governing and unregulated, although they’d deny this statement.
As we all know the education system in South Africa is in a crisis, in part because it is not producing enough job creators such as yourself. If you were asked to join a task force of people who would create a school curriculum geared towards empowering entrepreneurship in students, do you have any ideas on how you would go about achieving that?
Firstly, subjects such as Entrepreneurship (not just Business Studies or Economics), Agriculture (We are in Africa!), and Computer Programming/Coding (If children can be taught numeracy and the alphabet from Grade 1 they can learn code as well) should be introduced from an Early Childhood Development level up to a Further Education and Training level.
Secondly, Entrepreneurship needs to be promoted as much as medicine, law and accounting are at FET level so that learners don’t feel inferior when taking this route in life after matriculating. I remember when I started with my Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurship degree in 2010, my peers thought I was fooling around; they didn’t believe such a programme existed.
PART 4: More general
Let’s get to know Mr Hlati some more…
What is your typical day is like?
I wake up early and check my phone and iPad for emails, messages and any relevant news articles.
I then check my diary after hitting the shower, update or cancel things as and if necessary.
I spend the rest of my day calling and meeting current and potential clients, visiting project site(s), and then close off with catching up on admin either at the office or at home before updating my diary for the next day or week.
What are you most grateful for?
My people. I am grateful for the people that form part of my support structure such as my partner, family, friends, team and external business associates.
- Papama Nyati.