Today, he has a farm, and a small holding, and a trucking business, a verge-maintenance company and four fast-food franchise outlets. It has been an epic, improbable journey for Shabalala, 40, who had no foresight of it as a boy, only an ever-present hunger for success.
It partly stemmed from his mother who raised her six children as a widow. She only had Standard 1, but could read the Zulu bible, “and she was very ambitious for her children,” says Shabalala.
After matric, he went to study horticulture but as the second youngest sibling there was not enough money to continue and after a year he found a job as a technical assistant at the Agricultural Research Council and studied part-time.
For his extended family and circle of friends, Shabalala’s full-time, skilled job meant that he had already made it out of poverty, and was doing exponentially better than his father, who never went to school and worked as a manual labourer all his life.
Imagine their shock when they heard that Shabalala resigned from his job after just three years in favour of a year-long area-manager contract with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. Was he mad? How could he give up a job like that? they asked.
The criticism, which came from everyone he knew except his mother who supported his decision, became a great motivator for Shabalala. It crystallized his desire for success and although he had no set path, he decided then that his financial security was never going to be tied to a mere job, but that he was going to achieve it through hard work and exploiting every opportunity that crossed his path.
Even before his contract with the department ran out, he won a grass-cutting contract for Umgeni Water and another for the fuel-pipeline parastatal Petronet.
Shabalala found that he had chanced upon a golden opportunity. Grass cutting and verge maintenance was relatively easy to get into and to achieve good results, but in order to win these contracts, you needed a pest-control license because of the herbicides involved. It was a difficult qualification. Shabalala was one of only five license holders in the Midlands and the only black one.
Today, the grass-cutting and verge maintenance industry is completely flooded with contractors, but in the early 2000s it was full of “low hanging fruit,” he says.
Shabalala demanded a high quality of work from his teams, no matter how small the job, and soon the number and size of his contracts increased. The break-through was Transnet, for which he did railway, siding and station clearing throughout South Africa.
True to his vow to exploit every opportunity he could find, he saved and invested every rand from his maintenance contracts, at first in property and in vehicles for a nascent transport business. Shabalala describes tireless efforts to gain new business and explore opportunities – knocking on doors, leaving business cards everywhere and even, once a year for about three years, an extended business trip countrywide to all his acquaintances to actively look for investment opportunities.
He grew increasingly interested in franchising and at first set his mind on opening a KFC in one of the few towns in KZN that did not yet have an outlet. But four years of preparation came to naught when the company offered the site to an existing franchisee.
Undeterred, Shabalala continued exploring, and set his sights on opening up a Skippers fish-and-chips franchise in Estcourt. He was able to buy it cash, and from the opening day in 2011 the outlet was profitable beyond expectation.
His next move was to replicate this success with two further outlets, one in his hometown of Ladysmith. Having identified prime sites for his new outlets, Shabalala had to move quickly to secure the leases and the franchises. The banks, however, were not going to be quick enough to put up the R1m finance that he needed, and so he approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS).
“They were very quick,” he says of BUSINESS/PARTNERS, who gave him a five-year loan to set up the two franchise outlets.
Most recently, Shabalala has set up a King Pie franchise outlet in Durban without any outside funding, and as always he is looking for new opportunities. In his typical open-ended style, he cannot say exactly in which direction his business will grow, but what he does know is that he hasn’t achieved his goals for profitability nor job creation yet. He has a clear figure in his mind, and he is determined to achieve it.