“I caught the market perfectly,” says Brian of his first property deal in 2001 when he was studying towards an accounting degree at Wits. It was a buyer’s market and the banks were extending bonds generously. Very soon, the value of that first property more than doubled and he was able to leverage it to finance more property purchases in the same way - buy, fix and rent out.
Brian, 36, who grew up in Vereeniging and Johannesburg and was always interested in the business world. His father had at one stage built up the second largest optometrist chain in South Africa, and Brian was set on entering the financial world.
As a student and a keen tennis player, he started coaching the sport in order to earn some pocket money. He did remarkably well, and ended up coaching seven days a week and earning enough to buy his first property.
After completing his accounting degree, he joined the auditing firm KPMG to do his articles and qualify as a chartered accountant, all the while pursuing his property investments as a sideline.
Soon he was spotting more opportunities than the banks were willing to finance, and he brought in two investment partners to help finance the expanding portfolio. One of the first developments the trio undertook was a new 16-unit cluster development in Bedfordview.
Inevitably, Brian came to a fork in his career. For a while he considered a position in London, which would have taken him into the world of high finance. But his partners in the property business, spotting the enormous opportunities unfolding in South Africa, convinced him to step out of the corporate world to drive the fledgling company on a full-time basis.
It was break from his original plans, but Brian had developed a love for the property business, the excitement of spotting an opportunity and seeing the vision come to fruition with every investment.
He started with two staff members in an office rented from his dad. His portfolio was already worth quite a few million, but in those early days he experienced the typical start-up struggles of making sure there was enough cash to survive from month to month.
The global financial crisis of 2008 hit Ezulwini Investments hard. They had unsold units on the markets and huge financial commitments, but suddenly the buyers had dried up.
Nerve-wracking weeks and months followed, but Brian believes that a number of things counted in his favour. First, he was young and had a clear sense that he could start over if the whole business collapsed. Second, most of their portfolio was in upmarket areas, which were the least affected by the slump. Third, they had not been able to find funding for all of their ideas and projects. If they had, they might well have been so overstretched that they would not have survived the crash.
As it happened, Ezulwini Investments pulled through with only a few properties that had to be sold to keep the ship afloat.
And it wasn’t long before the company started growing from strength to strength again. This time, they made sure to diversify the portfolio with some commercial properties, and lately by moving away from developing brand-new units to conversions of old buildings, as well as some off-shore investments.
Brian approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) about two years ago for finance to install services on a plot of land that they had bought for development. Up until that point, Ezulwini had tapped bank finance, but recently the banks have become even more risk averse, especially when it came to brand new developments.
BUSINESS/PARTNERS, however, was willing to look at the potential of the development and also at the strength and track record of the entrepreneur. The company is currently considering a second application from Ezulwini, this time for the second conversion project.
Another shift for Brian is a focus on building a stronger in-house team of professionals and managers. While outsourcing has its advantages, says Brian, he has learned that an in-house team leads to better quality and smoother projects.