Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|November 1, 2020|30 Minutes|In Billionaire, Billionaire Today

Tim Tebeila

If you want a story of a road less travelled and why an entrepreneur should never give up: take the tale of Tim Tebeila. He grew up running barefoot through the mountains. He turned his first coin selling apples on the streets, suffered beatings, setbacks, poverty and discrimination on his way to millions.

There are two names you think of when you walk into Tim Tebeila’s multi-million-dollar luxury home in Johannesburg: Donald Trump and Louis XIV. For his home is furnished like a little Versailles in Africa a throwback to the style and colour of France’s Bourbon Sun King of the eighteenth century. The gentle trickle of the fountains outside lends that sound of Versailles too. A Maserati is parked outside.

Everywhere there are heavy, ornate, chairs with gold paint and thick turquoise upholstery. It is much easier to admire than it is to describe. It mirrors the New York home of a certain billionaire turned president.

“All of this I bought from France, the same furniture shop as Donald Trump! ”says its proud owner Tebeila with a smile.

If Trump is rejected by the voters in November at least there is a tiny corner of Africa that will always be a monument to his taste. This expensive pad in Johannesburg is the fruit of a life spent rising from barefoot poverty, by taking risks, as an entrepreneur, to build a resources empire. His South African company Sekoko Resources mines iron ore platinum and coal has taken his net worth from $28 million four years ago to an estimated $300 million.

On this tour of Chez Tebeila, we walk past a photograph, in pride of place high on the wall, of our host sitting next to the first democratically elected president of South Africa Nelson Mandela. A man Tebeila befriended nearly 40 years after risking his own liberty, as a young activist, campaigning in the Free Mandela campaign.

“That was the day I introduced the Gabonese president Omar Bongo to him,” he says wistfully.

Around the corner is a board room with a dozen high-backed and stiff chairs, in their own way also reminiscent of Trump, in two lines either side of the table; like a couple of ranks of guardsmen on parade.

“Ïn this very boardroom was raised a billion Rand to build the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital,” says Tebeila with a flourish of the arm. He appears ebullient on this day even though South Africa is still in the grips of COVID-19 lockdown that, in his eyes, is a double-edged sword.

“Most people are very pessimistic, but, as I said to you, we are very happy. The only thing that makes us unhappy is the disease. The virus is making everybody unhappy and we are part of those who are unhappy, but when it comes to the strategies of a new mind of how to rethink and redo your business in a different way, we are excited, because in the past we use to run the offices in an environment of many people where they spend time travelling for two hours there and two hours back. Now with COVID-19, we have nobody travelling anywhere, we do all our business online through MS Zoom and Skype. They are all very efficient and fruitful because you cut down on transport and you still have the energy to speak,” he says.

There are great opportunities. The pharmaceutical part is the best through this global pandemic, the COVID-19 is not the last one that is going to come along. Because the global environment has created these things that we are going to be faced with pandemics because people want to go back to their normal lives. I would still invest money in the telecommunications and IT sector. I am still trying to put more money into the insurance industry. I am building my sector to become a strong competitor and then I will buy a big insurance company even if it is not in South Africa. When you go to other companies you buy one licensee and then you can buy many and then I will be able to run which I love most, insurance I will do it in Africa.

Tim Tebeila

This is the latest chapter in a remarkable and rich story connecting rocky tracks, in the wilds of Africa, to a comfortable, upholstered, seat of power in the boardroom.

This stable, lavish home, is in sharp contrast with the ragged, barefoot, upbringing that Tebeila experienced in the cool mountains of Limpopo in northern South Africa in the depths of the country’s miserable apartheid regime. In those days poor, black teenagers, like Tebeila weren’t expected to amount to much as they faced a lifetime of hardship and exclusion. A village school teacher – a chance to be respectable and wear a tie -was about the best job they could hope for.

If ever he was in doubt that it was going to be a hard life, there was the long walk to school in the morning. It was a 20-kilometre walk, barefoot, through the jagged, stony, mountain paths. Tebeila used to get up at 4 AM to try to make it on time.

“I was thrashed every day, for being late, for two years,” he recalls with a slight grimace, “The toughness of making me an entrepreneur is from my background…living in this kind of environment I’ve learnt that hardship is the one that made me say that no one was born entrepreneurs.”

A painful start in life for Tebeila, the son of a priest, left him with a desire to get on and a keen eye for money-making hustle on the street. He spotted how taxi drivers could deliver boxes of apples from the city.

“I could buy this box of apples and if there were fifty of apples for R50, that I could sell it for double the price to get R100. It was time to stop playing soccer with the other kids,” he says. It meant he could pay his way through school – self- reliance he passed on to his children.

“Two of my children pay their own school fees; I don’t pay their school fees. One is doing advertisements; he is nine years old and he is on the billboards. The other one is doing music, he just launched new music. He has done four Hollywood films and he pays his own school fees with that money. When I was doing the apple business, that kind of spirit, fortunately, folds into them for them to have their own businesses at such an early age and to pay their own school fees. Like I did.”

School and politics were to lead Tebeila down a long and winding path to becoming a mining entrepreneur. At school, he was drawn into politics by the South African Youth Congress, regarded as one of the most significant political youth movements of the day. He became a leader and campaigned, not only for the release of Mandela but also for the unbanning of the African National Congress.

It led to trouble. When the police came knocking at his home the nearby mountain, once was his obstacle, became his haven. He used to sleep under the stars on the peaks to avoid being dragged off in the back of a police van.

Despite these struggles, Tebeila qualified as a tie-wearing teacher in 1989, in Tembisa in eastern Johannesburg, yet his activism lived on- at a price. He recruited fellow activists for banned organisations; for his pains, the education authorities fired him and the police banned him. In those days, a banning order was a living death. It meant your movement was restricted and you could only associate with one person at a time. Tebeila sat idle for four months and lost every cent he had ever earned; matters were so lean that he even went into arrears on the cheap bed he had bought on hire purchase with his first pay cheque. In those desperate days, lunch and dinner was half a loaf of bread and a cool drink.

Yet he refused to give up and worked his way into a job, through a friend who believed in him, at insurance giant Sanlam as a broker. As democracy dawned in South Africa, more and more of his black clients were securing higher paid jobs and government jobs that saw them wanting insurance for themselves and their families.

Tebeila prospered, but it was not enough. He started his own insurance business and built houses, but neither really did It for him and he sat down to imagine a new future.

Tebeila’s inspiration came from one of the wealthiest families in Africa who grew up a world away from Limpopo – the billionaire miners, the Oppenheimers.

“The Oppenheimer family started Anglo-American, they started the same way I did. Not by buying companies, but by getting their own rights and developing them,” he told me in 2016.

This is exactly what Tebeila did at the beginning of this century and it set in train a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride, through mining, to his fortune. Acquiring a mining right proved more of a nightmare than a dream – he was turned down ten times and each time he would return to his office in Polokwane and collapse in frustration on the couch. He always deals with rejection in his own way in that couch– he would sleep for four hours!

In 2005, came the breakthrough. Tebeila secured a mining right he felt could make his fortune. It was in Soutpansberg, near Messina on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe, on home turf in Limpopo.

The mining right was spread over 8,000 hectares of Limpopo, across 11 farms, promising 200 million tonnes of coal. The only problem was he couldn’t raise the $100,000 needed for exploration – a dearth of capital that irks him to this day.

“It is very funny the funders want to finance someone who has money, not someone with ideas and a good business plan, someone with money already. So, I have learnt that in my entire life I have never borrowed money from any institutions. I financed my business by making money myself and generating income out of it,” he says.

Tebeila learned the hard way about raising capital. One crisp winter’s morning he went to speak to the people of his village, near Bela Bela in the heart of the massive Waterberg coalfield in Limpopo, to convince them to put up their life savings to reap the rewards of a coal mine that didn’t even exist yet.

The next morning, a blind woman shuffled into Tebeila’s office holding onto the arm of one of her children. She proffered her life savings – about $1,000.

“This is all I have young man, spend it well,” she said. Tebeila was humbled and more money tumbled in allowing him to engage a minerals consultant company to explore the rights for Soutpansberg coal. All was well, or so it seemed.

One of Tebeila’s strengths as an entrepreneur is that he works on instinct. Good job too in this case. One morning he decided to check on the consultants to find, to his horror, an empty office. Without telling him, the company had packed up and gone to Australia. It meant Tebeila would have to stand before the people he grew up with and tell them he had lost the money.

Again, he was crushed and slept another four hours on the office couch before waking up in survival mode with an idea. He remembered the laboratory that the runaway consultants had used to process data and dashed to it in nearby Witbank. At the laboratory, finally, Lady Luck smiled. Tebeila managed to retrieve two flimsy pages of exploration data at the laboratory and luckily they contained details of vital drilling data. From those two pages, experts were able to reconstruct the report of the entire coal project.

Lucky, maybe, but the struggle was far from over. Tebeila spent five frustrating months trying to sell the Soutpansberg coal project. Most people in the industry didn’t want to know – Brazilian mining giant Vale showed interest – but this was scuppered by the fact that that the proposal had to be translated into Portuguese. That would have taken months and Tebeila was running out of time and money.

Who Made Africa’s First Homegrown Cell Phone?

When Rwanda’s Mara Group launched a new smartphone, made in Kigali, in October 2019 there was talk of a first for Africa. People challenged this idea on social media claiming Tim Tebeila was the first back in 2016 – he agrees!

The creation of an African made smartphone has the hallmark of a Tim Tebeila entrepreneurial adventure. He came up with an idea against the odds, faced a severe setback, followed by a lengthy comeback.       

It all began in May 2016 when Sekoko Smartphones, the telecoms arm of his company, started making phones at its factories in Booysens and Boksburg in Johannesburg.

The phone was called Mint and Tebeila wanted it to be a breath of fresh air. It went on the shelves later that year as part of a multi-million dollar investment in a partnership with MTN – one of the biggest mobile operators on the continent.

“We had a challenge, the brand was good and loved by the market, we were a new, popular brand on the market. MTN gave us an order of two million to distribute throughout the whole country, we did that,” says Tebeila.

A strong start that didn’t last. By 2018 the Mint didn’t seem so sweet.    

“The challenge that we had with the Mint was the number of rejections on the market. We had a higher volume of rejections, about 30% of rejections. When you have that kind of rejection on the market, in terms of the phone being returned, you must give them a new phone and that is a loss. So, we have made a lot of loss on the cell phone market, so what we did is then put a hold on it,” says Tebeila.

It meant Tebeila and his 250 employees in Johannesburg had to go back to the drawing board to come up with a sharper Mint.

“We have now realised our problems as to what are the rejections and we are busy modifying items on the phone which was the cause of the phone being returned. So, we will do a serious comeback on cell phones, but we will launch it in Swaziland, not in South Africa, between 2021 and 2022. We will be launching the same brand, but in Swaziland, because they have shown us to be in love with the product, they are the ones who requested that even the plant must be there,” says Tebeila with a smile.

It may be a strange move for a mining and resources man, but also living proof that you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.

Funnily enough, before the COVID-19 even came in, we were one of those given an opportunity of what you call a pilot concept for e-learning in Gauteng. We did five e-learning schools in Gauteng. So we were doing it as if we knew that there would be a COVID-19. So we have done it before, a proof of concept in Gauteng. We are going to put in more effort, and we will see half the kids doing homeschooling and not going to school, and all of them having no problems communicating and linking themselves up in classrooms. Some of our kids dont go to school, they are at home, but they can communicate with the children in the classroom as if they are together. That is because of the high-speed internet, which is a fibre network.

Tim Tebeila

Then one day when he was driving along the highway from Limpopo, a phone call came that was to change his life. It was from established mining player Coal of Africa. The company offered to buy 74% of the assets for R70 million and pledged to put in another R100 million to take the project to a bankable feasibility study and signed the next day.

“It was the biggest deal I ever got while I was driving!” recalls Tebeila.

Nearly 20 years on, Tebeila is enjoying the rewards of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. He now owns four coal mines producing 2.4 million tonnes with investment plans in place to increase output to 10 million tonnes of steam coal for power generation. Half of it is exported to China and India by railway along the coal line running between the mines and Richards Bay Coal Terminal- the world’s largest single coal export terminal.

Yet, the huge infrastructure gap in South Africa is holding back Tebeila’s export operations.

“There is no capacity on the line. Transnet is improving capacity over the next two years, but for now, that is holding us up,” he says.

Another, older, problem is holding up Tebeila’s lucrative iron ore operation, employing 100 people near Postmasberg in the Northern Cape. His mines turn out 300,000 tonnes of iron ore every month and want to export 200,000 tonnes by rail to Saldhana Bay and a ship to India or the United Kingdom.

“The line is monopolised by old companies like Kumba and its capacity is only 100,000 tonnes a month. I am negotiating I want them to transform because we need a democratic economy every player to participate equally in the mainstream economy,” says Tebeila.

There are no plans to upgrade the railway line and for now, Tebeila has to bear the expense of running a fleet of 200 trucks – that is two for every worker at his Northern Cape mines – to move the iron ore to Saldhana Bay.

Platinum has been a lot kinder. Like in the apple trade of his youth, Tebeila has spotted a price gap in the platinum market. His mine on the rich eastern limb of bushveld complex, with a life of 30 years, turns out 125,000 oz of platinum group metals.

The cost of production, according to Tebeila, is just over $40 an ounce – the platinum has been selling this year for around $2,300. How do you like them apples! To borrow a line from a Hollywood film.

All of this proves persistence pays off when it comes to being an entrepreneur. Where will the billionaires of tomorrow come from?

“The mining sector is the creator of the billionaires of tomorrow. The prices have increased and it is moving very very high,” says Tebeila.

“My advice is that you must invest in the minerals that we produce in the country. It must not be exported as raw material, you export the platinum and gold out to China, India and Dubai then it comes back again as a final product. If we believe that we produce minerals let’s put more capital and beneficiate our own things. Put more effort in the youth of the country.”

What does Tebeila think of the new generation of entrepreneurs who often knock on his door for finance?

“I look mostly into their business plan, and the business modules and if there is passion into that business. If I see they have the passion and the business modules are going to work I say that I think that we can help you. If I look at you and you just want to make money, not if you have passion then I say no. When there is no money the person is going to lose faith and the business will collapse. In the first years, you do not make money, you make losses, you have to have resilience and passion. It will never go down if you have passion, it will run well,” he said.

“There was a young man and he borrowed R50,000 from us and I asked him what he will do with it. He said to me that he wants to buy a scrap machine, which is unused and broken, that can grind the stones and produce gold. He will be going to the gold dumps where he will process this gold. It can give R1.5 million a month if we are pleased. I didn’t hesitate because he doesn’t want it for clothes or alcohol, he will use it to buy things which he needs to generate income. The R50,000 machine will give him R1.5 million of which he will be able to invest in another bigger machine and generate bigger gold production. Until he built a big refinery of gold. From there he can buy more machines and generate even more.”

And when they suffer as he did?

“You take a step back to your drawing board, introspect yourself, rethink your motives and change your strategy. Some people will be in Gauteng doing business and it doesn’t work and the go to Mpumalanga then it can bloom in Mpumalanga -your environment plays a big role, do not hesitate to move your business. Some families come from India where they were not making it in their companies, but when they change their environment they find themselves doing business and it working. Changing the environment contributes a lot to the growth of a business.”

Tebeila changed his environment nearly 30 years ago and has won through by bootstrapping his business. More than that, you could argue his greatest asset was his refusal to give up. Over to you!

“Corruption is a serious crime against humanity, it affects the human being and innocent people, it stops the economy. I love our president, President Cyril Ramaphosa. He is trying to capture all corruption, he knows that when you do corruption you kill people, especially now with the COVID-19, people must not do corruption, you are killing yourself and others in the hospital. They will have a better life if they do not plead corruption. Support the president when he says we must capture corruption.”

Tim Tebeila

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