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Meet the man who wants to disrupt SA's fitness industry

Dec 12 2016 20:09
Liziwe Ndalana

Cape Town – Tumi Phake, owner of the Zenzele Fitness Group, is a man with a mission.

He wants to disrupt the fitness and wellness industry by becoming the first black dominant player in Africa and aims to list his company on the JSE.

Even though his formal studies took him into banking, Phake told Fin24 he had always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur and run his own business.

Born in Katlehong Township and growing up in Tembisa on the East Rand, the 33-year-old describes himself as "very adventurous" as a child. He was active in sports such as basketball, athletics and long distance running, cross country, weight lifting and soccer.

(Tumi Phake, owner of Zenzele Fitness Group. Picture: Supplied)

Phake said he had a vision for people to achieve their potential and change their lives through health.

"In my community there was a lack of access to facilities; we wanted to play sports, have access to gym facilities, but there was none."

Phake started his business on the side while still working at the bank - he enrolled at the University of South Africa (Unisa) for a BCom Finance degree, but before this he did a lot of short courses in business and finance management. After graduating, he worked as a private banker where he managed a R100m lending portfolio.

He said as a former private banker, he had an advantage as he was used to dealing with ultra high net-worth individuals.  He was fortunate enough to have had his first client before he quit his job.

Phake seems confident, a go-getter: His resilience seemingly lies in his upbringing and support structure.

He was raised by his grandmother when his mother got married and left him in a household of twenty other children. He went to Bryanston High School in Sandton.

Phake is passionate about his mission. "We’re more than just a gym or wellness company. We want to produce real change in peoples’ lives, specifically touching markets that other companies or strong wellness players have never actually touched.

"I think I’m in a great position to do just that. It’s about people being productive, happier and living healthy lives."

Phake already owns 10 gyms across Johannesburg, Pretoria and Limpopo, and he told Fin24 he plans to spread his wings to Cape Town towards the end of 2017.

The group employs 50 full-time staff since its inception in 2014.

(Inside a Zenzele Fitness gym. Picture: supplied).

Where did it all start?

He started working early in life to support his independence after his grandmother died when he was only 19 years old. He worked three jobs at a time - he worked in a book store, a music store and was a waiter at a coffee shop. Phake said it was while working at the book store that he became interested in studying finance.

"At the book store I was forced to read a lot as I was expected to know about the books that were being launched. I have since become an avid reader," he told Fin24.

While working for the bank Phake started researching the industry, meeting potential investors and drawing up a business plan.

"The first 12 months was all about calling people, banks and other funders and equipping me with the right skills for the business.

"Eventually funding came from Awethu Project, an entrepreneur incubator."

Phake worked from home, refining his idea, designing the logo, pitching to investors and basically trying to structure the business. 

"It was the scariest time of my life. I worked extremely hard to ensure my investors were happy with their investment. After 14 months, the business started turning around and it went way above what I had promised my investors. I under-promised and over-delivered. I was quite conservative with my investments to ensure this was achieved.

The make-or-break first year

The first 12 months were was extremely hard as I had no experience and people were reluctant to invest in my business.

"Basically, the first 12 months were about building a footprint. I got my first client and that allowed me to build my first gym. Awethu Project funded the first gym when it granted me the initial R5m funding. The first facility cost roughly around R2m.

"My experience in the finance industry helped me. I understood what investors were looking for. I knew exactly how to package my business proposals and be able to speak to them in the language they understood. It's not always about a good idea and numbers, but execution; how you mitigate risk and return on investment.  The other one is the ability to pay the money you borrowed," Phake said. Phake owns all his gym branches and has no franchise model.

His initial dream was to become a professional basketball player. He wanted to pursue a scholarship to go to the US, but in time, that dream faded, said Phake.  

How much was your start-up capital?

We started off with R12m, including the R5m from Awethu Project. We are currently raising another R12m by the first quarter of 2017. The investment funding is a mix of equity, grant and debt funding. The other initial R7m was funded by a commercial bank.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I just want to create jobs.

Who inspired your entrepreneurial journey?

My late grandmother and mother played a huge role in my journey. My grandmother had no formal education but she ran a successful retail and food business in the township. She was able to raise twenty children with that and she afforded us the opportunity of quality education.

Hard lessons learnt?

Your staff is the most important people in your business and without them, your business will not scale and realise its full potential. You need to become a generalist as an entrepreneur and get involved in multiple tasks to equip yourself to be a strong leader within your organisation.

What do you count as your successes to date?

First up would be the ability to raise R12m to start my business. Then being selected as the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South African (2015).

I was also selected to be part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African leaders. This is a President Obama leadership programme and I went to the United States to study at Virginia Commonwealth University through the Business and Entrepreneurship Institute and meeting President Obama was a highlight for me.

What are your future plans for Zenzele?

I want to be the first black dominant player in the fitness industry in Africa and eventually become a publicly (JSE) listed business. 

What are the books that have impacted your life?

1. Good to great - Jim Collins
2. Built to last – Jim Collins
3. Intelligent Investor – Benjamin Graham
4. I write what I like – Steve Biko

Advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Never settle for a mediocre life. In business, always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Three people that you look up to?

Adrian Gore, CEO of Discovery Health, Barack Obama, outgoing US President and Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.

* Consider yourself an entrepreneurial hero? Or just have something on your mind? Add your voice to our  Small Business Centre

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