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Investing in your passions

Oct 31 2019 15:22
Timothy Rangongo
FNB Art Fair

Mandla Sibeko is the owner of FNB Art Joburg (Image: Supplied)

When Mandla Sibeko was in his teens (in the late 1990s), he was a member of the Johannesburg Junior City Council – a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that consists of about 70 young leaders coming from different high schools around the city – with the main focus of identifying and solving problems faced by the youth on a daily basis.

The Junior City Council found itself on the then-popular Felicia Mabuza-Suttle talk show, where they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sibeko didn’t flinch: “My response was to be a businessman.”

Sibeko stuck to his guns. 

His holding company, Seed Capital Investments, established about ten years ago, aims to make long-term investments in small businesses and growing them to become leaders in their sectors. One of these small businesses was one of the first Pick n Pay stores in Soweto back in 2008.

Two years later, in 2010, Sibeko was recognised for his entrepreneurial efforts by The Forum of Young Global Leaders – the World Economic Forum’s foundation for remarkable leaders under 40 – who are deemed to “have gone on to lead their countries, serve their communities, launch ground-breaking initiatives, expand access to resources, and shake up traditional ways of doing business”.

As of 2019, his investments also include FNB Art Joburg – making it the country’s first black-owned art fair. 

finweek caught up with Sibeko, a former director and now the owner of the art fair. 

Tell us about your business background.

I was previously a shareholder and chairman of Netflorist. I come from a retail/e-commerce and entrepreneurial background. Over the years, I’ve invested in about 12 small businesses, exiting and selling my shares over time, to move onto the next big thing. 

Also, for some time, I owned a big signage company that produced PVC for billboards, signage for banks (ATM branding) and even KFC buckets. This led me to setting up another company, Icon SA. We were responsible for the look and feel of the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup by dressing up stadia. That was the highlight of my career at the time. And at a memorable time.

How do you go about choosing specific investments? 

Different investments are funded through different arrangements and private investors. Technology, agriculture and art are the key areas that I invest in. I invest in my passions; it has, therefore, never felt like I am in a job.

How did you get involved in the art fair?

I had been to the FNB Art Fair and started meeting galleries, buying one or two pieces. But I wanted to be involved in the makings of it … in something creative. I got to understand how it works when the previous owner of the art fair left, and I came on-board as a minority shareholder and took over operations.

I also left at some point, but was approached by the galleries to come back to reposition and do it on a small scale. 

We wanted to have the best of the best at the fair; emerging artists and continental participation (what we found over the 11 years of the fair is that getting people from different parts of the continent to come and exhibit here is quite hard — not all nations have the robust art ecosystems we do). The continent is strong when it comes to craft, but when it comes to art, art institutions and platforms, it’s only a handful that are.

How did you go about attaining ownership of the fair, from a business perspective?

An art fair is a business where you sell space. You build your value through the brand, i.e. FNB Art Joburg.

You have to buy infrastructure. The biggest infrastructure at an art fair is, of course, the walls. Exhibitors cannot sell expensive works on bad walls, so you have to invest in expensive walls and make sure that the walls are put up properly. That is the architectural side. Then you have to bring in lighting. Lighting is, again, critical. 

The whole process is oriented around securing a space, paying for it and then selling the space back to galleries to purchase per square metre, and then giving platform to brands like FNB, the title sponsor, which funds most of the activities. The fair model is now more subsidised than in the past. 

How does it come together?

It’s actually pretty straight-forward. You have four different pillars: the sponsorship side, which is critical; the infrastructure side, which is what you put out to make sure that, by the time you are selling to the third pillar i.e. the content side, it is set up in a way that they would want to exhibit. 

The fourth pillar is the people. You need to get the buyers in. We run quite a tight database management system that focuses on collectors and potential collectors. We look at high-net-worth individuals first, and people who are within the ecosystem, that you would like to encourage to buy certain works. And then you look at the emerging buyers who are starting out. 

According to statistics, 40% of art sales are now happening at art fairs around the world. Galleries are still as important, though, as they run year-long programmes – we don’t.

What were some of the challenges in the lead-up to the fair?

Raising the money to finance the acquisition within a very short space of time was definitely a challenge. I was able to get private investment to buy the assets (because the fair is an asset). 

There are some hurdles to cross too. There is an evaluation and due diligence process of the fair that is conducted. There is a check of the assets, inventory and warehousing, all of which is a long process that had to be in place when the money is paid into the bank account. Only when that was done, could we move forward. 

One of the challenges was re-orienting the team around database management and how to focus on getting new people onto the system. We drew lessons fom the past. We also work with a very professional team who knows what they are doing.

And on the practical side?

You have to juggle the city, ensuring that there are things like ambulances on standby, should anything go wrong, getting sign-offs after inspections (food area, lighting, where the walls are positioned etc.) that they have to come and conduct, daily.

Then the big elephant in the room: People were not sure that the art fair was still happening, or what was going on with the ownership. We had to overcome those glitches. In a very short space of time, we had to say that we are here and getting a campaign out. We didn’t have time to print billboards; everything was pretty much digital this time around. 

Yet, we managed to maintain the same sort of audiences, with 12 500 visitors (compared with 14 000 in the previous year). I am confident that we will increase next year.

This year, there was also a drop in visits from schools to the fair due to a big protest march (against gender-based violence) outside the JSE in Sandton. 

How do you balance the responsibilities of the art fair with the responsibilities at your other investments?

It works out well. The art fair has different intervals where I am required more than at any other time during the year. Outside of those intervals, I have some freed-up time to focus on the agri-venture business I am building.

Key business lessons that you have learnt from the entire experience?

Relationships are key, especially with key stakeholders, to ensure success. Everyone pulled together. I realised that I would not pull it off on my own. The stakeholders contributed a lot and they are always key. It is not always about the money, but the relationships that make the deal succeed too.

What differentiates FNB Art Joburg from the other art fairs?

Our platform is based on showcasing and celebrating the best of the best in African artists. Eventually, with time, it will be the place to turn to when buying African art or wanting to learn more about it. 

What makes us different is that we are very much focused on the Joburg market first. Joburg is a very diversified city. You can meet anyone from anywhere in Joburg. 

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in Joburg, to ensure that people are ultimately buying local work and supporting artists. 

Anything that you would do differently?

With more time, I think we can up our game, especially on the marketing side. We didn’t have enough time this year.

We also want to strengthen the books area. South Africans need to get more into art book collecting. We want to open up that space. Next year, we will probably have international publishers who are prepared to come down to SA and promote books and get the whole culture going.

I hope that next year we will have about four or five international galleries that will come and exhibit here, which we think will do quite well.

Do you have a mentor?

I believe in taking lessons and advice from different people. I have a long list of amazing people who I admire and many who have paved the way for people like us to operate in business. I have a mentor at the moment who is a guru of retail and agriculture. I enjoy his friendship and the lessons.

How do you strike a life/work balance? 

I work just as hard as I play. I take time off to be with my wife and we travel together often and explore exciting new places together. I am an active person and train every week at the gym. 

I also believe in persevering. I have been working to get a big breakthrough in agriculture for several years and I think after all these years I might have found the formula. Just like in the art world, I personally invested my own money to be at the table in the first place. That was an investment in education and entry into the arts ecosystem.

This article originally appeared in the 7 November edition of finweek magazine. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here

business  |  art  |  entrepreneur
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