18 December 2015
“We’re the biggest shoe-shine company in Africa,” says Lere Mgayiya, the founder of Lere’s Shoe Shine Experience, which operates in three major South African airports, in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
— Destiny Man (@Destiny_Man) July 14, 2015
But starting a business wasn’t easy, Mgayiya says. A former South African Airways employee, he is a serial entrepreneur who started up several small businesses that were unsuccessful. In his life, Mgayiya has sold produce – he sold eggs to the Parliament canteen – as well as worked with livestock; he has also had a public mobile phone business and dabbled in stock market investment.
Ultimately, those efforts proved fruitless. “I was considered a loser by my peers and family because I resigned from SAA and the money I invested was gone. That created a lot of pressure for me to look for a job. But I did not want to do that because it is not who I am at all,” Mgayiya says.
In 2002, inspired by an article about a local shoe shiner, he invested in the man’s business. He also added its unique selling point – the airport locations.
Having worked in airports before, he understood that passenger traffic passing through would make it a strategic location for his service. He used his connections to negotiate a deal to operate at Cape Town International Airport. The company, initially named Airport Shoe Shine, started off slow but steady. Mgayiya sold most of his valuables to invest in his first luxury shiner’s chair and the company’s single employee.
“We worked 18 hours a day, six days a week,” he remembers, with the hard work paying off in a substantial profit in the first two months, money he invested back into the company. With two more chairs and more shiners, the business soared.
The company’s biggest break was when it received authorisation to open at OR Tambo International, South Africa’s largest airport, where the shiners became a popular feature for travelling businesspeople.
Mgayiya partnered with Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), which operates the airports in the country, in his inevitable, unconventional way.
“I had read about Acsa looking to encourage businesses within the airport and one day saw the chief executive walking around the Cape Town terminal. I walked up and told her how well she was doing; how I could see how she had turned the business around because I was at the airport every day. And she was so impressed that she asked me why I had not expanded to Johannesburg.”
The rest is history.
In 2008, the business expanded to OR Tambo and Durban’s King Shake airports and soon after into five other airports around South Africa. However, the stress of running eight detached locations on a limited budget led Mgayiya to close some and focus on the major airports in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
“We learnt our lesson. We expanded too quickly to inappropriate places, which almost killed our business. We had to kill those operations fast before they killed us,” Mgayiya says.
But as these three continue to gain more customers, Lere’s Shoe Shine is now eyeing expansion again. This time, though, the business is looking to go global, with plans for partnerships in the US and UK, as well as in the rest of Africa.
— mich (@michalentweet) May 5, 2015
Mgayiya’s business philosophy is simple: passion and clever thinking are more important to entrepreneurs than just money. The business’s customers – be they tourists arriving in South Africa for the first time or seasoned business travellers – always enjoy having someone to talk to. “They enjoy the experience of interacting with (the shoe shiner), (so all my) employees have extrovert personalities
“They’re someone to connect with, talk to, when you’re far from home in a hard, cold place like an airport, it’s nice to find a quiet, relaxed space for a chance to stop and relax for a moment and maybe engage meaningfully with someone that you might not have met in any other situation. That’s what this business is really about, everything else will follow if you engage with the client.”
Today, Mgayiya has 45 employees and he estimates his company shines the shoes of between 120 000 and 130 000 customers a year.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to be prepared to commit themselves completely to their business, even if it means facing greater risks. “If you are not invested in that business, it changes the chances of success.”
He firmly believes that good businesses are made from good ideas, from your head and heart. “It is the driving force which is generated from the love and passion for those ideas that makes it successful – it is not just the money,” Mgayiya says.
“No matter how poor you are, no matter where you come from in life. it is your brain that makes you successful and your heart that drives you.”