The Interview: Jonathan Liebmann, one of Joburg's most exciting landowners

2013-04-21 14:00

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Percy Mabandu meets a young entrepreneur bringing the sparkle back to the City of Gold

Two cappuccinos and a few pages of weird fiction off my smartphone and three cigarettes and a cappuccino for my photographer colleague help us wait for a delayed interview with Jonathan Liebmann.

He is one of Joburg’s most exciting landowners and entrepreneurs.

Liebmann is hardly 30 and already owns a number of buildings in Joburg’s central business district (CBD). Five are already in operation, in the form of the Maboneng Precinct, and seven more will open their doors sometime this year.

We sit on the corner of Fox and Kruger streets in the precinct. Between the jovial banter and the music coming from a crackling speaker, the flow of time is punctuated by Liebmann’s assistant, who walks across the street to say he’s on his way.

He approach is casual. She’s wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. We are meeting on the street corner at a coffee kiosk called Uncle Merv’s.

It appears the Maboneng Precinct is treated as a singular office and playground. Maboneng is Sotho for “place of lights”.

Liebmann arrives in a similar casual fashion. He wears a light hoodie with chinos and sneakers. After struggling to peel himself away from his cellphone, he invites us to go upstairs to The Main Change building. It’s the latest jewel in a series of buildings following Revolution House

and Fox Street Studios.

Facilities in the building include The Open, a collaborative office space available for people who want the convenience but not the burden of running their own offices. They can pay to access it for meetings and work on a need basis.

The other floors of The Main Change have a yoga centre, a spa and a rooftop health restaurant called Living Room. This is where Liebmann chooses to sit for our chat.

The only spots available to sit are some colourful hammocks. He sticks his tongue out and plunges gently into one of the pillow-lined comfort contraptions.

For a moment, his youth pierces through the attempt to sound serious and professional amid the playful air of the place.

Liebmann founded Propertuity in 2007, the business vehicle with which he launched the property investments that became the Maboneng Precinct.

The first was Arts on Main, which was opened in 2010.

It’s a hip hotchpotch of art galleries, book shops and a restaurant called Canteen.

He has since amassed an impressive portfolio of properties in the old, run-down section of the Joburg inner city. Part of his success has been to transform mind-sets about the area once known for its crime and dereliction.

Liebmann points out that the variety of perceptions about the colossal wreck that is Joburg are different across generations.

Young people of between 15 and 25 years, according to him, have a different sense of the CBD to adults of 35 years and older.

“The young people don’t carry much of that negative memory of the city. They are where the attitude and mind-set must start to change,” he says.

The story of Maboneng is about Liebmann’s single-handed transformation of the area.

This is in contrast to other urban renewal stories across the world like that of forward-thinking mayor Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up New York.

There are other stories of interventions by no-nonsense police chief Peter Ryan, who cleaned up Sydney.

All of these, though, involved strategic input from dedicated municipalities to make things happen. Unlike with Liebmann.

It’s been a solely private investment focused on rejuvenating and repurposing abundant industrial buildings and inviting businesses and individuals to come in.

“I’m basically changing the way people live and work,” says Liebmann.

There has been some criticism, though. It involves the effects of the investment that provides “enlightened” residential and commercial space to the arty elite in an impoverished area.

There’s talk of how the original underclass inhabitants are being alienated by the development amid claims of an “integrated” neighbourhood.

“Most of the criticism has come from journalists. Not from the people who work or live and spend time here,” says Liebmann.

The apartments at Maboneng range from as low as R1?500 per month. “Anybody can hang around here and they do. Obviously people can’t sleep

on the pavements.”

Asked about his relationship with the political elites in Africa’s leading financial city, Liebmann has little to say. “We’ve got a good relationship with the city. I think they are underperforming here and there. Though a lot of progress has been made.”

He goes on to say there’s a need to talk more about the consumers’ role in urban development. People can be conscious players by deciding to buy at a local grocers – the type of shops that occupy spaces like Maboneng – versus large chains.

Liebmann studied business and accounting at Monash University between 2002 and 2004. But the bulk of his education comes from hands-on experience and entrepreneurship.

“I’ve been in business since I was 15 years old,” he says, as he finger-brushes his hair back for emphasis.

Liebmann says he was involved in running night clubs, a mobile coffee shop and a number of laundries in the Joburg inner city. So launching his boldest business move yet in the same town was natural.

“The area chose itself,” says the recently-divorced mover.

He comes from a family of business people. His father Benji founded the Nirox Foundation, an art complex with a sculpture park, studios and a residency at the Cradle of Humankind. His brothers, Nicolous (32) and Daniel (23), are in finance and retail respectively.

His sister Amber is still in school.

It’s obviously not all work and no play for Liebmann. “I go away twice a year on design trips. It includes fun too. I like going to Brazil. It fascinates me because it has a similar economic profile to SA.”

Liebmann has done a lot in his life. An impressive business profile, with a fair share of fun, not to mention having been married and back.

We have to ask what’s next

for the young entrepreneur. His response is sober: “I do see myself doing other interesting things in the future, but now I’m focusing on making Maboneng massive.”

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