Winning Women – Thandekile Mehlomakulu: Ready for blastoff

2013-08-18 14:00

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From chemical analyst to running a company that transports blasting products across SA, Thandekile Mehlomakulu’s career has been determinedly explosive, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Thandekile Mehlomakulu began her working life as an analytical chemist based in the laboratory of a Joburg chemical company.

She had always loved physics, maths and chemistry at school, so it seemed natural for her to study towards a diploma in chemistry.

Then, several years down the track, and with additional diplomas in sales, marketing management and project management under her belt, she realised that she was restless and eager to run her own business.

As the construction industry boomed in 2002, she and four other women started a company.

But the timing wasn’t quite right, as Mehlomakulu says her and her associates didn’t have the required experience they needed and the company “didn’t work out”.

But Mehlomakulu wasn’t discouraged, and took the failure as “a taste of what it is like to run your own business”.

She then began working in an executive position for an adult basic education and training company. While there, she happened to visit Blastrite, a family-owned and managed business that manufactures and distributes granular abrasive commodities.

The soda blasting process fascinated the chemist in her.

“It was employed in the late 1980s to restore the Statue of Liberty in New York. It is used to strip paint, remove rust, oil and graffiti, to clean and restore masonry, to clean the hulls of boats, as well as food-processing facilities and equipment and even printing presses. The list is endless,” says the impeccably groomed Mehlomakulu.

But back then, the gap in the market for her lay in transporting the blasting products and she was asked if she had a truck. She didn’t, but that didn’t stop her – she hired one from a friend.

In 2006, she registered Thanozi General Trading and resigned from her job a few months later.

“Blasting is a closed, niche industry in South Africa, mainly white male and family dominated. They needed black economic empowerment credits and that’s where I came into the picture,” says Mehlomakulu.

She met Joseph Khoza, an experienced driver of the large vehicles used to transport blasting products and, between them, they raised enough money to buy their first truck in 2007.

“Joseph was the catalyst for our business, which is 100% black owned and I own half of it. We got no help from any financial institutions so we had to invest our own money as well as borrow from family and friends.”

While some family members and friends helped out where they could, others muttered warnings about Mehlomakulu’s health deteriorating under the strain of running a business.

“Some even said I wouldn’t ever sleep properly again. But I had a fantastic role model in my mother, who had run her own hiring business from our Thokoza township home when I was young. So I just carried on,” she says.

Today, Mehlomakulu has 11 vehicles – ranging in size from a one-ton truck to a 36 tonner – as well as nine full-time staff and five part-timers.

“In the six years of being in business, we could never get a bank loan, so in the end we gave up asking and financed ourselves.

“Then, out of the blue, last year, we were assigned a new relationship manager at First National Bank, who informed us we had a preapproved loan of R600?000. That is when, for the first time, we bought a truck through a financial institution.”

There’s a gleam of triumph in Mehlomakulu’s friendly eyes. She smiles as she recalls her son Thokozani (30), a project manager with an accounting background, warning her against “overextending” herself.

She praises Blastrite for its support and making Thanozi their preferred transporter. “They trusted us with their products – and that is true enterprise development,” she says.

Today, Mehlomakulu’s trucks travel to Mpumalanga, North West, Free State and around Gauteng. “We might soon travel further afield to Cape Town and the Northern Cape,” she says.

She dreams of becoming the biggest transporter in the surface preparation and blasting industry.

She looks back on a life growing up with a single mother: “She always ensured we were comfortable at home, sent me to a good boarding school, and then helped me, as a single parent, to bring up my son.”

She’s happily married to Mandla Peete, who drove her to her first meeting in the blasting industry because she was “so nervous”.

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