‘I was a single mum, depending on my salary, and had to prepare myself that as an entrepreneur I was my own personal assistant, my own tea lady, my own everything’
From the streets of East London’s Mdantsane to the leader of two companies, Sandi Mbutuma is building a reputation in the construction sector.
A single child, Mbutuma was fortunate to have had an opportunity to have her career path plotted out for her in high school.
“When I was at Cambridge High School in East London, we went to a career guidance and assessment programme at the then University of Port Elizabeth.
“Before that programme, I wanted to be a dentist. After a week of assessments, we sat down with professionals and they found my personality was more inclined to analysing quantity, which was not far off from my second option of accountancy.
“From then on I knew what to work towards academically,” she says.
Mbutuma’s numerical literacy at school was a good springboard for her as she met the requirements for entry into the quantity surveyor programmme at Durban’s ML Sultan Technikon.
Sadly, it lasted only a year because she was physically abused by a fellow student.
“I did my first year there but I was manhandled and physically abused by a male student. My parents took a decision to look for an institution that was more likely to offer protection,” she says.
It was then that she enrolled at the Wits Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg’s Doornfontein campus) to do her first year again.
“The high number of dropouts is partly because pupils have a certain picture of what the career should be, but when they get to varsity they’re shocked. And at that point you are already in a new environment. I remember in my first class, I could not switch on a computer, so I raised my hand and said my computer was not working. The lecturer had to switch it on because I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know how to,” she says.
After completing her diploma, she obtained her bachelor of technology degree before beginning her working career as a junior quantity surveyor at BTKM –Bham Tayob Khan and Masunda – in 2001.
More than three years after she joined BTKM, she tried her hand at being a quantity surveyor in the construction sector, but that was short-lived.
“My training was as a consulting quantity surveyor, so when I tried my hand at actually being a non-consulting surveyor at a construction firm I didn’t last six months,” she says.
Mbutuma went back to consulting and landed a job at Total Facilities Management Company (TFMC) (now known as Bidvest Facilities Management) which, at the time, was managing Telkom properties.
After almost three years at the company, Mbutuma was made head of the quantity surveying department.
“At TFMC I had completed almost 96 Telkom buildings and I could tell you from the top of my head how much a building would cost. I got to a level where I decided I had worked enough on Telkom buildings and looked around for other challenges.”
This led her to a position at Brian Heineberg & Associates, a multinational that operated many projects outside the country.
“Most of the projects were dollar-based or in the currency of that country. Every day you’d have to wear your thinking cap with the currency fluctuations in mind and the projects were quite complex. This gave me a competitive edge. It meant I could do projects in Nigeria, Seychelles, Botswana and anywhere else. That really helped me,” she says.
Mbutuma was made an associate quantity surveyor at Brian Heineberg & Associates and, in 2011, a partner, before she was recruited by Pentad Quantity Surveyors as a shareholder.
“I was headhunted by a company that wanted a black female director and shareholder. It was one of the biggest surveying firms in the country. It happened that I matched the company’s criteria.”
Mbutuma moved to Pentad as an executive director and shareholder.
Mbutuma was fortunate that the shares in the company were vendor financed.
“The shares were sizeable and I was the first black female on such a board and they set the tone for their peers in the industry. I learnt a lot as a director there,” she says.
During her five years at Pentad, she won several awards, including the Young Business Achiever under 35 at the National Business Awards 2013 and the Black Business Quarterly Awards’ 2014 Winner for Young Executive under 35.
The experience prepared her to take the leap in 2015 and start her own shop – Azzaro Quantity Surveyors.
“I had to factor in a lot of matters. I was a single mother who was depending on my salary and had to prepare myself that, as an entrepreneur, I became my own personal assistant, my own tea lady, my own everything. So I met the right partners, saved up nine months’ salary and we opened shop,” she says.
As managing director of Azzaro, her work attracted interest from the multidisciplinary engineering consulting company GIBB, which wanted her to run its architectural subsidiary, SVA International.
“The business landscape responded well to us. We let the work do the talking. People tend to worry about branding before they do the work.
“Azzaro may be less than five years old, but if you look at our performance, we have doubled our turnover every year,” says Mbutuma, pointing out how her firm’s client book had grown.
The firm employs 10 people.
Earlier this year, she joined SVA as its managing director, which meant stepping down from the same position at her own company, where she remains an executive director.
Mbutuma pointed out that remaining an executive of two complementary companies needed a bit of convincing to her partners in Azzaro but a common ground was found.
She considers one of the biggest lessons she has learnt in business is to have the ability to see value in purchases.
“Value engineering is the biggest lesson for me. Understanding why you are buying what you are buying is easier said than done,” she says.
She considers both positions as her day jobs and reckons she can only benefit from the experience.
When not working, Mbutuma enjoys taking walks, listening to music and reading.