Zulu has carved out a niche for herself in innovative building technology and is determined to transform the supply industry
Trailblazing construction businessperson Lebogang Zulu has become the go-to person for fast and efficient delivery of construction projects, even for government.
Zulu, who scooped a top sector award a fortnight ago at a prestigious ceremony at Emperors Palace, is, however, not known to many people outside the construction business.
Born and raised in KwaThema in the east of Johannesburg, Zulu says she has always been assertive and passionate.
During an interview at one of her company’s steel manufacturing plants in Potchefstroom, she elaborates on her history: “My mother joined Woolworths as a cleaner and retired recently as a regional manager handling about 40 stores. Being raised by a woman like that really built me. She was the driver that put me through school and insisted that I work during holidays.”
Zulu learnt valuable lessons working as a packer and cashier at Woolworths when she was a teenager.
“Growing up in the township, I couldn’t speak English and all I could say was ‘good morning, ma’am’ and ‘thank you, ma’am’.
“Being in that environment with other kids who were multilingual, I envied their ability to chat to customers, so I started buying magazines at work and reading out loud to myself,” says Zulu.
“I got more confident and, back at work, I would also mimic the other kids who were fluent,” she says, adding that this self-learning habit helped her in the long run.
Zulu matriculated from Junior High School in Vosloorus and headed to Peninsula Technikon to study mechanical engineering.
“I grew up surrounded by boys, so I had no other ambitions besides wanting to be a mechanical engineer as soon as I knew about it. I didn’t have a plan B. It was either that or nothing,” she says.
After graduating, she joined Eskom’s Duvha Power Station in Mpumalanga, having fallen out with Eskom because she refused to be placed at Koeberg, as that was not part of her bursary agreement.
“In my interview with Eskom, I remember I told them that I had no experience. I also told them that it was the first and last time I would move in my career because of the affirmative action policy. They made me an offer and it was indeed the last time in my life that I was a beneficiary of affirmative action,” she says.
She moved up the Eskom ladder and, when she left the company in 2009 as a trainee power station manager, she had learnt the entire value chain of running a power station, including stints in electricity generation and transmission.
“I left out of respect for Eskom because I was getting too comfortable and I have a fear of being complacent,” Zulu says.
After leaving Eskom, she partnered with the late soccer legend John “Shoes” Moshoeu to form a construction company.
“Outside of football, that man was a dreamer and that’s what connected us. We both had a vision of changing the world in our own little way. We did a few innovative building projects together,” she says.
Three years later, she went solo and, in 2012, founded Tshitshirisang Construction and Projects, which is now a giant specialist in innovative building technology.
“I bought the shelf company and I stuck with the name. The vision didn’t change – it was always to push innovative building in an environment that has only known bricks and mortar for the past 100 years or so,” she says, adding that the intention is to take bricks and mortar out of the market, just like they replaced other building systems.
The company, which has a Construction Industry Development Board grade eight certification in general building and 64 employees, has now earned itself an impressive reputation as the go-to entity for fast, reliable building structures.
“Getting into this male-dominated industry, there were several challenges, including being a woman. But I love a challenge because it gives you an opportunity to disappoint the perception,” Zulu says.
Another challenge, she says, was changing the mindset of the construction market, which was not aware of alternative building systems.
With Tshitshirisang well established, Zulu sought more challenges in the same space and opted to be her own supplier.
The material supply sector in the country generates more than R95 billion a year and has fewer than 5% of black participants, making it one of the least transformed sectors in the country.
“I wanted to have a say in the supply side and did not want my margins to be determined by someone else any more, so that is how I bought AV Light Steel, which was one of my main suppliers of roof trusses,” says Zulu of the acquisition that was concluded in 2017.
She says buying the company took some hard work.
“I had to convince the owners of the potential and of my vision, so I did my research and convinced them to give me 60% of shares at no cost to me,” she says.
She later bought the balance of the holding in cash.
She has now built a massive steel manufacturing facility that produces all the steel material that construction companies such as Tshitshirisang need.
It also supplies companies in neighbouring countries.
“There has never been a single 100% black-owned contractor that has made R1 billion in this country, and there never will be unless things change. After 1994, when government introduced the BEE policies, white companies strengthened the supply side of the value chain and still determine the profits of tenders,” she says.
With the two complementary companies, Zulu has managed to build a favourable reputation and employs more than 100 people in total.
She says her vision is to create at least 200 innovative building technology contractors across the country, who will each be able to take on an entire project by themselves and, in the process, create hundreds of direct jobs.
“We will also have to put our products on shelves and if the major warehouses won’t have them, we will find a way of getting our products to the market,” she says.
Taking the City Press team on a tour around the Potchefstroom facility, which also has an innovation and design unit, Zulu says the fastest house she built using her technology took nine days.
“I really want to make a difference and that will be my legacy,” she concludes.