Entrepreneurship is a not an easy career route to take, and it’s even worse when you have abandoned a very promising soccer career.
This is exactly what the head of business development and co-owner of local fast-growing spirits company ZAR Prestige Signature Club, Pule Malahlela, had to learn when he opted to pursue a dream behind a desk instead of on the sports field.
Speaking to City Press about his interesting journey, the lawyer and serial entrepreneur narrated how he swapped dreams and now does not regret it.
Born in Tshware village near Mankweng, 45-odd kilometres outside Polokwane, to a mother who is a teacher and father who is a police officer, Malahlela’s life was nothing out of the ordinary.
He started school at Leshoane primary, moved to Northern Academy and then moved again to Florapark primary, before going on to Kuschke high school and a year after that to Florapark high, all in Polokwane. While at the last school he was recruited by the Hellenic Football Club academy in Cape Town.
“When I was at Florapark primary and staying in Mankweng in 1998, I was recruited by coach Jerry Ramohlale to join his Turfloop football academy. I remember the first time I practised with them was when he gave me the nickname Dunga (after the then Brazilian captain) and I didn’t even know who that was. In Kuschke in 2000 I actually made history by being the only Grade 8 learner in the first team,” he said.
At the academy, some of the junior players who have now turned professional were Mamelodi Sundowns captain Hlompho Kekana, former SuperSport United winger Richard Rantjie and Kaizer Chiefs defender Ramahlwe Mphahlele.
He went on to be the captain of the provincial team and, in 2000, while at a tournament in Port Elizabeth, he caught the eye of Hellenic football academy scouts and was offered a football scholarship, and that was when the Mother City called his name.
While at Hellenic, he matriculated at Wittebome High School in Wynberg and, at the age of 17, he was offered a five-year professional contract.
“The club was selling its PSL status to Benoni Premier United so, during the December and while weighing my options, when coach Jerry, who was also my manager, said Supersport United were interested in me I went train with them for three months and they gave me a three-year contract on condition that I spend the whole year with the under-19 team,” he said.
However, things went south when the development team lost in one of the major tournaments.
“After the Bayhill tournament in Cape Town, when we were the favourites but lost in the quarterfinal, the bosses were angry and decided to phase out the team. Some of the players were promoted, including our captain Daine Klate, and the rest of the contracts were terminated,” Malahlela said, adding that the mid-year termination of the contract meant he had to try to enrol at a university and he headed to University of Pretoria (UP).
There too he was offered a football contract, but on condition that he studied Sports Science, which he declined.
As a first-year soccer-crazy student at UP, he eventually joined Arcadia Shepherds in Pretoria but, after one season, he decided to hang up his soccer boots.
“I decided on my own because I felt the pressure. A lot of guys that I was playing with were doing well in soccer; I remember one of my friends buying his first car at the time, and I felt that I could not miss the opportunity. I had messed up the football, I could not mess up the law,” he said of the turning point in his life.
With all the focus on books, he went on to complete his degree and actually started working for a prominent law firm in Pretoria while still a student. “I worked for Mkhwanazi attorneys because in law all you have to do is study and I wasn’t attending. I gained a lot of valuable experience there, doing mostly advisory work,” he said.
After completing his law degree, he returned home to Polokwane and joined local attorneys Masephule Dinga. It was there that his career moved faster and, in 2012, he resigned and started his own company, The Compliance Firm. Shortly thereafter, however, Sebata Group recruited him to join them as head of legal services.
“Though the job paid very well, my company, which was being run by my wife, was doing very well and required my attention, so I resigned and went to TCF [The Compliance Firm] full time. But, for some reason, we didn’t do well and we lost a lot of clients; I feel I didn’t recruit well.
"We ended up being left with one client so I retrenched the 12 people and closed shop. I joined KPMG as regulatory manager for a brief three months, and then left and opened PJM Law, specialising in legal advisory work,” he said.
In 2016, he joined government as legal adviser for MEC in Gauteng Paul Mashatile. However, after Mashatile left to go to Luthuli House in 2018 after being elected treasurer-general of the ANC, he followed suit, despite his contract still having a year left.
“The wine idea and the company had been dormant for a few years while I was in government and leaving government gave me an opportunity to get my hands dirty again,” he said.
Malahlela said he has always been curious about the business side of the alcohol industry.
As a wine collector and with some time to kill, he ventured head first into research and development and that was when ZAR Prestige wine, and later the whiskey, was born.
A partnership with an old friend and current managing director of ZAR, Mokgoba Nakeng, a natural scientist, seems to be ideal and, combined with her deep passion for alcohol production, the two made a great pair to tackle the dream.
“We found a wine farm with very good wine still in barrels which could make the wine we wanted, and the right age and, once we had brought in Puso Moeng as creative director, we targeted high-end outlets,” he said.
When the wine sales picked up from the shelves of some mainstream retailers as well as online, another opportunity came, this time to make their own unique three-year-old whiskey in partnership with veteran distillers Loumarie and Pierre Raubenheimer in Phalaborwa.
“Mokgoba and Loumarie Raubenheimer both have a huge passion for alcohol production so when we found out about the opportunity from the department of trade and industry for dreams like ours, we got working,” Malahlela said.
The opportunity he refers to is government’s target of creating black industrialists across various sectors, and ZAR happened to be the first black-owned African whiskey.
Malahlela said that, though the wines – Chardonnay and demi-sec – were the original income generators, the recently released whiskey has surpassed it with sales and has been in demand in a number of exclusive clubs and high-end establishments.
Having been a journeyman in both business and formal jobs, he said the biggest business lessons he has learnt were the importance of hiring right and cash flow management.
For now he has his sights firmly on growing the business, barrel by barrel, into international markets, starting with exporting regionally.