Thirty-six-year-old Bronwyn Corbett, CEO of Grit Real Estate Income Group (the rebranded Mara Delta property fund), is a pioneer in many ways.
Heading into the rest of Africa, a region where most SA-listed property funds fear to tread, she has built a pan-African dual-listed property company with a $600m value in a mere three years.
When you come from humble beginnings, you can either blame this for lack of success or you can use it to your advantage, says Corbett.
“I used it to my advantage.”
Her parents were unable to send her to university, so Corbett worked and studied simultaneously. A job straight out of school at accounting firm BDO and a student loan allowed her to obtain her chartered accountant degree.
“I’ve had to fight for what I wanted my whole life, even in the property industry. Of the 36-odd listed property companies I think there are two female CEOs.
We work in a very male-dominated environment; Africa is extremely male-dominated. There are obstacles every day and I have to overcome them.”
She comes from a line of tough matriarchs, women she describes as “not necessarily the most educated women, due to lack of opportunity, but the most resilient women”.
Corbett says she may not outsmart you, but she will outwork you, her work ethic having been strongly influenced by her mother.
“My mother held a humble job but worked very hard for 40 years. She pushed me extremely hard as a youngster. She taught me that I could do so much better; that I could push boundaries.
And she taught me a work ethic. I am my own worst enemy now because of that… I always put myself under immense pressure.”
A career in property
“I fell into the property sector. I was on an audit reconstructing records for a property business that had not submitted tax and VAT returns for almost 20 years.
I sat in a basement for two years reconstructing all the records and fell in love with property then.”
As chief financial officer and then chief operating officer at Delta Property Fund, she was instrumental in its listing on the JSE and asset growth from R2.2bn to R11.8bn.
Together with partner Sandile Nomvete, she was a founder member of Delta International Property Fund, the company that became Mara Delta Property Holdings and which, as the rebranded Grit Real Estate Income Group, she continues to head up.
Forging into Africa
In the chase for yields and hard currency, many SA property funds forged into Eastern Europe, not Africa. “The SA market is very shut to the continent and tougher on Africa than any other,” says Corbett.
But Corbett and Nomvete knew nothing about Eastern Europe. “We would have just been followers and there were countries in Africa we believed had as much, if not more, opportunity as Eastern Europe.”
They decided to focus on multiple markets, not just oil-rich countries like Nigeria or Ghana. “People tend to go where it’s easier or where people have gone before,” she says. But not Corbett.
“I’m not sorry. I look at what is going on in the rest of the world and I’m quite glad that we are sitting at the only frontier [in Africa].”
With Corbett at the helm, Grit’s assets since listing on the JSE in 2014 have increased from two buildings to 19 properties across five countries in Africa; Mauritius, Morocco, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique.
It’s abundantly clear that Corbett – and her team – burns the candle at both ends.
“When everyone else is having a glass of wine or has gone to bed, we are still working to get things over the line.”
The last year has involved moving the company from SA to Mauritius, relocating 12 South African staff members and their families to that country, a $121m capital raise to settle pipeline acquisitions, and rebranding the company.
Without the support of her husband, Murray, she says she would never have achieved what she has.
“You have to have a partner who stands by you and wants you to succeed. And one who realises how much sacrifice it is going to take. Because there has been a lot of that.”
She met Murray when he was training for Ironman. The relationship worked because both “were doing things that seemed impossible to other people”.
“I was studying honours part-time. He would get up at 4AM and go ride his bike, and I would study. He would run and swim at night, and I would study.”
Grit in Mauritius
Grit is now headquartered in Mauritius with 30-odd staff.
“We are a dollar-based business and the SA market does not allow me to trade in dollars. Mauritius has come a long way launching itself as the financial services hub of Africa; there are favourable tax treaties with many African countries and no exchange control.
“We now have 27% of our property portfolio exposed to Mauritius. So while South Africa will always be our beginning, Mauritius is the right home for the company.”
Grit is already listed on the JSE and Stock Exchange of Mauritius and growth ambitions include a possible listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE).
“There’s lots of capital for emerging frontier markets and the company is trying to track that into Africa,” says Corbett. “There’s plenty frontier market money going through [the LSE].”
They are looking closely at the individual markets that the company plays in as well as Botswana, Tanzania and Ghana, the countries Grit is expanding into, to extract as much value out of these markets.
“We play in markets where there are pension funds and assets on the ground.” That could mean working more closely with the Rwandan or Botswana pension funds and working with regulators.
“We are already working with the regulatory guys in Rwanda around REIT [real estate investment trust] legislation there. And I will soon be in Ghana meeting with the finance minister for REIT structure discussions.”
GETTING TO KNOW BRONWYN CORBETT
Corbett was born in 1981 in Pietermaritzburg, attended Carter High School, obtained her B.Compt degree through Unisa and a B.Com honours through the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
She and husband Murray live in Mauritius with their two daughters aged six and nine.
“My hobby is my work. I have an unbelievable work ethic. It’s difficult for me to have downtime.”
She likes to run, though. “I can take my running shoes anywhere. It’s also an amazing way to discover the world.”
“I travel so much, so I like being home and spending time with my family.” Skiing holidays, however, are a family favourite.
Corbett’s reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday for the third time… in a row. “It is all about obstacles and manoeuvring around them. I love reading, but don’t get enough time. When I run, I often listen to audiobooks.”
What’s been unexpected?
“This whole journey. There were many times on the journey of growing an Africa fund that I thought I couldn’t carry on. What’s unexpected is a door opening after so many have been slammed closed.”
“To allow South Africans and the rest of the world a better looking glass into [African] countries. The big dream is to leave a legacy; take what we have done and replicate that in other countries.”
Corbett’s bucket list
To see the gorillas in Rwanda when her daughters are old enough to go with and to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with them, something she and her husband have already done.
“I can’t wait for the time when the team can take a lead; when people can make their own legacies; to watch others take the reins even though I will always be here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“We have a very flat organogram and open-door policy. Everyone has an opinion, but there are times when people need to be pushed and understand that if we are to succeed, we have to do something very different to everyone else.
“I don’t take no for an answer. If we set our minds to something, we sure as hell do it. Nothing is impossible – this is something that I have to live and breathe myself.”
“When everybody else is going in the opposite direction. It is easy to follow what other people have done and have success in following. But what is difficult is creating something new.”