From selling sweets at school and on the streets of Joburg CBD, to creating an award-winning, ground-breaking advertising agency, M&N Brands 34-year-old Group CEO Zibusiso Mkhwanazi tells of a life spent searching for a reason to live differently and creating an Africa-wide advertising, media and publishing conglomerate that promotes African excellence.
Mkhwanazi’s story is a quintessential
African tale – a search for new challenges and never settling for the ordinary. It is a story of
a man who never set an end point to his
journey in business and in life, but who never forgot to experience life and the lives of those around him.
It began, as most things do, at school. Mkhwanazi found his groove at the Bramley Primary School, but the groove was outside of the classroom.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs and hustlers,” said Mkhwanazi. “I started my first sweet business at Bramley Primary School. It got so successful that the school banned my friends and I from selling sweets. So, I started selling ice creams at the corner of President and Small Streets in the Joburg CBD to make extra money.”
However, school can be a sticking point, when the pressures of teenage years can crush dreams. Mkhwanazi struggled in his early years at Bedfordview High School, but at the age of 15 found the internet and the new worlds it opened up for him.
“I was fascinated by the world of technology and the impact it had on our lives. I went to the library almost every day to equip myself with knowledge so I could know more about this world.”
In high school, he walked into the kitchen at home one night. His mother told him she did not have enough money to put him through university. He took the leap into the unknown.
“I had a choice to be helpless or do something to help myself, I chose helping myself. That one conversation made a business that I intended to start one day, become a reality overnight and I have never looked back since.
“I started my first business, Csonke, a web design company, with just R2 000 given to me by my mother at the age of 17 (in 2000). That influenced me to study a National Diploma in Information Technology and a Diploma in Corporate Law at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). I guess entrepreneurialism was always in my blood and that is what drove my passion from secondary to tertiary level onwards. I finally completed leadership programs at Harvard and Yale in the US.”
He underwent a metamorphosis from the cocoon of school education to revelling in the freedom that higher education offers.
“What amazed me was how different things are when you are doing what you love. I went from an average 40% mark in matric to an average 85% mark in my first year at UJ. I realised my performance at school was not a reflection of my true potential. I decided that I would not waste a second in pursuing my dreams and ran my business successfully on the side while studying.”
Mkhwanazi describes himself as an introvert who found his place in the world through the wonders of the digital age. He drew inspiration from his uncle, former Transnet Chairperson Mafika Mkhwanazi, whose Bryanston house he would often visit during the school holidays. He noticed his uncle was constantly on his laptop.
“I wanted to be part of that world. I assumed that you had to be in technology to stay in Bryanston. One day he threw down the gauntlet to me without meaning to. He was talking to his wife about an acquaintance’s son who had made a million at 21-years-old. I thought to myself, ‘I can do that, too’.
“From the world of coding and creating, I transitioned to the world of stock markets and investments. I bought the newspaper every day and only read the business section to see how news and announcements correlated to share movements. I created my first share portfolio using a spreadsheet and tracking stocks as if I had invested in those companies.
“I grew to love how business functions and grows, which led me to found
Csonke. The first thing I did was invest the R2 000 my mom gave me into the stock market and made a five-fold return. That enabled me to buy my first suit and company laptop.
“Csonke then merged with one of our biggest competitors at the time Krazyboyz and I created an environment that drove 40% year-on-year growth there, and later 100% year-on-year growth at Avatar for five consecutive years.”
He fought for others, and in that fight helped himself. At high school, he found the old computers there were inadequate. He convinced Ernst & Young to donate new ones. The school board and principal were aghast at the chutzpa, and delighted with the opportunities the new equipment afforded them, allowing them to offer new subjects to the rest of the learners. Making an impact beyond himself was an addiction Mkhwanazi has never lost.
He learnt that entrepreneurship takes work, lots of work. There were long, hard, painful hours, catching taxis to meetings and times when rainy days caused havoc with scheduling.
Now he is the majority holder in M&N Brands Group with partner Veli Ngubane, a group of companies turning over $14 million in majority-owned subsidiaries and
more than $21m in associated agencies.
“We measure our performance in international currency because we never want to forget what we set out to achieve; to be world class. We have to bring world-class creativity and innovation to the table. Accountability. Results.
“Veli and I had a smile at a recent re-pitch. Three years ago, it was he and I alone (strategy, research, and design, creative); this time around, we had some of the best brains in the business putting together something really special and ground-breaking for us.
“Now the hustle is different: it’s about attracting and retaining talent that will help us grow; it’s about maintaining cash flow as clients push for lengthier and lengthier payment terms; it’s about creating multiple solid homes for new business and ensuring intercompany collaboration as we grow the M&N Brands network.
“M&N Brands is becoming a diversified advertising, publishing and media holding company. Our vision is to be respected internationally, then we will be preferred in the local markets that we operate in on the continent. We only invest in leading companies in particular segments because the chain is only as strong as what binds it. When a client deals with M&N it means that the best diversified minds on the continent will be working towards a shared vision in their work.”
M&N has a three-phased, four-year growth strategy. Phase one is to build a strong network in South Africa of a kaleidoscope of agencies, with the best talent collaborating together and producing world class work in the advertising network.
Their business model is to participate in ownership in the marketing and communication value chain, so that is why they are talking about acquisition in industries not only in advertising but in others like broadcasting, publishing and more.
Phase 2 is an Africa expansion, growing with South African corporates as well as global businesses that have their Africa base in South Africa into the rest of the continent. They will start making acquisitions in key markets where their clients are, to build a South African owned advertising network for Africans by Africans.
“I want as many people as possible to participate in the story and vision of M&N and hence the final phase of M&N is a public listing.”
But none of this happens without a base. In January, Mkhwanazi tweeted, “My challenge in 2018 is not new business. It’s great homes to house new business.” He wants to add value to the 15 businesses they have an interest in. They want Avatar to be known for their work in 2018, not just their success.
“The difference is that M&N is a network of entrepreneurs collaborating together to produce great work and shared growth for all my fellow entrepreneurs and people in the network.
“I am not interested in control, or imposing ridiculous final ratios that destroy culture, that is not what we are about. We are about sharing knowledge, mutual respect, collaboration and resource sharing throughout the different companies in the network.”
Mkhwanazi has a passion for transformation, both of the person
and South African business. He believes the world of advertising and business needed a counter balance and last year opened a R4m campus in the township of Tsakane dedicated to holistically developing and empowering people in body, mind and spirit. The
next phase of the 18 000sqm campus is to build more auditoriums for a marketing school, an EDC centre focused on shaping leaders from an early stage, and a community gym.
“I have learnt the art of patience, especially around transformation. It’s about bringing new and fresh voices to the table. In its 27th year of existence, the Financial Mail AdFocus Awards finally added a transformation award, sponsored by M&N Brands. The new BBBEE Mac Charter is a significant intervention – requiring agencies to increase black ownership to a minimum of 45% from
the current 25%.
“However, that should not be the reason for transformation. It should simply be because you recognise the need for diversity, to operate and impact meaningfully. There are too many hospital passes being made with dying agencies and deals that do not truly bring new voices to the table.
“If clients and agency owners only realised that transformation is about diversity and embracing new and different perspectives, then there would be a better embracing of a new industry.
“Our company has been formed to enable Africans to start telling their own stories instead of their stories being told for them by American and European agencies as is the case currently. M&N Brands was created to bring the marketing industry back to South Africa and has already invested in 15 marketing businesses, and now employs over 400 people in the various wholly owned and associated agencies.”
The story of Mkhwanazi and M&N Brands is one of discovery. It has much distance left to run. He is still selling sweets at heart, still finding new adventures and still remembering to reach out a helping hand to those who need one.
His is an African tale of a young man who looks at the horizon and wonders what is waiting him when he gets there.