Isaac Chalumbira Property Magnate

Ian Fife with entrepreneur and Lionshare CEO Isaac Chalumbira at Capello in the Johannesburg CBD

I'm lost and I'm late, trying to find the steel door to the parking in one of Isaac Chalumbira's 22 Johannesburg buildings. A friendly security guard in another building suggests I leave the car with him.

Chalumbira (38) sits on a chair outside Capello in Main Street, unfussed by my lateness. He's chosen this place because it's in the inner city, his territory since he started investing in property eight years ago. Recently he has added the central-city franchise to distribute Coca-Cola to his bevy of businesses.

We go inside. It's really a nightspot, but the atmosphere also suits the day; the staff are attentive and the food good.

"This is still an eight-hour city," says Chalumbira, ordering a Coke and a grilled chicken. "But we're on our way to being a 24-hour city."

It's five years since this son of a Zimbabwean tailor left the corporate world, and 21 since he went from Bulawayo to Mariannhill seminary in KwaZulu Natal to become a 17-year-old novice priest.

"It took me a while to realise I was far too young for the priesthood," he says. "I needed more life experience. So I left and started trading, mainly in cars and electronics."

That paid his way to a BSc in psychology at UCT, and opened the door for him to the corporate world, first in Procter & Gamble's marketing department in 1993, then, from 1998, at Coca-Cola. "Bobby Mia, a middle manager at Coke, convinced me about property investment," he says. "I asked him how he was going to retire on his pension. He pulled out a bank statement and showed me the income he was getting from a portfolio of 16 houses he'd built over the years."

In 2001, Chalumbira bought his first property, a block of 15 flats in Bellevue East, costing R680 000. He recently sold it for R3,8m to fund expansion.

In 2005, he became customer marketing manager in central Africa for Coke. There he got the idea to ask Coke if he could buy the rights to Mazoe, a cordial drink originally from Zimbabwe. The beverage company agreed. So he started his company, Lionshare, and moved production to SA.

"Do I?" he ask himself I nvests heavily in books

This is now his pride and joy. The drink is distributed in six Southern African countries and is heading for 5% of the SA cool drink market. "It's the first cordial to become real competition to Oros," he says, eyes shining.

"My property portfolio is cash neutral," he says. "You don't want to stress your property investment while it's building up."

His focus for this build-up has moved from the near suburbs to the central city, where he and his staff of 32 convert office buildings to residential flats. "The marketing case is simple," says Chalumbira. "The black diamonds spend a large part of their income on transport from the townships. They're learning that they can save that by renting in the city, enjoying its lifestyle and being 10 minutes from work."

Chalumbira doesn't live in the city: he, his wife and their children live in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

Whatever moved Chalumbira to try the priesthood remains with him. He runs soup kitchens for the poor in the city, together with the Catholic diocese, has built schools in his family's clan-seat of Masvingo in Zimbabwe and has provided 28 scholarships for bright children in the community.

But to achieve this he had to deal with the continuing conflict between tradition and modernity. He consciously broke away from a strong African custom of being one with the clan, in his case the tradition that your achievements, assets and cash flow are the clan's. To do this, he had to operate as an individual.

Pressure to share, in the early stages of his success, was intense. But "I decided to pursue my ambitions alone", he says. "Once I had built up my position I could start sharing. For instance, my brother found it difficult to understand why I felt he wasn't qualified to work in my company. Efficiency and skills come first."

He sits back and sips his coffee.

credit: Financial Mail South Africa

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