Meet Lere Mgayiya – SA’s shoe-shine Millionaire

Lere's Shoe Shine is the largest shoe-shining business in Africa, with a turnover of over R2,5 million a year. We chat to Lere Mgayiya about how he turned a small idea into a huge success
Lere’s Shoe Shine is located in five of SA’s major airports and has become a favourite stop-off for business travellers from across the world.
Mgayiya’s first job was distributing boarding cards for South African Airways, but after five years he switched to negotiating with various farmers for his uncle’s livestock transportation business. When this didn’t work out long term, he used the network of farmers he had developed over the years to start a business supplying eggs to the South African parliament. While a great idea, he didn’t earn enough to make a decent living, so Mgayiya invested money he won on a game show into a tree planting business. He lost everything within six months.
Down and out, but not discouraged, he spotted a man shining shoes at Greenmarket Square in Cape Town and discovered he earned about R3 000 a month. This was a lightbulb moment for Mgayiya, who saw an opportunity for a viable business model.
First he had to work out where such a business would make the most profit, and he could think of no better place than the airport, through which a steady stream of people pass, 24 hours a day.
In 2002 he approached Umsobomvu Youth Fund, an organisation established to offer support to young entrepreneurs. They helped him put create a business plan, which he presented to the Cape Town International Airport to apply for a stand in the terminal. Approval was only granted a year later, in November 2003.
Mgayiya had to sell his TV, radio and fridge to raise the capital to buy two shoe-shine chairs.
“I had one guy working for me when I started, so there were two of us shining shoes and we worked 18 hours a day, six days a week,” he recalls. “In our first month we made a profit of R9 000, which we did not expect at all; we’d expected only about R4 000.”

Every day for the first two months he left home at 4am, got to the airport at 5am and would only get home at around 10pm. By the third month, he was able to buy two more chairs and employ more people.
“It was amazing, every time we increased the capacity, the customers came,” Mgayiya says.
The company was initially called Airport Shoe Shine, but the name was quickly changed.
“Because the customers were engaging with Lere, they didn’t want to support Airport Shoe Shine. They kept coming to me, telling me that Airport Shoe Shine made the business seem impersonal, when it was, in fact, the complete opposite,” Mgayiya shares.
It was amazing, every time we increased the capacity, the customers came
This exceptional personal service is part of the reason Lere’s Shoe Shine is the success it is today. ‘Lere’ becomes the customer’s friend, his personality becomes an experience and that experience keeps customers coming back.
“Every guy who works for me is also a ‘Lere’ as far as his characteristics and personality traits are concerned. He is welcoming, he is an old friend and he delivers,” says Mgayiya, adding that consistency is also vital.
“I consolidated the business and made it a brand, so the guys in Johannesburg do exactly what the guys in Cape Town do. That makes them a corporation and it makes the business more professional. Our guys are not just shoe shiners, they are sales people,” he explains.
The business is formalised, focused and well branded, and proper training is given to new staff. This is what has set Lere’s Shoe Shine apart from the rest.
“The guys earn by commission, meaning that they eat what they kill. This makes them want to grow their customer base and build relationships with specific customers. To do this, they deliver an above-average service, which positively contributes to the business’ brand,” says Mgayiya.
He is passionate about the development of others in his community.
“It is gratifying to be fulfilling my purpose, while at the same time uplifting other people. It’s amazing that I can make money while also making change.
“Our business is about trust and integrity, and in order for my employees to show that to the customers, they must first see it in me. It flows from me, to them, and it translates positively with the customers,” Mgayiya concludes.