Divine Ndhlukula, a Zimbabwean national, is the founder and Managing Director of SECURICO, one of Zimbabwe’s largest security companies. The Harare-based outfit is a market leader in the provision of bespoke guarding services and cutting-edge electronic security solutions.
Ndhlukula has done remarkably well. In less than 15 years of doing business, SECURICO has achieved a number of significant feats: The $13 million (revenues) company now has more than 3,400 employees – 900 of whom are women. The company was also the first security outfit in Zimbabwe to achieve an ISO (International Organization for Standardisation) certification. Last December the company was the winner of the prestigious Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship.
Divine Ndhlukula is immensely proud of what she’s been able to accomplish so far. The Midlands State University MBA grad granted me an interview recently during which she recounted her start-up journey, shared a few lessons she’s learned in doing business in Zimbabwe and relived her experience in winning the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship.
Take me back to your earliest beginnings as an entrepreneur, right to the time you founded SECURICO. Of all the opportunities in the world, what prompted you to venture into the very male-dominated realm of security services?
I have an Executive MBA from Midlands State University and an MBA (Honorary) from Women’s University in Africa conferred me in recognition of my business leadership and efforts on gender equality. After attaining an accounting diploma from an institution in Zimbabwe, I worked briefly for the government and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation as an accounting officer. I went on to take up an appointment at Old Mutual and later took up a job at a local insurance company in 1985. While I was working at these places, I was always running around doing some small business on the side – I was ordering clothes from Harare factories and selling them to colleagues at work. Sometimes, I gave my friends in other companies some clothes to sell for me and I gave them commissions on clothes sold. Within a short while, I had made enough money to buy an 8-tonne truck, which I hired out to a construction company.
As time went on, a situation cropped up where I had to rescue my late father’s farm from being auctioned. My brother (who had inherited the farm according to our customs) had taken a loan with a local bank which he had been unable to service, so the bank opted to auction the farm which my brother had tendered as collateral. As a result, I had to sell the truck in order to raise funds to rescue the family farm from being auctioned. The title of the farm was changed into my name and I ventured into the farming business in 1992 and quit my job. I then took a loan against my house in Harare, to prop up the farming business and poured the loan in a maize crop that flopped due to a drought that season.
As I was almost losing my house in 1995, I then went back to my former employers, Intermarket Insurance (now ZB Insurance), and asked for my job back. Since I had been one of their top performers, the company was happy to take me back. In no time I moved to the executive team.
Let me say that right from a tender age, I had always told myself and everyone that I was going to start and run my own business which I always envisaged as a large business. Hence the time I had stopped working, I had taken time to learn about all the critical elements of business as I had learnt my lesson the hard way. Among the various development programmes I enrolled for was an Entrepreneurial Development Programme which I did in 1995 and this indeed sharpened my entrepreneurial competences in a big way. I learned elements like opportunity seeking, to goal setting, business planning, networking etc.
My quest to start and run my own company never dissipated and therefore, even as I was back at work, I started scanning at the various opportunities that I could see and think of.
Eventually in 1998 I saw an opportunity in the security services sector. The opportunity was prompted by what I had noted in this sector- a total lack of professionalism, quality and services that customers really yearned for. There were two distinct groups of security organizations: the first group was comprised of the long established and larger companies – there were about five of them at the time. They literally had the market to themselves and did not see the need then of meeting the customer’s expectations as they could simply rotate the business among themselves in a cartel like arrangement.
The second group was the small emerging or submerging companies which did not have the resource capacity to service big corporations and the multinationals. In short, the decision to start this company was made on the understanding that only service and value addition was going to carry the day.
With next to nothing in capital and no security background, just armed with passion and determination to succeed in a hitherto male area, SECURICO was founded in Dec 1998 in the cottage of my small home in Harare with 4 employees. The business idea was after the realization of a gap that I had noted in the market for a service and quality oriented security services provider.
I set up operations in December 1998 and the company was formally incorporated in 2000. We started with three security operatives and two administrators-I included. I used to do literally most functions like office administrative work, accounting, deploying operatives with my one vehicle, supervision, training and other related activities. We converted my servants’ quarters to an office and we had only one desk for furniture that we shared.
Give me a brief rundown of Securico’s security services. I know your company primarily provides uniformed guard services, but you’re engaged in other services I suppose.
When we started we were primarily offering guarding services but we started cash and assets–in–transit services in 2002. This service offering has grown phenomenally and we are now the market leader in this service in Zimbabwe with a fleet of over 80 armoured vehicles. We have since diversified this service to “Cash Management.” Besides moving cash, gold bullion and other valuables, we provide on-site banking where we deploy our own cashiers to receive cash from our clients’ customers. At that point the cash is considered banked so our customers are able to cut back on expenses to do with employment and transporting cash. They also reduce risks involving cash to zero. It’s a very attractive and innovative offering. We have also gone on to propose value to our clients by another offering of providing them with receptionists who besides being frontline personnel also provide security incognito for their premises.
In 2008, at the height of the Zimbabwean economic crisis, we acquired an electronic security systems company – MULTI-LINK (PVT) LTD as a going concern. We transformed this company into a high tech installer specializing in the latest innovative and cutting edge electronic security solutions. We have since established partnerships with suppliers in South Africa, China, Hong Kong and India. Within the last two years we grew this company into the second largest in Zimbabwe in the provision of electronic security systems like CCTV, access control systems, alarms, remote site monitoring and response services, electric fences etc.
We also do private investigations, employment vetting, and security consultancy. Our consultancy includes risk assessments, security policy formulation, setting up security systems and establishing security profiles of employees.
In 2005 we founded a subsidiary company – CANINE Dog Services – that breeds, trains and leases guard dogs. The company also trains dogs for domestic use or as pets.
The initial mobilization of funds was not easy. As a person who went into this industry as an underdog, we started very small, doing the best that could be done, exercizing a lot of discipline in terms of cash management and literally grew with very little borrowings save for bail outs from family when the need arose.
Two things: Firstly, from the onset our emphasis has been on service quality and professionalism. Therefore when we started our operations our approach was distinctly different from the other providers. The aim was to establish ourselves as a high quality security services provider. We also worked hard to build a robust organizational culture with a strong customer orientation a culture that would define our make-up. Although we started building this culture from inception we decided to implement the ISO 9001 Quality Management System to buttress the culture. We became the first company in the security industry to attain the internationally acclaimed ISO9001 QMS.
We set a pace that transformed the private security business in such a manner that our brand became the flagship in this industrial sector. It involved very hard work on my part and my team but the effort led to the phenomenal growth that took us to where we are now.
Secondly, the security industry in this country was associated with people who hitherto had failed to make it into other careers. This resulted in the industry being served by people who had low self esteem and that indeed affected the quality of services. We embarked on an initiative to shift the paradigm altogether. This was achieved by a conceptual framework that I came up with that we implemented to change that mindset. That won the day and the security industry has tremendously transformed now to one that is respectable, professional and people are eager to build their careers in it.
You recently won the Legatum Africa Awards for entrepreneurship. How did that make you feel? Relive the experience for us.
Winning the AAE was the most humbling experience I have had in my life. I was awed to say the least. When it became apparent that we were going to be announced the winner, this is at the point when they had announced the other six winners and about to announce the grand prize, I just sat in my seat at loss for words and just managed to say to my colleague Mark Kupfuwa, “We are winning this award and I can’t believe it!” Though I tried very hard to be cool and composed, I just went up that stage not believing it was actually happening.
Before we got to Nairobi for the finals, my team and I had been so confident with our showing at that point that we were almost certain of getting the grand prize. However, after meeting the other finalists in Nairobi, whom I found to be dynamic and talented, I had then almost been convinced that the grand prize was going to any of the ten of us, but, at least I was convinced we would make it into the other 6 run up winners. So 8th December 2011 is a day I am unlikely going to forget for the rest of my life.
While we have won 11 national awards in the past 12 years, AAE is the most significant so far as we were competing with 3,400 companies in 48 African countries and this magnificent achievement has put us at a very enviable position. This will make our future growth plans easier.
Is Zimbabwe really an easy place to do business? Have you had to navigate some bureaucratic bottlenecks in trying to do business, and is corruption still a major problem?
I am a firm believer of the philosophy that there is no easy road to anywhere worth going to, especially business, in particular in Africa. The Zimbabwean business environment has been very difficult in the past ten years, however, at the same time, this presented opportunities for those with a good entrepreneurial flair. The record inflation, lack of consistent power, the uncertain political environment of 2007 to 2009 presented unimaginable challenges. We managed to pull through due to tenacity, creativity and determination.
Zimbabwe still boasts of abundant opportunities to do business. The environment has not reached expected levels necessary for ease of doing business but there is great progress. We are one of very few countries with potential for greenfield opportunities across all sectors. Competition in some of them is low and scope for maximizing profits exists. For those with little hesitation to plunge….this is the time.
Bureaucracy has been tamed now. The creation of Zimbabwe Investment Authority (ZIA) has plugged all cumbersome processes. ZIA has resulted in the realignment of licensing, registration and most, if not all statutory requirements, regulatory information is found under one roof.
Corruption, unfortunately, is the cancer the country is grappling to deal with. We as a business had anticipated to get a lot of government work after the multi-currency system was introduced 3 years ago, but we have not gotten much work from government as their awarding of tenders is fraught with corruption. Institutions created to superintend over graft have also been highly politicized rendering them ineffective. Graft exists in both private and public sectors. Yes, it is one of the negatives any investor will and is expected to deal with.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in business?
The biggest lesson I have learnt so far is that nothing comes easy. While I had always knew I was going to make it in business, I had not really anticipated the amount of hard work, discipline, commitment and determination I needed to get here. Hence, I have now have had to learn that the secret of success is found in one’s daily schedule.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
My philosophy is anchored on the biblical “never tire in well doing, because, in due season, you shall reap if you faint not”. I believe that every good deed is a door opener hence I always try to be as good as I can to others, my word being my bond, as the key to my success is loving and connecting with people which are always the seeds of great things to come. I believe in playing by the rules all the time and most importantly upholding my personal integrity as this gives me good night sleep.
In a nutshell, what is the most important piece of advice you’ll give to young, entrepreneurial inclined individuals out there- particularly the ladies?
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is start with an end in mind, know exactly what you want to achieve and start to work systematically towards the goal, exercising some patience.
Know the industry you want to get into, its internal and external environment.
Work your plan with passion, determination and diligence, and when a bit of cash starts rolling in, have the discipline to know that it is not your money yet.
My advice to women all the time is: If you want a certain future, go out and create it. Conquer your fears as that is what enslaves most women. Opportunities are now galore. We just need to roll up our sleeves, lift our feet, and walk through the door as no one will carry us.
Have a game plan and execute it with passion, determination and focus. Never mind that you are a woman. Do not think about that except as a competitive advantage. No one is going to give you anything on a silver platter. You have to work twice, thrice, five times as hard and do not lose focus. Work with your passion, it will keep you going and once you have a footing in your business, make the most of it and create the momentum and that will get rid of all the little challenges that may bog you down. Lastly, choose your team carefully and get rid of non-performers soon enough.