Thabisile Hlongwane mixes it with the big boys

Owner of Bloemfontein-based Isibusiso Holdings, Thabisile Hlongwane.
Owner of Bloemfontein-based Isibusiso Holdings, Thabisile Hlongwane.

An entrepreneur in Free State is carving a niche for herself in the predominantly male-dominated concrete road infrastructure space.

The business fell into the hands of Thabisile Hlongwane in 2014 after her father Sibusiso Mngadi, who founded Isibusiso Holdings, now trading as iConcrete, died.

"The motivating factor for me to continue with the business was because I wanted to keep his legacy alive," explained Hlongwane, who is based in Bloemfontein.

IConcrete supplies and installs a wide range of precast concrete products, including road and freeway kerbs, barriers and catch-pit cover slabs, as well as construction, civil infrastructure and property development material.

"With my working background being in the banking sector as a bank team leader, I saw it fit to take over from where my father left off. It has not been without prejudice as this sector is dominated by males but I'm steadfast and making inroads."

Hlongwane, 36, said all her products that are ready for the market are audited by the SA Bureau of Standards (SABS) for approval and to ensure they are of quality before hitting the market.

"I work closely with the SABS because they are the body that has to issue me with a certificate of accreditation. Thereafter I will be able to supply my clients without first going via the SABS for approval."

The entrepreneur said running this kind of business has not been smooth sailing as she experiences a lot of prejudice from her competitors and even some clients.

"First, there aren't many women in this sector. Secondly, men don't think a woman can compete with them on an equal footing. I've often heard remarks such as, 'are you sure it's your business, are you not fronting for whites?'

"At times it's the very clients doubting me; they don't believe I can do a perfect job for them simply because I'm the only woman on site relaying orders to men. In fact, one of my goals is to empower more women to enter this concrete business space."

Hlongwane believes managing client relations is essential in running this kind of business as she ensures that within the same month of the sale, she does follow-ups on the service received and gets feedback on the products.

Besides servicing Bloemfontein, Hlongwane's footprint reaches areas such as Aliwal North and Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape, and Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

Isibusiso Holdings has nine people currently employed, including truck drivers, mixers and loaders. Hlongwane has just enlisted the services of an industrial engineer and a human resources person.

The business currently hires its trucks but Hlongwane said she was on the verge of purchasing her first heavy load truck. She gets her cement from Lafarge and the concrete aggregates from Danoher quarry in Bloemfontein.

She said she has set herself short- and long-term goals, which are to include paving, building blocks and lintels as part of the business offering and obtain her SABS accreditation before June. In the long term she aims to include ready-mix concrete to the business as well as expand its operations with branches in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Hlongwane was last year's SAB KickStart Boost finalist. She said the training she got exposed her to a number of clients and markets in order to realise her expansion goals.

"I would like to engage with the other programme finalists to either co-learn with them or form partnerships. I've a working relationship with Twaing Trading Comprehensive to start supplying them with lintels and other concrete products."

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