It was at an international trade fair for the carpet and floor coverings industry in Germany that Siphiwo Shabangu found his fortune. The year was 1996 and he had been invited to attend a management training course in Europe, courtesy of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which had recognised his entrepreneurial spirit.
While there, he decided to visit Domotex. The fair was huge, and the wall-to-wall carpet salesperson from Dobsonville was tired. He took a seat outside a stall that was selling oriental rugs made by nomads from the south of Iran. The Zollanvari family was intrigued – they had not seen many black people in their lives, and so they struck up a conversation with him.
When they discovered that he came from“Mandela’s country”, they were eager to talk about business.“I knew nothing about Persian carpets, but they gave me a mandate to go home and research the South African market,” says Shabangu.
What he did know about though, was the art of selling. As a child, Shabangu had bought his own clothes and put himself through school by trading in sweets and peanuts on street corners and selling newspapers over the weekend. On completing high school, he did a series of business courses through the University of South Africa, applying these learnings to his own small carpet store.
Shabangu ran the numbers and subsequently invited the Zollanvari family to exhibit at Decorex a year later. “That was a great success, and with the stock that remained, I opened a Zollanvari shop in Rosebank. The Zollanvaris gave me stock for a year and R1 million in start-up funding.”
Ten years on, he imports carpets to the value of R24 million a year and plans to expand his high-end flooring stores into Africa, starting with Botswana and Namibia. Ask Shabangu why the family decided to trust him with money and stock and he cannot answer.
“Luckily, our customer base grew quickly and we were able to cover all our expenses. We had good times and bad, but we began to make a solid profit two years later when we opened in Cape Town. Two years after that, we set up shop in Durban.”
He is quick to point out that planned growth is essential for any business that does not want to stagnate. It’s one of the reasons why he moved Zollanvari to its 500 m2 showroom in Bryanston two years ago.Zollanvari’s growth has been organic, with Shabangu ploughing profits back into it, particularly in the early years.
“If you run a business you believe in,” he says, “it’s enough to break even at the outset, while you are establishing a name in the market. What is equally important is to have a budget and stick to it.”What differentiates Zollanvari from other Persian rug retailers in the country? “It’s the uniqueness and beauty of our products,” says Shabangu.
“The 100% wool tribal rugs are handmade and the designs differ from the traditional style as they are highly contemporary, a factor which has made them world renowned. When you buy a Zollanvari, you make an investment in the ancient Persian tradition of carpet weaving, but you also buy a product that is fashionable and modern at the same time.”
He attributes much of the growth of the business to word of mouth and great customer service. “We go out of our way to ensure that we find exactly what the customer is looking for, which is why we work with some of the country’s top interior designers.”
Shabangu believes in advertising and Zollanvari has displayed its wares in many of South Africa’s décor magazines. More recently, he has engaged a public relations consultant to help the company become more strategic about its marketing and publicity.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Shabangu says success comes from hard work and just a little bit of good fortune. “There are no shortcuts to success, but I believe that a good business education is very helpful because it enables you to understand the basics.”