by Nicole Spruijt


Grit and determination the essence of Calvin and Family


South African businesses are often in the news for all the wrong reasons: corruption, bribes and a lack of governance and transparency. Therefore, it is refreshing to meet a business leader who epitomises the spirit of what South Africa could be.

Calvin Mathibeli, founder of the Calvin and Family Group, comes from a childhood filled with hardship and poverty, yet he refused to let his circumstances define him and keep him in the cycle of scarcity. In recent years, Mathibeli has been recognised with awards such as the Hennessy Business Man of the Year 2017 and Forbes: The most promising and progressive young person in Africa, to name but a few. In fact, there are too many to mention, and these awards are the result of his grit and determination.

The Calvin and Family Group was established in 2005 by Mathibeli, but it is in no way his first foray into business. Mathibeli comes from incredibly humble and difficult beginnings. At the age of 13, he was self-sufficient and independent, doing peoples’ gardens over the weekend to pay for his school uniform. To further support himself and his family, he explains: “Once upon a time, there was a lady in our community who would fetch the food thrown out by one of the larger supermarkets in order to feed her pigs. I would help her pack the food and in return, she would let me take the food that was still reasonably good. We had no food at home, so this was a blessing. I would get home, boil it up and my family could then have dinner.”

To help his single mother, he sold oranges to alleviate some of the financial pressures felt by the family. Self-sufficient and determined, Mathibeli aptly named his firm the Calvin and Family Group because one of his goals is to continually be able to support his family and to ensure that they never regress into the poverty of his childhood.

Deciding that his situation could be changed, he started the business to fund his tertiary education and associated costs. Graduating from the Durban University of Technology with a financial accounting degree has set him in good stead to effectively run The Calvin and Family Group.

Success is a choice, it’s not luck

While growing up, Mathibeli quickly realised that success comes to those who actively choose it and aggressively work towards attaining their goals. “Success is a choice, it’s not luck. I realised that I had two options, I could either watch other people live their dreams and bemoan their success or I could work hard and live my own dreams. I chose to conquer the world, despite coming from a financially poor background,” he explains.

Mathibeli has grown the Calvin and Family Group from a small cell phone repair business into a conglomerate with 11 subsidiaries, all of which support the business operations of each other.

From humble beginnings

It was always a dream of Mathibeli’s to be in the property development space. Unfortunately, due to the high level of capital required, he was unable to delve straight into it. Yet, not one to take no for an answer, he started saving, “building cent upon cent”, and he is now living that dream.

The original entity, Calvin and Family Properties, has been the backbone of the organisation and has created the need for the subsidiaries, all of which are connected and complementary. In a few short years, Mathibeli has taken the construction company from a Grade 1 to a Grade 8 CIDB accredited company, fulfilling contracts of over R30 million, whilst providing excellent service and workmanship. One of the largest projects undertaken was the construction of an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) approved arena. The IAAF is the governing body for athletics on a global scale and as such, the requirements for an arena of this nature are not only stringent, but they could seem restrictive to another company. Mathiebeli proved that black-owned South African construction companies are able to achieve global levels of perfection.

Calvin and Family Security is growing at a rate of knots. All 600 of the security guards are compliant with industry standards and are constantly undergoing training to maintain the highest level of quality. Private investigating, armed response, guarding and VIP protection are some of the services offered, and the success of this division is evident. Unilever has awarded Mathibeli’s company with the guarding of all of the KwaZulu-Natal sites, as well as a few municipality contracts, hotels and office parks, to name a few. These are indications of the growing trajectory.

Calvin and Family Plant Hire is one of the divisions directly linked to the construction industry in which Mathibeli is already successful. Being able to control the costs of heavy construction vehicles, as well as knowing that they are fully maintained and serviced, reduces the clients’ stress and expenses.

Liberation Electrical Group is the division that supplies smart metres, street lights, alternative energy solutions as well as being an electrical construction company.

SA Precast Concrete supplies and manufactures kerbing, paving bricks, retaining walls and concrete fencing.

Urban Infrastructure Consulting was formed in 2009 and is a fully empowered structural engineering, civil engineering and consulting company able to provide planning, design supervision as well as project management to the industry.

Wear It Manufacturing employs about 60 people and manufactures bulletproof vests, safety wear, PPE, as well as corporate uniforms. All manufacturing is done locally in KZN and as such, bringing jobs and economic relief to the community.

Unique Communications was incorporated in 2009 and is the event, branding, and communications division of the group. The services on offer cover all elements of the communications spectrum, large format printing, communications and public relations strategy development and event management. The company was started in response to the experience base of the founders and supports the other group companies by offering the required signage and launch events required.

Unique Lifestyle Café is a fine dining restaurant in Umhlanga, where the food is made for those with a discerning palate. A combination of African and Italian fare, “Afritalian” is the cuisine available. There are two main elements, which set Unique Lifestyle Café apart from other fine dining establishments. The first is that part of a monthly subscription offers diners a private chauffeur within a 10km radius of the restaurant. This means that enjoying the vibe, food and the experience is made easier and of course, safer for patrons. The other element, which sets them apart is that every Sunday, the décor, menu, vibe and music change completely. “Everyone loves grilled meat, whether you are black, white, Indian, coloured—it doesn’t matter. The South African culture of a ‘braai’ or ‘shisa nyama’ is not specific to race or religion. By providing the Urban Shisa Nyama Sundays experience, we are uniting the South African nation over food,” he says.

Mathibeli is not happy to sit still and stagnate and for this reason, he is taking this concept global—bringing South African flavour and vibes to the rest of the world. “We have done the research and there is a definite need for a truly South African dining experience on the global stage, and we are in the late stages of delivering,” he explains.

Black Pride Media is the content production arm of the group. The shooting of commercials, documentaries, music videos as well as TV content are just some of the activities available through Black Pride Media. There are two studios, one in KZN and most recently, the Johannesburg studio.

Economic climate and success

Mathibeli is quite candid when talking about how the tough economic climate has affected all industries, all businesses and in fact, the entire population of South Africa.

“This past financial year was the most difficult time in our economy, lots of companies suffered or closed, people lost their jobs and of course, there is a knock-on effect right to the micro level. To be honest though, any business that has come through this period and is still surviving, well, we are the toughest of the tough,” he says proudly.

Mathibeli has managed to grow his business over this time, but the path hasn’t been without hurdles.

“The non-payment of invoices has been the biggest hurdle we have experienced over the past year, but having different revenue streams has definitely aided in providing the financial security for the Group,” he adds.

Transformation in the construction industry

More than a decade of experience in the construction industry has provided Mathibeli with some insights into what has changed and what has remained the same.

“The one thing we know for sure is that not much has changed in the industry over the past decade. There is still the perception that black contractors are incompetent. This, coupled with the white monopoly, is a serious hindrance to black-owned construction companies gaining any momentum,” he says.

Effective transformation can only happen in this sector when the goalposts remain unchanged and Mathibeli explains that in order to attain a Grade 8 accreditation, one of the criteria is the completion of a project amounting to R30 million, yet most tenders require five times that. In other words, there is still a disparity between theory and reality. This makes it incredibly difficult for smaller, black-owned construction companies to grow and achieve some of the market share. The monopoly in the industry by the larger players ensures that newer companies can’t break through and therefore, are destined to fail.

In his own style, Mathibeli has taken control back and through the various divisions within the group, he is now able to control all elements of the construction process, giving him a distinct competitive advantage.

Customer care: a real priority

Hosting a 24-hour call line, seven days per week across all of the businesses is not only convenient to the groups’ client base but is very smart business. “It is important for our clients to know they can reach us when they need us,” says Mathibeli.

Keeping in contact with clients in a proactive manner ensures that customer satisfaction is achieved. One of the best examples Mathibeli offers is when there were floods recently, the mayor was able to contact Calvin and Family immediately, and the disaster management team from the Calvin and Family Security arm was immediately dispatched to the affected area. Another example pertains to their branding house—the morning of a marathon, another supplier hadn’t delivered on the branding. Within a matter of hours, Mathibeli and his team had printed and installed the correct branding.

“Our clients know they can rely on us, we never stop working and striving to provide the most superb service. Working 24/7 gives us a definite competitive edge over some of our competitors. Our clients are our livelihood and we believe in being available when they need us,” says Mathibeli.

Five thousand jobs in five years

The memories of being raised in abject poverty have never faded and now that Mathibeli is a successful businessman, he truly believes in relieving the pain others feel living in conditions similar to his upbringing. He is very clear when he says he doesn’t do grants and financial handouts. Instead, he is heading the problem off at the root. Eradicating unemployment is the only way in which to effectively and sustainably eradicate poverty. In 2016, Mathibeli launched the 5 000 jobs in five years campaign. “By forming partnerships with small businesses in every corner of every township, we truly believe that we will be providing sustainable jobs to people. For example, why should the people of a township buy bread from a mass producer when they could be learning how to make it themselves in the local bakery? By forming relationships with the small businesses, we are effectively providing a much-needed cash injection into the business, whilst ensuring they are effective enough to hire and train people,” he explains. To date, the group has already invested approximately R4 million into this initiative and will continue to do so until the goal is reached.

“Hiring people who have never worked is the best because those who have ‘tasted’ money might be more likely to defraud the business. That way, we are also increasing the skills base of the nation and uplifting people on a maintainable structure” says Mathibeli.

Mathibeli is a true hero to the people. The group has, to date, spent more than R10 million on outreach and CSI projects. Annually, they build houses for people and Mathibeli explains that one family of 28 people were living in one room, this was unacceptable to him and the group built them a three-bedroom house.

Having to buy his own uniform from the age of 13 has kept him humble and he believes that children should not have to worry about things like that, so school uniforms are readily donated to those in need. Hosting community events and spoiling the elders of the communities are his passions. Annually, he closes the Unique Lifestyle Café for a day and invites the elders for a Christmas lunch, complete with entertainment, food parcels and spoiling.

“Looking after the older generation is incredibly important, it is because of them that we are the people we are,” Mathibeli says.

In many townships, there are different African cultures, and bringing the tribal authorities together will encourage peace. The Ingoma Festival, held annually, opens the communication channels between tribes through art, culture and sport. “We are a nation that has been separated and divided in the past and uniting the people is the only way success and sustainability will be achieved,” he says.

So, what is transformation?

“Empowering people so they are able to actively participate in the economy is true transformation,” says Mathibeli. Unfortunately, there are individuals who use what is meant to be effective and positive transformation in South Africa as a front. Mathibeli is vehement when he talks about this, it is unethical and won’t help to rebuild our country.

Promoting active participation in the economy goes beyond putting black people in jobs to attain the required Black Economic Empowerment scores. It is about training people and providing the jobs required, whilst being realistic and giving people the opportunities for which they are suited, otherwise, they are just being set up to fail.

The ethos of the Calvin and Family Group and the various subsidiaries is about making the impossible possible. Mathibeli is a true entrepreneur of change, his background inspired him to start the business, spread the knowledge and uplift everyone he can. In line with this, the staff of the group are always updating their skills, training is provided by the group in order to upskill and develop each individual, saying it’s crucial to provide employees with the capacity to be their best.

Mathibeli is humble when asked about the awards he has won, which are too numerous to list. He has been recognised not only in Africa but on the global business stage.

“I’m working my life at my own pace. It is great to see the recognition for what you are doing. It can be easy to forget that you aren’t in competition with anyone other than your past. Every day, I wake up and I try to be a better person today than I was yesterday,” he says.

His dreams are valid and he believes in learning from the best. “Look at what successful entrepreneurs have done, identify what they did differently and replicate that in your own life,” says Mathibeli.

One lesson he took from Sir Richard Branson is to have more than one revenue stream, this is what sparked the vision of the divisions within his group. They are all complementary to each other, he is able to manage and control the elements within them and he is able to provide a full service offering to his customers because of it. One very important question you need to ask is: Does my business service a need? If it doesn’t, then it’s unlikely to work. The divisions solve problems that some of the others might experience and keeping it all within the group is just good business.

The Calvin and Family Group and the various subsidiaries show no sign of slowing down, and with Mathibeli at the helm, it is evident that the company will continue to grow. It is contributing to more than just the economy, it is truly embracing what it means to be a South African by uplifting the downtrodden, upskilling the forgotten and providing homes and safety to those who are most in need. 

Nicole Spruijt

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This edition

Issue 68