Investing in the hard rock business

On a spring morning in Hout Bay, stonemason Nicholas Tshabalala is gearing up for the busy season. The wet Cape winters mean a slowdown in building projects, but the warmer weather signals a boom in trade and a reshuffling of resources to accommodate the upturn.

His company, Stone Nature, was established in 1999 in a Cape Town garage.  Tshabalala’s father, also a stonemason, had passed on his skills to his son, who now wants to formalise and grow the business. Together with his wife Mildred, he has now expanded the company to the point where they have permanent premises in Hout Bay and 12 fulltime employees; although this number often jumps to as many as 20 during the busy season.

“I started slowly in Cape Town, with just two guys to help me, “ says Tshabalala.

“But as our reputation spread, and we began to get more and more work, I realised I needed to hire more people and pass on my knowledge if I was going to expand successfully.

“I knew the more employees I had, the more work I could take on, but I also had to be prepared to manage staff members and their time as well as my own, and carefully balance the growth in the business with the hiring of new people.  Everybody needs to be kept busy for new positions to be worthwhile.  I can’t afford to have workers sitting with nothing to do,“ he says.

This can be challenging in a business that tends to be seasonal and that can also experience significant downturns in times of economic uncertainty.

Tshabalala says: “We manage shifts in demand by maintaining a permanent workforce, which through experience I know I can keep busy, but we also take on short-term contract workers when we need them.”

 While the bulk of the company’s work takes place in Cape Town and the surrounding areas, his small company has also taken on stonework projects as far away as Johannesburg; such is the demand for his services.

“Stone masonry involves a mix of building know-how as well as artistry,” he says.  “It’s not something just anyone can do.  The work can be quite intricate and creative and needs to look attractive, as it is used in visible ways – such as in wall claddings and shower floors as well as rockeries and boundary walls, for example.

“As an entrepreneur, if you invest in your employees by training them well, everybody wins. They earn as they learn and are able to produce quality work, while you gain the personnel and skills you need to handle growth.”

He says expanding a business is a process that has to be managed carefully with the understanding that growth brings bigger responsibilities.

“We now pay the salaries of 12 employees, all of whose families rely on that income.  “As a responsible employer, you need to know you can pay your staff before you pay yourself.”

When the company moved to new premises in Hout Bay in June 2012, it acquired a bigger rent bill as well as more space.

“We picked Hout Bay not only because it is good hub for servicing Cape Town, but also because there is little competition for our business in this area. This made it a good choice for us,” he says.

“Our expansion has also meant that we needed to acquire more assets. We now have a large truck and a bakkie for moving stone. The outlay was worth it, but each purchase had to be carefully considered.”

Cash flow is another challenge that businesses of all sizes have to manage.

Tshabalala says he often incurs costs upfront in the buying and transporting of raw material and has to be able to carry those costs until the project is complete and payment is made.

“Most of our stone comes from a quarry in Somerset West and is brought to our Hout Bay premises where we work it before delivering it and assembling it on site.

“Often we only get paid two months after completing a job, so we have to have enough money in the business to see us through this time.  We also have to budget for the time of year when business slows down.”

Stone Nature has now established itself as a reliable partner in the commercial and residential building industries, and works closely with architects and designers incorporating stonework into their creations.

“It is physically demanding work,” says Tshabalala “but it is also very creative and there is a great deal of satisfaction in stepping back and looking at a completed project. Stone has a timeless feel to it, and we are seeing a growing number of construction projects that incorporate this element,” he says.

This article is part of a series sponsored by MTN Business. While the theme for the series has been agreed to by MTN Business, the articles have been independently sourced by the M&G’s supplement’s editorial team and MTN Business has not seen this article prior to publication. The other articles in the series can be found here.

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Greg Gordon
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