Tshego Sefolo

Building an agile empire

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Resourceful businessman, founder and CEO of Agile Capital, Tshego Sefolo, exemplifies the belief that success hinges on hard work, tenacity and the ability to recognise opportunities

Born from a desire to be his own boss, he founded his company in 2015 after a successful career in blue-chip companies, both locally and abroad.

His passion for the private equity space came about at an early age.

Sefolo describes his journey, which began in his mid-twenties, upon returning to South Africa after working abroad: “I was just as fascinated by the deal-making world as any other impressionable young Chartered Accountant wanting to crack it in the financial services industry in the late 90s.

“There weren’t too many options for private equity at that point as the industry was relatively immature. At most, I think there were two to three significant players with a few newly-formed ones.

“I was fortunate to join one of the leading ones at that time. In fact, I distinctly remember sitting with employment offers from both and not being certain of which was the right one to pick,” he recalls.

This was where his passion started and it became abundantly clear to him that one day, he would start his own private equity firm, especially owing to the fact that there were hardly any black-owned firms at the time.

Soon after joining the company, Sefolo decided to further his studies and complete an MBA.

“It was also because I realised that I had age on my side—as an advantage—therefore, I needed to learn as much as possible, given the opportunity. That took some discipline,” he says, adding that he learnt very early on that the investment process requires a substantial amount of patience.

“Ultimately, this is a long-term game where you only really get to see the benefits or misfortunes of the decisions you made five or so years later. As a result, the process of investing requires one to be very disciplined in one’s approach.

“You spend most of the time analysing businesses, understanding how they operate, interrogating financial models and unpacking the investment case to build a thesis as to why you think the business has the potential for good growth prospects. This can be very challenging, particularly in the current economic climate. I always say, investing in this game is a bit of an art, a science and a lot of luck is involved at times,” Sefolo explains.

Establishing credibility

The world of entrepreneurship presents its own set of challenges, such as capital. As a start-up, establishing credibility is paramount if one is to raise capital.

Sefolo explains: “Credibility is everything in this game. Ultimately, a true entrepreneur will make it or break, depending on their integrity and reputation. This is something that we at Agile guard against very seriously.

“We are comfortable to walk away from a potentially lucrative opportunity if, as we say internally, ‘it doesn’t pass the smell test’.

“We also spend a lot of time and effort understanding the parties we enter into business partnerships with. Unfortunately, integrity and good business ethics are very difficult things to do due diligence on. You also cannot pay consultants to give you all the answers when it comes to these aspects.

“Very often, one has to make decisions based on instinct. Credibility takes a long time to build, it can be destroyed in seconds and recovering it can be extremely difficult.

“What we have learnt is that, once you have established credibility in the marketplace, provided you have a compelling business case, capital is accessible. One has to obviously do their homework. This sometimes takes time and knocking on several doors before succeeding,” he says.

In the initial stages, every start-up encounters a set of challenges and Sefolo explains that, for Agile, finding the right people who would also buy into the long-term vision was the biggest hurdle.

“I have come to realise that, very often, people work because, for them, this is a day job. It takes a particular style of leadership to inspire people and get the right level of commitment. It also takes time to nurture talent in any organisation and one needs to have the patience for that.

“My view here is that one must take the time to find and nurture the right talent. This, in the long run, can be one of the most valuable assets in the organisation. However, if done incorrectly or hastily, it could prove to be a liability,” he says.

The formation of Agile Capital

Essentially, Agile Capital is a venture that Sefolo invested his heart and soul in and over the years, the company has demonstrated impressive growth and transformation.

“The business is a traditional investment business, which was formed just over 10 years ago and through a management buy-out. Our portfolio of assets dates back to 2009 when we concluded our initial investment with the backing of the FirstRand Group through RMB Corvest,” he says.

To date, Agile is invested across 13 businesses, which range from services, manufacturing, automotive, food, healthcare and mining services, and is continuously looking for new opportunities to deploy capital into and grow its investment reach.

Since the company’s formation, Agile has managed to establish itself as a respected black-owned investment equity company in South Africa, which has forged long-term relationships, launched a sustainable brand and built an impressive investment portfolio in a very competitive industry.

“Unlike twenty or so years ago when I got into the industry, the business now has a number of players and competitors who have emerged. In a South African context, this is a good development and must be encouraged, particularly black, young entrepreneurs.

“That said, it increases the amount of competition, which requires one to be agile and nimble in one’s business affairs. We differentiate ourselves through the long-term partnerships we forge and continuously invest in our brand and market positioning. Very often, the opportunities we explore come through individuals or organisations we have dealt with over the years,” Sefolo explains.

South Africa as an investment destination

Having lived and worked in the United Kingdom for some time, Sefolo has a keen understanding of the country’s financial services industry and how it differs from South Africa’s, particularly in terms of opportunities.

“Broadly speaking, South Africa as an investment destination has significantly more to offer in terms of opportunities. If you look at the rate of urbanisation, both in South Africa and the rest of emerging markets, it far surpasses that of Europe and particularly the United Kingdom.

“With this comes the need for bulk infrastructure, healthcare services, communications, education and so forth. These are all key pillars on which an investment case is built. Furthermore, South Africa has one of the more sophisticated financial services sectors arguably on the African continent.

“This makes us an ideal investment destination, provided we get a few basic principles correct. Lastly, whether one likes it or not, South Africa is just beautiful. I often admire our wide landscapes, rolling hills and beautiful coastal lines when I travel the country. It’s mostly a pretty sight,” he says.

In terms of future goals and what Agile further hopes to achieve, as well as the larger role Sefolo wishes for his company to play in a South African growth context, he says that, although the market is becoming more competitive, he believes there is enough scope for other players in the market.

“We hope to be an enabler and, at the very least, a beacon of hope for some of the burgeoning entrepreneurs in the financial services industry. We hope that we can effect ripples of positive change and differentiate ourselves as true business leaders for generations to come,” he says.

The Agile Foundation

The promotion of education and making a real impact in South Africa’s impoverished communities is a cornerstone of the company. Thus, the Agile Foundation was conceptualised when Agile Capital was formed.

“One thing we are passionate about in the business is education. We realise that most of the issues we have as a country, particularly as they relate to the youth, can be addressed through quality education. This gives one an opportunity to give others a chance and hopefully effect positive change. It is because of this that we started the Agile Foundation with the sole objective of supporting education-related initiatives. We have made some inroads, however, given the challenges in the country, I feel we can do more,” Sefolo says.

A successful business partnership

A large part of Agile Capital’s success can be attributed to the powerful relationship that Sefolo has with the company’s Director, Londeka Shezi, whom he has worked with for over a decade.

“It is a business relationship, which is very important to me and the business. It’s a relationship based on trust, mutual respect and a shared vision. We are clear about what we are trying to achieve in the business. I also like the fact that she is honest and candid with me, even when I don’t want to hear it. She also has a high emotional quotient (EQ), which is helpful, particularly in this male-dominated industry. I have also learnt that having the right business partner is crucial and can sometimes make or break the business,” he explains.

A humble achiever

Sefolo was awarded the Association of Black Investment and Securities Professionals (ABSIP): Private Equity Deal Maker of the Year 2012, and in terms of his achievement, he demonstrates the fibre of a true leader who is appreciative, yet remains humble.

The award was for dealmaker of the year, and Sefolo says, “It was humbling as I did not expect it. What I appreciate about it is that you are nominated by your peers in the industry, unbeknown to you, and after interviews, a set of judges decide whom the award goes to. It was a good gesture, which I appreciate.”

Additionally, when speaking of other achievements and successes that he is proudest of, Sefolo says that instead of focusing on specific highlights, he sees it all as a journey.

“I enjoy what I do with all its positives and negatives and will do this for as long as I can. I have been fortunate to have people who have supported me through this journey and, hopefully, I can also do the same for others,” he says.

Having successfully embarked on his entrepreneurial venture, the one piece of advice he would give to young people who are eager to forge their own paths, is to always push boundaries and never settle.

“Very often, when I talk to people about their aspirations, in the very same conversation, you hear negative self-talk as to why they cannot make it. I have come to realise that, in business, it is not always the most intelligent or well-spoken who make it. I have come across very successful businessmen and women who, in most instances, will be the first ones to say when they don’t know something, but who are willing to learn and apply themselves,” Sefolo explains.

The leader at the helm

As the founder and CEO, Sefolo says the most exciting part of his role is having the opportunity to inspire people towards a common goal, which is arguably the most challenging aspect for any CEO or business leader.

“The day-to-day management of the business is not as glamourous as one thinks. In most cases, one becomes almost like a cheerleader, encouraging people to give it their best in their respective roles. Because of the number of businesses we are involved in, this can be very complex,” he says.

As the leader, Sefolo encourages his employees to grow and thrive through his enabling leadership style.

“I am happy to set the framework and let people work their way through challenges and assist when required. I think professionals thrive and perform at their best when given the latitude to think, make mistakes and correct themselves. We try to create a learning environment and a culture at Agile where people can learn and develop,” he says proudly.

Sefolo has enjoyed a long, prolific career and has learnt numerous leadership lessons throughout, the most important of which is that one cannot buy loyalty and commitment in an organisation.

“In some of the businesses we are involved in, I have seen that the most financially looked after people are often the ones with the least amount of commitment. As a leader, one needs to understand what makes people ‘tick’ in order to be able to inspire and motivate them. Very often, it is the very simple things.

“I recall once asking colleagues what matters to them the most. Almost all of them responded by saying ‘family’. What that meant was, as an organisation, if you don’t recognise this value, you may not be able to retain good talent in the business,” he cautions.

Sefolo has devoted a great deal of his time and energy to building Agile Capital into the behemoth it is today. That being said, he recognises how crucial it is to successfully maintain a balance between his work life and his personal life.

“Maintaining a work-life balance is very critical and I realised that as an executive and businessman, if you don’t pay attention to your health, it very soon takes a toll on you.

“Fortunately, I am very physically active. I am an avid runner and golfer and whenever I plan my week, I always make sure that I make time for these activities. I also have a very good routine where I make time for family.

“I have learnt that it is crucial to be disciplined when it comes to this. Work can consume all your time if you permit it to do so,” he concludes. 

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