Don’t delegate what you don’t understand; that’s suicide for any franchisee. That’s the business mantra of Sbonelo Mbatha, co-founder of the PetroConnect franchise.
Mbatha’s entrepreneurial journey in fuel retail started 17 years ago when he worked as a pump jockey at a service station in Durban. He had a diploma in cost management accounting but couldn’t get a position in that field, so he took a job on the forecourt out of desperation.
Earning R800 a month, Mbatha applied himself with gusto and his boss got him to work in the office where he learnt about cash flow, bank reconciliation and gearing.
One day, by chance, Mbatha was working front-of-house and a stranger approached him and asked him for his number. The man complimented Mbatha’s customer service ethic. It turned out the stranger owned a chain of service stations and wanted Mbatha to manage one in Pietermaritzburg, at three times his salary.
After running the service station for two-and-a-half years to bolster his CV, he was approached once again by a woman who needed a service-station manager in Pretoria. Emboldened, Mbatha asked for a salary of R7,000 (more than double his wage) and she obliged, meaning he could afford to get married.
He ran the Pretoria outfit for two-and-a-half years and his wife spotted an advert in the papers calling for applications for a BP entrepreneurship programme. A few interviews and a psychometric test later and he was on the programme for a year. It meant he had to resign but it paid a monthly stipend of about R10,000 and put him in the queue to eventually buy his own filling station.
With all his experience but no opportunities to buy a fuel station, he opened three bank accounts and on the strength of his stipend slips got credit cards from each. That enabled him to put down R45,000 deposit to buy a driving school business while waiting for his ideal service-station opportunity. Two years later he paid that off and a BP service-station site was earmarked for Dube Village, Inanda, but not for first-time operators.
Mbatha pleaded with BP to let him run the station as a manager for a year and, if it worked out, to let him buy it. Ten months later he received an endorsement from BP and financed his first station.
“I paid that loan off in three years rather than five because I didn’t own a watch in those days. I lived at work.”
Since then Mbatha has bought another nine filling stations under a variety of brands including Engen, BP, Total and Sasol. He employs more than 300 people and has chaired dealer council forums and become a specialist on legislative issues related to fuel retail and franchising.
Eighteen months ago, Mbatha and Mark Harper started PetroConnect. They formed the company in response to their own, at times, bewildering experience managing petrol stations. They own two in partnership.