With Zilimbola being the first-born son of two farmers, the significance of livestock as the original system of African wealth creation has been ingrained in his spirit – so it was only natural that he chose to name his asset management company Mazi, the Nguni word for “cow”.
He started the venture in 2006 with just two employees and no loans or investor backing, relying solely on the savings he’d accumulated during his career in the financial services sector.
Twelve years later, Mazi has a staff of 30, half of whom are in the investment team, and manages assets worth billions of rands. Zilimbola continues to lead as Chief Investment Officer.
His start-up plan included ensuring the business would be self-sufficient for the first year, so there was no need to worry about generating income in that period. However, they exceeded their own expectations and revenue started streaming in just six months after opening.
Born in Klerksdorp and educated in Mahikeng until matric, Zilimbola’s graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a BSc in quantity surveying and BCom Honours in finance. He was then recruited by Investec Asset Management as an Analyst and stayed with the company for five years before moving to Rand Merchant Bank as a Senior Portfolio Manager, where he spent three years. Then he took a leap of faith, abandoning the security of employment to dive headlong into the entrepreneurial space.
This father of three, who turned 50 last year, explains how he achieved his remarkable success.
What drove you to start your own business?
My desire to showcase black talent. People would often remark that I was only doing well because of the Investec or RMB brand, so I stepped out of that framework to create a space where I could be successful on the strength of my own talent. I also wanted to build a centre of black excellence which would debunk the myth that blacks don’t know how to manage money.
What has your business journey taught you about character?
One of my biggest personal disappointments was obtaining my degree at UCT. People had made me feel that when I graduated, it would be a massive achievement – but when I was handed a simple piece of paper, I couldn’t believe that was what I’d worked so hard for.
When I started working, I realised that it’s important to focus on the journey, rather than the destination, because we often overrate the goal and overlook what we’ve become while pursuing it. It’s the skill, the resilience, the work ethic and the self-belief you build that matters. Ultimately, that piece of paper you get on graduation day and that pay-cheque you get when you’re in a management position mean very little, compared with the character you’ve built within you, which nobody can take away.
This insight was especially important to me during my career because as a high-performing black professional, there’s always a risk of being promoted prematurely purely because a company wants to window-dress for BEEE purposes. When that happens, what it’s really doing is preventing you from acquiring the skills you need. The danger is that you’ll go into these management positions without any depth or expertise in your area and you’ll be set up to fail. So I turned down many of those offers. Being able to stay the course of doing the technical work, managing the funds and doing a great job of it meant I’d acquired both the expertise and a following once I started my own business, which made it relatively easy to attract my first set of clients.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while growing your business?
The fact that we’re always testing new ground: we’ve never seen a black asset management company grow to where we are now. There’ve been businesses that were created through transactions, mergers and acquisitions, but we’ve built our company from the ground up and we keep hitting the glass ceiling.
Every time we break a new record, people ask: “You’ve got R20 billion in assets – why do you want more? You should be satisfied because you’ve reached a level no black business has ever reached before.” We’re no longer an emerging company – we play in the mainstream. Yet the stereotype persists. Coronation has R600 billion in assets – more than 10 times bigger than we are – and it keeps growing, but nobody tells them that they’ve achieved enough.
This is a daily battle, especially since some people assume we have it easy or reached these levels only because of BEE. We have to work three times harder than other fund managers to dispel that scepticism about our commitment and longevity, but I have no doubt that we’re going to be around for 100 years.
What have been your proudest achievements?
It’s to have started a business and run it for 12 years and having seen the growth that we’ve achieved in terms of assets, staff and the respect and prominence we’ve gained. We’ve also won a number of accolades –four Morning Star awards and three Raging Bull awards – these are the Oscars of the asset management industry and we’ve been pitted against the big boys, like Allan Gray, Coronation, Investec and we came up on top. Looking back I’m proud we’ve achieved good growth milestones while demonstrating excellence in business!
Excellence is not a flash in the pan. You can’t relax and bask in your past glories, you have to keep at it – it’s continuous. I’ve tried to inculcate in the team how crucial excellence and consistent performance is.
What are your plans for the company going forward?
I want to grow this business to over R100 billion in assets, which is rather ambitious, as I haven’t seen a black fund manager build a business that reaches this milestone but I believe we’ve got what it takes to achieve this. A part of this plan includes launching a global fund so we can compete with the best in the world. Currently all of our clients are South African and we’ve got a Pan-Africa fund that invests across the African continent but we want to go into the global space. At this point in time nobody in the institutional space can ignore us – the pension funds, consultants and multi-managers. We’ve made a mark and we continue to perform but we want to break into the retail space.
What do you think are the most important things in life?
People. Over and above making a profit one runs businesses in order to train, empower and develop people. There’s a saying I like, ‘That you love people and use things,’ because the other way around never works. The ultimate satisfaction is seeing people I developed becoming successful in their own right.
I mentor a lot of young people – seeing them succeeding and really starting to believe in themselves makes me so proud often people have the skills and intellect but they’re held back by self-doubt. Unleashing that self-confidence is always a proud moment because I believe in human potential and most people don’t achieve their true potential because they don’t believe in themselves.