A Conversation with Nonkululeko Ntshona: MD, Nonku Ntshona & Associates Quantity Surveyors (Pty) Ltd (NNAQS)


LM: Thank you so much for being part of these leadership conversations, I am sure so many young leaders and entrepreneurs will learn so much from your personal and professional journey.

NN: Thank you Lincoln for giving me the honor and privilege to be a part of these leadership conversations and I will try my best to impart words of wisdom that are realistic and doable.

LM: Where were you born, tell us about your family and your early years of schooling?

NN: I was born in Durban, King Edward Hospital and grew up in Umlazi – I am the second child amongst three children. My mother was a school principal and now retired and my father had been a carpenter by trade, my father worked at Everite for over 20 years, a construction materials company, and he ran a small carpentry business over the weekends. My elder brother studied a BSc Construction Management degree and is currently also in the Property Development sector so I guess construction is in my genes. My early years of schooling was in Ntwela Primary and Manzolwandle Secondary. High School, I went to St Gregory College where I started grade 6 and was promoted to grade 7. My mom was not happy about the level of education at this school and enrolled me at Utongati, now known as Crawford, I did not stay there too as I completed my matric year was at Mowat Park Girls High – all based in Durban. My tertiary education started off at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, this is where I met my husband.

LM: who were your heroes and heroines when you were growing up? 

NN: I will have to say my parents were and still are the 2 people that I look up to the most – they taught me many fundamental values that you can never learn in any institution.

LM: What values were instilled in you when you were young, how did they help you later in life?

NN: My parents always instilled in me the value of working hard, being respectful, being ambitious, never to give up, perseverance, – these values has helped me tremendously throughout my life. I had set goals and I was determined to achieve these and one of the goals was to start up my own company which I did and 11 years later we are still going strong despite the many challenges I had faced, I always remember my parents saying to me “what does not kill you makes you stronger

LM: What were the most memorable things about university life? 

NN: I did meet my life partner Sisa at university LOL and we are now married for 17  years next month. I guess university life opens up a whole new world especially for someone that had lived quite a sheltered lifestyle before, overprotective parents and older brother, but most importantly it opened up a world of knowledge and I was like a sponge just absorbing everything.

LM: What is a quantity surveyor and what attracted you to it?

NN: Quantity Surveyors are Experts in a specialised area in the construction industry. They act in liaison with Architects, Consulting Engineers and Contractors to maintain the client’s interest.

They are financial and development consultants in the construction industry.

Their training and experience qualify them to advise on cost and contractual arrangements and to prepare contract documents.

They can work with people on all levels in order to achieve financial project objectives. In a nutshell Quantity Surveyors are Accountants in the Building Industry.

I have a passion for buildings and seeing a magnificent building emerge and take shape from what had once been just drawings, it’s a legacy that you can leave behind when you are involved in some way in the construction of a mall, smart city, office buildings etc. Quantity surveyors are involved right from the beginning up to the very end in the lifespan of a project and this is what made quantity surveying so appealing to me.

LM: You have empowered yourself with qualifications to do this and more, what qualifications do you have and why is it important to keep investing in yourself?

NN: I started my journey on this career path at NMMU in 1995 where I obtained my National Diploma in Building in 1999, 2000 I completed my BTech in Quantity Surveying at Pretoria Technikon , 2005 I completed a Property Intermediate Programme at University of Pretoria , 2006 I did my Post Grad Diploma in Property Development and Property Management at Wits, 2007 I did a Property Development Programme at University of Cape Town , 2011 I completed my International Visitor Leadership Programme and General Management at GIBBS , 2013 I completed my Masters in Building at Wits, 2016 I did a Leadership Development Programme at the IESE Business School in Barcelona and I have to say my commitment to learning has not ended as I embark this month of Feb 2019 on a Global Executive MBA with IESE .

I believe that knowledge is power and the more I empower myself the more I will become equipped to empower others.  If knowledge is not shared then it starts and ends with you. I have to keep investing in broadening my knowledge so that I grow continuously and be an effective leader and mentor all the time.

LM: Tell us a bit about your corporate career before you set up your own company 

NN: My career in the Built Environment world started in 1997 when I joined Rousseau Probert Elliot Quantity Surveyors in Port Elizabeth. 

2000 I joined Bham Tayob Khan Matunda in Johannesburg.

Later that same year of 2000 I was offered a position at Turner and Townsend as a Junior Quantity Surveyor, whilst at Turner and Townsend I worked my way up to Associate Partner over a period of 7 years to head up the retail and mixed-use development sector within the cost management division

2007 – was a turning point in my career and life as I knew it – I started up Nonku Ntshona and Associates Quantity Surveyors.

LM: Then In 2007, you set up NNAQS, what drove that decision?

NN: I guess the idea of having my own business really goes way back to when I realised that the Property Industry was my true calling, I had just embarked on my studies at NMMU and I had this vision of having a family business , this did not materialise as it was my dream and not necessarily my fathers or my brothers so I shelved the dream for a while until I was ready to do it on my own and when the time was right – I guess 2007 was the right time for me to make the dream a reality .

It was a decision that I wrestled with for a while but I had the support of family, in particular my husband Sisa, was the person instrumental in pushing me get it off the ground, he went so far as to draft my letter of resignation and also supported me financially when I started the business. Good friends and mentors stood by me and encouraged me to take the plunge so to speak. I felt at that time that I had reached saturation point in my career and wanted new challenges. I also saw at the time a huge lack of women entrepreneurs and women quantity surveyors in the industry and I wanted to be a catalyst for change. I wanted to open doors for female quantity surveyors and I believe that I have achieved that to some extent as 80% of my employees are female.

LM: Tell us more about your company, the kind of work you have been involved in and the size and scope of your business?

NN: Nonku Ntshona and Associates Quantity Surveyors was established in 2007, Initially we opened for business from my dining room table and progressed to a wendy house at the back of my house as at this point and time I had to keep costs down and focus on landing projects that would take us to the next level . In 2008 I was a stage whereby I was able to move into a proper office building and by 2015 I moved offices again and this time to offices owned by the company. I started the company with just one employee and we now employ 15 full-time employees and part-time students that serve internship with us. We are a medium size company however this does not limit our capabilities in taking on large projects. We are in a position whereby we are able to tackle projects of any size. NNAQS offers quantity surveying services in commercial property and mining engineering. The commercial property entails retail, offices, industrial, residential and mixed-use developments. We are currently working on prominent development projects in South Africa and the broader African region.

LM: what projects are you most excited about?

NN: To be quite honest I get excited about every single project that we have or that is in the pipeline, there are no favourites when it comes to this, each project has its own unique appeal. Each project that we complete irrespective of how big or small gives me a sense of satisfaction and joy that our company had been a part of that project. We are currently working on various interesting projects and just to name one, we are working on a township shopping centre in Mamelodi, this is a special project as we are bringing the ambience and vibe of Sandton to the township, a state of the art shopping mall over R1,2 billion. 60 000 square meters and will create jobs for 1000s.

LM: What accolades or awards have you won personally and what awards have your company won?

NN: I will just mention some personal accolades , 2017 – Nelson Mandela University Alumni Rising Star Award, 2016 – I was selected to participate in the Executive Leadership Programme from IESE in Barcelona and in 2016 I was awarded “Finalist Best Quantity Surveyor “by the South Africa Professionals Services Awards, 2014 – I was selected to speak at the Walter Sisulu Graduation ceremony which is one of the highlights of my career, 2013 – I was a finalist in the Metropolitan Young Achiever and SMME category awards, 2010 – I was the winner of the Metropolitan Oliver Award Young Black Entrepreneur of the Year .

In terms of the company, 2018 – won the PMR Africa Diamond and Gold Arrow Awards for QS services, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014,2013 won the PMR Africa Silver and Bronze Arrow Awards for Quantity Surveying services

LM: Is leading a medium sized black woman owned quantity surveying company a blessing or a curse?

NN: LOL let’s just say that managing and being involved in the day to day running of a business has its challenges on an ongoing basis. I will not go so far as to say it’s a curse but it has not been an easy journey. It does however give me and my staff immense sense of achievement when we see our company name on billboards at site. As any business has its own challenges to deal with so too does our company but if I had to rewind and start my life over I will still choose to start and manage my own company all over again. 

LM: what projects have you witnessed on outside of South Africa, are you planning to do more?

NN: We have a few projects outside of South Africa in countries such as Lusaka, Cameroon, Gaberone – these were mixed-use development projects. Definitely our 3-year goal is to expand our services outside of South Africa into other regions in Africa into countries such as Senegal, and Abijan and with prospects of further projects in Cameroon.

LM: How do you see the future of your profession, and what obstacles or opportunities lie ahead?

NN: Quantity surveying profession has changed over time to adapt to the changing and

increasing requirements of project owners. As technology evolves, we are forced to evolve with it or run the risk of being left behind. The traditional way of utilising the services of a quantity surveyor has largely been at the stage of costing a design, and the production of procurement and construction documentation however we have started seeing a shift in the role of quantity surveyors and as the world evolves so does the profession of quantity surveying. The swift yet gradual shift from “number cruncher” to professional construction financial manager is underway. Today, quantity surveyors are often also appointed as project managers to take control of the project from inception to completion, as well as coordinate the work of the design team, the main contractor and subcontractor.

Obstacles are always going to be there but I don’t like referring to these as obstacles I prefer to look at it as challenges – I think personally for my company there is still the challenge of being a black woman owned enterprise competing in an industry that is still largely “white male dominated “- there has definitely been a shift in the right direction from when I started in 2007 however we are still a long way away from being seen as equal competitors.

Opportunities-Economic improvement with more openings in areas such as sustainable design and construction as the construction industry is rising from economic downturn in the period between 2007 – 2017 , 2017 particularly was a very challenging year for the construction industry in its entirety.

2018 – it’s forecast that the construction industry can look forward to moderate growth.  Government’s plan to spend more than R940 billion on infrastructure development is welcome news.

In particular, social housing, renewable energy and roads infrastructure projects are expected to sustain growth. Urbanisation and semi-migration are also viewed as drivers of growth. The demand for middle and high-income housing continues unabated

We see increase in the scope of quantity surveyors services in the challenging and dynamic construction industry environment.

The acknowledgment that quantity surveyors provide far much better services than other construction professionals in meeting owner’s needs.

Current  technologicaltrends  in  IT  that  havehelpedin  streamlining construction office practices thus reducing wastes and resulting in good use of resources and overall improvement towards profitability. Project owners are starting to see the value –added service that quantity surveyors provide so I am very optimistic that the next couple of decades will see definitive growth in this profession

LM: Are young people attracted to the broader property sector? 

NN: In the Quantity Surveying profession alone 43% of all quantity surveyors are those born between 1981 and 2000 – millennials as we refer to them – so yes there has been an increase in younger generation gravitating towards this industry. Having said that however one of the biggest challenges that we face in South Africa is the lack of qualified built environment professionals.

We need a structural solution: a public higher education system that is free or at least poses no financial or other barriers for deserving students. The construction industry would benefit from this, as the fees for most built environment degrees are very high and is an obstacle to many young people. In South Africa, succession planning in the construction industry must go hand in hand with transformation. Serious transformation is needed in the construction sector.

LM: What lessons have you learnt in raising finance for your business in that start-up phase?

NN: I learnt that it’s vital to form strategic relationships with the right people. The start-up phase was very difficult especially from a cash flow point of view, there was never enough revenue, however I learnt that a good book keeper is vital.

I learnt that perseverance does pay off in the end.

LM: Entrepreneurs have to grapple with cash flow issues, how real is the cash flow challenge that faces entrepreneurs? Does it give you sleepless nights?

NN: I suppose even really big players in the industry do face cash flow issues from time to time and we are not excluded from facing this issue especially in our line of work we do take on a lot of projects on risk, meaning that we do all the work with no payment coming through until the project is confirmed , sometimes we can work on a project for close on 2 years and still cannot invoice , sometimes we have projects that are put on hold for months on end, we have done the work with very little monetary benefit, but we have to wait until the project is re-instated until we can continue with the rest of the work and until we can start invoicing again . These type of situations do create cash flow issues. Yes it does give me sleepless nights when we run into this scenarios as I have to keep servicing these projects that we do on risk, pay salaries and so on.

LM: what do you know now that you wish you knew much earlier about leading professionals?

NN: I know now that entrusting people with certain roles and responsibilities and holding them accountable is something that pushes people to do better and at the same time benefits the company and empowers others. Earlier on when the company was relatively new I did not know how to delegate as I wanted to do everything and it reached a point whereby I lived and breathed work with little to none time for anything else.

I have since learnt that a fundamental element to leadership is letting other take the reins in certain aspects, I have seen that it does build confidence and pushes people to do their best.

LM: How difficult has it been to do business, be technically proficient, and train other staff members and to run the business?

NN: It does become challenging at times to provide strategic direction and leadership in business growth and customer service in line with the corporate business plan and strategy, oversee the implementation of corporate plans and strategies based on the company’s business philosophy, mission, vision and core values., oversee the execution of management and financial accounting roles and ensure the company is leveraged in support of operational effectiveness., oversee lean, safe and effective operations of the company’s assets ,implement and maintain procurement plans for new business development initiatives, monitor staff performance and appraises / evaluate staff performance every quarter and implement new strategies to enhance staff performance and develop and maintain relationships with new and existing clients , just to name some of the tasks I attend to on an ongoing basis . In the end it is worth every effort and I will continue to do what it takes to take my company to new heights. It sometimes feels like you take a step forward and few steps back when faced with challenges.

LM: What does the future hold for your company, more growth, merging with other players or remaining a niche company?

NN: I am very optimistic that we are headed in the right direction, we have passed the teething phase of the early start–up years, we have survived the slump in the construction industry and as growth is predicted in the built environment industry I can also predict more growth for my company. We are continuously exploring ways of expanding not just locally but internationally having said that I am not ready to lose our own unique identity completely, we do form strategic partnerships with other big players in the industry for certain projects and that has worked well for us so far so we will continue in this trend. There are too few black women-owned enterprises in South Africa as it stands and I want to remain a niche company for as long as I am able to.

LM: How have you continued to win and retain business in an ethical way in the current corruption driven environment?

NN: Our reputation and the good relationships that we have built over the years with many strategic players in the industry has stood us in good stead in getting new projects as well as repeat business. All our projects that we have has been a result of sheer hard work and perseverance and that is how I intend to keep it. It is also about mutual trust between our clients and us that has sustained us over the years. We have gained the reputation of being a company that is above board and that does play a major role in drawing the right type of clients to us. We are also ISO 9001 accredited, this gives our clients and prospective clients the reassurance that we will deliver the best quality service based on internationally accepted standards.

LM: How will the digital revolution impact your profession? Do you think that robotics and artificial intelligence will disrupt your profession?

NN: The fourth industrial revolution is not coming it’s here already and if we do not embrace it and transform then we will be left behind.

All around the world, new technologies are being developed and this is transforming and revolutionizing all, from the basic to the intricate functions of life, and the architecture, engineering and construction industry is no exception. The collaboration

between the construction industry and digital technology is geared towards making the construction industry more efficient, time is money after all and if there is favourable impact that will save time and subsequently money then this is the route we will take.

LM: How have you dealt with prejudice and bigotry as a black female in a male-dominated industry?

NN: I have to admit that when I had started up the company there were not too many open doors and it was a struggle to get our foot in the door of many companies. I was not willing to give up and give in so I persevered. I just dug my heels in and continued knocking on those closed doors until I was given an opportunity. I think what also got me through that challenging times was acknowledging to myself that it was not personal and I was not being rejected as an individual – that was just how it was and I was determined to change that scenario and I believe that I have made great strides over the years. I intend to continue knocking on some of the doors that are still closed until I am given an opportunity.

Part 2 

LM: You met a young man in Port Elizabeth, Sisa Ntshona, you were married 16 years ago, how do you keep your marriage going when you both have high pressure jobs?

NN: It is not easy juggling business and personal life and it is the same with my husband – we are very much involved in our careers and because we are both in these high pressured jobs we do understand what it entails so we have learnt how to make allowances for our jobs but at the same time make time for us as a family . We do set aside weekends and holidays whereby we focus on each other and our marriage. As much as work is important to the both us, our marriage is equally important and we try to steal as much time as we possibly can to ourselves.

LM: You have been blessed with two lovely children, Oyama and Aphiwe, How has motherhood changed you? What do your children mean to you?

NN: Motherhood is expecting to teach a new human about life yet learning just as much from them. Motherhood is experiencing childhood all over again. Motherhood is realizing strength you never knew lived inside of you. Motherhood is messy and magical. It brings awareness & allows vulnerability. Motherhood is the most amazing experience. My children always come first, our kids depend on us so we make sure that no matter what they always come first in our lives.

LM: How have you balanced being a great Mum, a loving wife, a successful entrepreneur and an academic student?

NN: It is not easy, I find that I am always juggling events and I don’t always get it right. I do the best that I can at the time and if I do mess up I ensure that I don’t make the same mistakes twice.

LM: What values do you instill on your children? 

NN: My kids know that whatever they want to achieve in their lives they must work hard to get it as I have done and still continue to do so.  I have also instilled in them independence and being able to stand up for what you believe in. Above everything else I have taught them about being humane, and respectful.

LM: Who are your heroes and heroines in your personal and professional life? 

NN: It is definitely my parents in my personal life as they have always been and still are my support system, they encouraged me to fulfil my dreams. Professionally – my inspiration had been Nonkululeko Gobodo, who was the first black female chartered accountant in South Africa, Gobodo Inc was established under her leadership. In 2011, SizweNtsaluba VSP and Gobodo Incorporated merged to form the biggest black accounting firm in the country. The merged entity effectively became the fifth largest accounting firm thus redefining the landscape of the accounting sector. It took one person to stand up stand out and be counted to start the chain reaction of something phenomenal in South African history.

LM: What is the most difficult challenge you have ever had to face, how did you cope through it, and what pulled you through?

NN: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and this was the most difficult phase of my life, I had to take 1-year sabbatical from the office to undergo treatment and surgery. I had a very good support structure from family and friends and most especially from my husband that put his career on hold for this year and assisted me with the management and day to day running of the company. The encouragement and support that I had was amazing and this got me through some of the darkest days.

LM: what would you say to your 16 year old self? 

NN: Don’t be afraid to take chances, nothing ventured nothing gained.

LM: What advice would you give to a young black female entering your profession today?

NN: Be prepared to work hard and work long hours. Do your homework, research the industry and understand the market you play in, Differentiate yourself, be authentic.

LM: Thank you so much for such a deep, wide ranging, engaging and illuminating conversation, I’m sure that young leaders and entrepreneurs will benefit from it.

NN: Thank you Lincoln for giving me this great opportunity to share my journey with you . My parting message is “live your dreams through hard work, perseverance and dedication. Be thirsty for knowledge, try and learn at least one new thing each day “