Recently crowned African Women Chartered Accountants entrepreneur of the year, Meta Mhlarhi has lived a life littered with entrepreneurial lessons and she has not let any of them go to waste.
City Press met up with the trailblazing extrovert businesswoman at her offices in Bryanston, north of Johannesburg, for an interview and walked out not surprised at her recent accolade by Awca.
The Tzaneen-born Mahlako a Phahla Investments executive director and co-founder has earned a unique reputation for being a street-smart corporate matriarch.
“My parents worked for the university and an opportunity to lease the campus cafeteria presented itself and that is what kick-started it all,” she said.
Mhlarhi was inducted into the world of business from a very young age. In fact, as soon as she could read, she was familiar with stocktaking and operating the tills at her father’s various businesses.
“As soon as I could read, I knew my way around a shop till and I knew you cannot eat stock, so if I wanted the polony we were selling at the butchery I can’t just take it. I must save and buy it. Taking stock or money from the till was a cardinal sin. My father used to impose those golden rules,” she said, further elaborating how those basic rules and ethics have also set her apart from her competitors.
Her late father, Matome Maponya, a National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry stalwart, was one of the most successful black entrepreneurs in that part of the country and, in fact, the first black person to own a car dealership in the province.
As the youngest of the four Maponya siblings, Mhlarhi started schooling in her home township of Mankweng while her older siblings went to boarding schools. That is how her entrepreneurial teeth were cut, when her family owned a number of businesses in the area.
She started school at the local Pulamadibogo Primary School and went on to Dikolobe Primary because she was moved to a more prestigious St Marks Catholic boarding school in the Sekhukhune area.
“My parents firmly believed in these church schools and were disciplinarians, a quality I wish I had,” she said.
While at St Marks, her parents were contracted to supply food to the school and she learnt some very important business lessons too.
“That’s when I realised that humanity is a business imperative because you need to treat people well. You never know what positions they will hold tomorrow,” she said.
With the advent of democracy, her family moved to Polokwane and she later moved to Capricorn High School, where she matriculated.
“I had to study very hard to be accepted at Wits. I didn’t care much about other universities; I just wanted to be in Johannesburg because my siblings were also here and were party animals. I wanted in too,” she said, adding that the ambition for Wits was despite the fact that her mother preferred for her to go to the University of Cape Town.
After acing her matric, she headed to the City of Gold, enrolling at the University of the Witwatersrand to study actuarial science, but later modified to accounting. Since money was not an issue, her parents refused for her to take on any bursary offers.
A self-confessed competitive soul, Mhlarhi admits she was not the best behaved of students and even while studying towards her honours degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa), the partying ways did not leave her, so her studies suffered.
“After I failed at Unisa, I registered at the University of Natal and I became the top student that year. That was important because I needed to prove to myself that I did not fail because I was dumb,” she said.
Her first job was with PwC. She then later did her articles at Deloitte, under the mentorship of Deloitte’s current chief executive, Lwazi Bam.
It was also at Deloitte that she audited some of the bigger organisations in the country and even got job offers from some clients, even before she passed her board examinations.
From Deloitte, she joined Investec, a big international bank offering her a bigger pay cheque.
“I grew up having to sell myself and justify for whatever I wanted from my parents and those skills made it easy for me to get a job. I never made a decision based on a salary,” she said.
Less than a year into her job, she was lured by a cousin to join him in a business venture.
“At Investec I had never even done an acquisition. The first thing I did was due diligence to acquire a bottled water company. The four years I was there were a learning curve and I learnt the most in those years,” she said.
Four years later, with nothing to show for her labour, she started Mahlako a Phahla Investments with her sister in 2008.
A decade later Mahlako a Phahla Investments has worked on projects worth over R5.5 billion. The majority of its interests are in energy and it has become one of the go-to companies for energy advisory services.
“My whole game now is to create projects, we don’t wait for tenders. We come up with innovative solutions,” she said.
A passionate activist for inclusive economic growth and transformation, Mhlarhi is also a founder and president of Black Energy Professionals’ Association.
In her spare time, the married mother of four is a keen traveller and reader.
“I used to be passionate about politics, but they lack peace those people,” she said.