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Who is behind the airport shoe shine business?

After hitting rock bottom, Forty-year-old Lere Mosieane Mgayiya has become South Africa’s leading shoe shine entrepreneur.
Zintle Swana    

Lere Mosieane Mgayiya dreamt of being a pilot. But when that didn’t work out he started the shoe shining business that you find in every major South African airport.

Mgayiya was born and raised in Gugulethu. He wanted so much to be a pilot that he repeated grade 12 to get good enough marks to start a pilot-training career.

Yet when he finally got into the industry he found out that it was not what he wanted to do with his life. “When SAA offered positions I jumped at the opportunity. But when I became a part of it, getting a mentor to fly with me and showing me what pilots do, it was all boring for me and I just did not see myself doing that job for a long time,” says Mgayiya.

Mgayiya won R18,000 in a competition on a television programme where contestants had to use their entrepreneurial skills.

With his prize money he bought shares and worked in a black economic empowerment company called Wild Orchid. It was promising at the time but he figured that it would take him years to reap rewards.

So he started a mobile public cell phone business that was unsuccessful. And he blew his savings on it.

At this stage Mgayiya was at “rock bottom”, with no ideas. “I was considered a loser by my peers and family because I resigned from SAA and the money I invested was gone. That created a lot of pressure for me to look for a job. But I did not want to do that because it is not who I am at all,” he says.

In August 2002 Mgayiya was in GreenMarket Square reading a newspaper article about a man near him who was shining shoes. And the idea crossed his mind. “I was sitting there thinking despite all my creativity and upbringing I was still a loser. I’m looking at this guy doing this job and trying to imagine how much money he made a day and how well he was doing. I saw him often and I thought he did not make enough money, until I read about him.”

“I did all the mathematics in my head but I could not think properly because I was hungry for success and needed something to start with that would give me an income so that I could be able to think again,” he says.

When Mgayiya told people that he would be shining shoes, he says they thought worse of him for having once been an SAA employee to now being a shoe shiner. But it was fine for him because, he says, he was finding out who he really was at that stage.

He went to Umsobomvu Youth Fund that is now the National Youth Development Agency and they drafted a good business plan for him. He also went to the banks to ask for loans. He asked relatives and friends too. Some promised but when the time came to give him a loan, they all ran away, says Mgayiya. Eventually only his mother came through for him. She gave him R1,500. The idea was to target the business travel at the airport.

“It took about a year for the airport to respond to my proposal, I ordered two chairs from a carpenter that I could not pay for because the people who promised to lend me money all ran away. Without my wife knowing I sold our television, radio and a fridge for R10,000 altogether. Then I could pay for the two chairs,” Mgayiya says. “When my wife got back from work she called me screaming that we had been robbed. It was kind of funny and frustrating at the same time.”

On 2 October 2003 the business started. It was only Mgayiya and his one employee. The chairs were delivered without the boxes where customers could put their feet. So on the first day they used their knees to support customers’ feet. Luckily, the next day the boxes were delivered.

Mgayiya says, “When we started we charged customers R15 for a pair of shoes and made about R120 on our first day. At the end of the month we were so amazed that we made R7,000, we bought a third chair and in November we made R8,000. Because our business depends on business travel, we did not make money in December because of holidays. I started employing more guys to help us.”

According to Mgayiya, they first called it The Airport Shoe Shine and customers thought it belonged to the airport. So Mgayiya decided to rather name it after the founder. Today it is called Lere’s Shoe-Shine Experience. He says more customers supported his business because of the name change.

Mgayiya has learned a lot from the business. “One morning a customer asked, ‘What’s in the business news today?’ I had no clue. I knew nothing about the business world. He told me to read and buy business newspapers for customers. I started reading even though I did not know what I was reading. I did not understand the terms in the articles but it took me a day at a time and I taught myself about the repo rate, inflation, CPIX and other terms,” he says. “In that way I was able to interact with my customers and they were impressed with me so they kept coming back for the interaction.”

Today Lere’s Shoe Shine has expanded to five airports: Cape Town, OR Tambo, King Shaka, George and East London. He has 44 employees.

“The business is doing well so far and our plan is to expand to taxi ranks, bus stations, railway stations, central business districts and corporate organisations,” Mgayiya says.

He has since also become involved in a business that hires chairs for events. Mgayiya says, “The secret about starting is to just start.”

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