“We’re the biggest shoe-shine company in Africa,” Lere Mgayiya, 40 year-old founder and owner of Lere’s Shoe Shine that operates in major South African airports, says without sounding arrogant.
Lere’s firm shines nearly 600 pair of shoes across three airports in the Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and employs 45 people. And he estimates the business rakes in between $142,600 and $178,000 a year.
But it wasn’t always easy when he started the shoe-shining company. Before succeeding in the shoe shining business, the motivated entrepreneur lost his footing several times in many unsuccessful businesses.
Mgayiya once worked for South African Airways, distributing boarding cards for five years, before being laid off. Afterwards, he began working with his family’s livestock business, but was asked to leave by his uncle since he felt that Mgayiya was being too ambitious.
The resilient South African tried his hand at a new project— selling farmers’ eggs to the kitchen of the South African parliament. This project was not a profitable one since Mgayiya only made six dollars a box.
“I fell behind with payments to farmers,” he told African Globe. “I didn’t have money to start my car. You need big pockets to run a supply business.”
Mgayiya won R18,000 ($1,200) 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.
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“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.
It was at this point, in August 2002, that he considered investing in the shoe-shining business after he read in a newspaper article about a man near him who was shining shoes.
The company, which was initially named Airport Shoe Shine, was actually only meant to be a temporary operation while Mgayiya recovered from two failed businesses.
Having worked in an airport before, he knew the amount of passengers passing through would make it a strategic location for his service. He used his connections to negotiate a deal to operate in Cape Town International – which took eight months.
By that time he had already sold his car to make payments on his house. And he still needed R8,000 to buy his chairs.
“So I went to my house and I took my television, my radio, my fridge and I sold them all. I think I got about R5,000 for all those things. Then my mother lent me about R2,000 and I paid R7,000 and owed R1,000, and got my chairs,” he explained to HowWeMadeInAfrica.
“My wife of course came home and thought we had been robbed.”
To start off he had only one chair and one employee, with whom they worked together to shine customers shoes.
“We worked 18 hours a day, six days a week,” he recalls.
“In our first month we made a profit of R9 000, which we did not expect at all; we’d expected only about R4 000.”
Every day for the first two months he left home at 4am, got to the airport at 5am and would only get home at around 10pm. By the third month, he was able to buy two more chairs and employ more people.
Mgayiya’s break finally came when he managed to expand operations to South Africa’s largest airport, O.R. Tambo in Johannesburg. But in the beginning he had been trying for months to get space, without any luck.
In 2008 he expanded to Durban, and the same year he opened in five other airports across the country. However, he soon realized that these were unsustainable financially, and he ended up closing operations in all but Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
According to a CNN report, Lere’s Shoe Shine is now eyeing partnerships in America and UK, as well as expansion across Africa.
“Thirteen years later I am still in this business, and it was just meant to be temporary.”