Thembinkosi Mthembu started his entrepreneurial journey from humble beginnings, working as a packer at the Durban Nampak tissue plant, South Africa. He rose through the ranks at Nampak to become a converting plant manager and today, he is the CEO of a tissue brand.
His business journey started when he was retrenched along with others when Nampak was recording losses. Two weeks after being unemployed, Mthembu was approached by Nampak and offered the opportunity to buy the firm’s machinery that was no longer in use.
Mthembu was aware of the dire state of Nampak but he also knew the potential of the company. After months of research and consultation, he accepted the offer to buy Nampak’s machinery, and that was how Mthembu Tissue Converting was born. Mthembu became the first Black tissue manufacturer in South Africa when he launched Mthembu Tissue Converting in 2005.
The company started manufacturing one- and two-ply tissues, kitchen towels, facial towels and serviettes. It grew to have 103 permanent and 20 seasonal workers, producing between 400 and 900 tons of tissue paper monthly for supply to Game stores and Nampak, according to GCIS Vuk’uzenzele.
Starting Mthembu Tissue Converting and turning it into a profit-making venture did not come easy. According to the South African entrepreneur, he struggled to recruit former Nampak workers to work for him.
“I tried to recruit people I worked with from Nampak. Most people did not want to join me. They were saying working for a black person will mean they will not get paid. Eventually, though I managed to get 36 people,” he told Forbes.
Another challenge he faced was that suppliers Nampak had worked with for years didn’t want to work with him. They asked him to make upfront payments before they delivered raw materials, which was so difficult.
For three years while running Mthembu Tissue Converting, Mthembu did not take any salary. And things came to a head in 2006 when the products they sent to Nampak in Cape Town failed the compliance test. He lost $21,700 as the tissues had to be sold as rejects.
“This was the worst period. To correct this, I had to implement [a standards] system in the plant to prevent it from happening again… The biggest lesson in my entire journey was to be focused and have systems in the business that work well and to always follow business goals,” he told Forbes.
In 12 years, the company was turning over $18.6 million. Mthembu learned the basics of entrepreneurship from his mother when he was very young. Not coming from a well-to-do family, he sold biscuits and fruits growing up to help take care of the home. Today, he runs his own business.