Saturday, 05 March 2016 04:04

Every building counts for award-winning property industry powerhouse, Marna van der Walt Featured

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Financial services giant Sanlam’s exit from Gensec, in 2004, set Marna van der Walt on an unplanned path to becoming a property industry powerhouse.

Marna van der Walt, Excellerate Property Services CEO
Marna van der Walt, Excellerate Property Services CEO

This is what this 47-year-old is today, as CEO of Excellerate Property Services (EPS), whose portfolio under management has soared to R150 billion. That’s an exceptional 12-fold surge in a decade. 

Such success explains why this bean counter, named Gensec MD in September 2003 and given just a three-month contract, to head the management buyout team, relives the beginning of her accidental affair with this industry with palpable alacrity. EPS has soared to be present virtually throughout Southern Africa. Brands include, JHI, Interpark, Enforce Security and Sterikleen. The group is also present in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. It’s now roaring to spread its tentacles to North Africa and the Middle East, a move that could take effect in the next two years’ time or so.

“I love travelling. How can you sit in the south and say you’re an African when you’ve never ventured north? When you don’t know what’s going on?” The avid traveler and entrepreneurial executive, with a dash of street cred, fused it all. “One time, I thought: ‘I like what’s happening there. It’s funkier. The growth is much higher than this side of the Limpopo’. We partnered with locals and we’ve built this. We’re building scale and far from done, what you’re seeing is baby steps. Yes, we are conservative by nature. Once we plant a flag in a country we want a sustainable operation.”

EPS’s business is powered by a 13 000-strong staff (versus 250 employees when Gensec was spun off) and spans property management services, corporate real estate services and facility management. “We’re a one-stop shop,” smiles this University of the Free State accounting graduate and family-orientated dotting single mother of two teenagers.

Spanning the food chain or foraying into the north – a region that still eludes local captains, numerical importance and projected growth aside – hasn’t given this powerhouse a reason to switch to the slow lane. Judging by her game plan, Van der Walt, an “obsessive photographer” who enjoys travelling and watching game, remains on the prowl. As if turning a so-so business into an empire alone isn’t already legendary.

“In 2002, our MD Gerhard van Zyl was (informed by his bosses) that the property management (business) is noncore to Sanlam and they wanted to find it a different home, a buyer or a partner,” she says, adding that the MBO deal happened just after she returned from a sojourn at Absa. She’d previously worked for KPMG and Sasol, a senior accountant’s assignment that took her from the familiar Johannesburg to Secunda. Her return to Sanlam couldn’t have been more well-timed.

Speaking of good timing, Van der Walt, who credits her team for how far the group is, recalls EPS’s game-changing tie-up with JHI. “Our lucky break came when we did a merger with JHI in 2007,” she says. The deal didn’t leave her knuckles smooth, the CEO concedes. But for her, that phase was just part of the learning curve. Further, the upside, by way of scale and brand, far outweighed the disadvantages. “We would have never survived as Gensec. The brand was “too” Sanlam, it wasn’t speaking to third-party clients,” says this stickler for detail who puts staff first and seeks to entrench (and leave behind) a culture of service.

Unbeknownst to Van der Walt was that in the not so distant future, was Capital Property Fund’s takeover of Pangbourne, whose portfolio sat at R9 billion. That was nine years ago. The portfolio’s sheer size propelled EPS, then Gensec, to the property management top league overnight. Sanlam eventually sold its remaining slice three years after the JHI top-shelf deal that astounded all and sundry.

“Pangborne gave us every one of those 350 buildings for us to manage. That was our one of our biggest breaks,” Van der Walt says of EPS’s overnight surge to the top. How the now-juggernaut has managed to stay in the premier league is a lesson in humility and hard work (the word “hard” punctuates Van der Walt’s every other paragraph). “Still today when people say: ‘we have a building, but it’s a small building’, my answer is that a building, big or small, is a building. Every building counts. There’s a big difference between zero and one. Let’s celebrate it.”

Van der Walt, who contemplated a career in computer science and engineering, ascribes her decision to settle on chartered accounting (or geoktrooieerde rekenmeester in Afrikaans) to the nice ring. “I didn’t know what geoktrooieerde rekenmeester meant, but I just liked the sound of it. Then I did my research,” she laughs. On a serious note, EPS boss, briefly retraces her tough upbringing in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

She’s never stopped learning and working hard. “(Chartered accounting) has stood me in good stead over the years. And, I’ve actually done many other qualifications afterwards.” She preaches the same gospel to youngsters.

She might have not pursued engineering after all, but here she is in property and recently became a fellow chartered surveyor with the highly-regarded Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The EPS chief, and second woman ever to lead the South African Property Owners Association, serves on the institution’s mainly-male international governing council. Even at home, the industry is male-dominated but Van der Walt, whose top brass includes JHI Properties MD Nomzamo Radebe, prefers to get down to business and says she doesn’t feel treated any differently by the other gender.

Beyond formal qualifications, Van der Walt is set on becoming a FGASA field guide (which would also enable her to self-drive in the bush). This is inspired by her love for the nature. Next on her list of destination is Kilimanjaro – but not to climb it. “I prefer taking pictures,” she says.

“I like camping and going where no other people, being a little wild and enjoy viewing wildlife,” says this travelling executive who can’t get enough of Africa. “I love quality, but simple, destinations. My bucket list is very long and includes the like of Patagonia, Galapagos Islands and Madagascar. I recently visited Mafia Island, rustic, but the snorkeling is among the best. I would still like to see Masai Mara – one of the greatest wildebeest migrations again. The older I get, the less I am impressed with lodges and such, but the more I am impressed with the quality of nature itself.”

eProperty News brings you a fresh feature introducing you to the captains of industry every week. Read about their career journeys, management styles, game plan... you name it. This is your opportunity to learn what drives them, and more importantly, what they do when they are not closing deals. See CEO Profile tag.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 March 2016 16:58

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