Leaving the comfort zone of a well paying corporate job and successfully starting your own business is never an easy road to travel and many fall by the wayside. Themba Mthombeni, CEO of Duma Travel hasn’t only taken on this challenge, he has made it a success and also taken the time to assist and invest money in helping other disadvantaged kids get a chance in life.

Can you share some of your background?

The Afropolitan caught with the CEO of Duma Travel to find out the secret of his success.

I started working as a farm labourer at the age of seven in Glencoe, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) on a neighbouring farm. Though it was tough, the experience taught me discipline and the value of hard work at such a young age. My grandfather, who I lived with, was a disciplinarian - at 19h00 we would be indoors and between 20h00 and 21h30 we had to study. Our life wasn’t easy and that gave me the motivation to succeed.

How did it come about that you received a bursary from Anglo American to study at Wits University?

I was an “A” student in KZN and was always keen to get ahead. I remember that we didn’t do Maths and Science at primary school as it was never available, but I insisted on going to the Maths and Science class at high school. To achieve this I had to convince a resistant principal. An Irish maths teacher, Mr O’Madigan, overheard the fight and took me to his office and asked me a few questions. He believed in me and told the principal I was a winner whom he would take under his wing. That was a fork on the road for me and I never disappointed.  

When Anglo American started offering good students bursaries I was one of the students put forward. We had to go through a gruelling assessment to determine the eventual recipients and I was selected. This really changed my life.

I completed my BCom at Wits and then did an Honours and Master of Business Leadership degree through UNISA.

What business lessons did you learn during your tenures at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and De Beers that have proven valuable in starting your own business?

At PriceWaterhouseCoopers I started as a management consultant, I eventually became a Principal Consultant specialising in Strategy and Change Management. At De Beers Marine, I became the HR Director. I learned a lot during my time at these companies: I started understanding myself better and that essentially I was an entrepreneur at heart. I developed a lot of confidence in my abilities, to such an extent that I was willing to jump into my own business.

Practically I was exposed to the principles of running a business at a high level and learned the value of vision, strategy, execution and discipline, and the art of achieving objectives through others.

What has been the biggest challenge in establishing a successful business?

Oh the challenges have been many:

  • Being able to manage and overcome the fear of being on your own.
  • Being the jack-of-all-trades.
  • Recruiting the right staff.
  • Staying sane and leading a balanced life style where work is not the only thing.
  • Staying focused in a world of many diversions
  • Continuously improving myself while demands are very high.

Have you always been passionate about travel or was Duma Travel launched merely out of a need to fill a gap in the market?

I enjoyed Geography and History at school. Even though I was not in the History stream, I used to help History students with their assignments. I was left with a deep urge to go, see and experience these faraway countries. At varsity I used to do part time jobs and all my savings went to travel. Currently, I make sure that I visit at least two countries per annum. My wife and kids love this pastime!

You were awarded the Inaugural BTN/ITMSA Newsmaker Award for Best Corporate Travel Supplier in 2010, what does this award mean to you?

This award was given to us by the travel industry for being the most dynamic and exponentially growing company in 2010. It was also the acknowledgement of the active and valuable role I played during this period as a leader in the industry. It meant a lot to get that recognition.

You describe your company as a strategic travel partner; can you elaborate on this offering?

As a Travel Management Company, Duma Travel positions itself as a strategic travel partner to our clients. The focus is on understanding our client’s business objectives, their travel behaviour and practices. We then advise them on ways to align their corporate travel to international benchmarks, which ensures a big bang for their travel rand. We have developed robust methodologies to intervene at a strategic level with our clients. So, we are not just booking agents, we offer a more holistic and strategic service.  

Why, in your opinion, do corporates need this kind of a service?

Corporate travel and entertainment is often the second highest controllable expense within a company and a strategic approach to corporate travel is becoming more important.

Have you found companies to be open to, and understanding of the idea of looking “at travel in a sustainable way?” or has there been some resistance?

Luckily we haven’t experienced much resistance as most companies are open to creative ways to get structure around their travel spend.

When did you decide to take the leap and start your own company?

As the HR director at De Beers I had a secure and well paying position. When the company decided to move offices to Namibia I realised that it might offer me the opportunity to pursue my dream and start my own business. I felt that if I didn't jump at that point in time, I would never get another chance. It was a defining moment in my life and I made the decision.

You had to downgrade your lifestyle when you left your corporate job to start your own company, is this something you find potential entrepreneurs struggle to do?

It’s always difficult to downscale. It’s one of the fears that I needed to manage. The only reason I actually survived was because I had strong belief in myself, belief that I can make a come back. Coming back on my own terms was the biggest incentive for me.

What was your lowest point during the start-up phase?

Six months after the launch I got a call from one of the largest liquor companies offering me an opportunity to interview for the Group HR Director position. I had just sunk about R1-million into the business and it wasn’t clear at the time where my next big account would come from. I had also just discovered that being on your own was a very, very long and lonely road. Making an overnight decision not to go for the interview was the most difficult and lowest point in my entrepreneurial life and yet the best decision I ever made.

When my business issued 20 scholarships to good students (coming from needy backgrounds three years ago in my home town). It was déjà vu for me. I remember seeing the excitement and pride on these young faces and it was as if I had discovered my purpose on earth. I felt close to God. Needless to say we have issued many more scholarships subsequently.What was your highest point?

What prompted you to launch a bursary scheme?

My most significant achievement for the past decade has been the realisation of my mission to make a difference in the community that I grew up in. When you give back you are blessed. It seemed like the right and most natural thing to do and I was not disappointed.

How has the progress been with the students that have received the bursary?

When we launched the scholarship three years ago, the pass rate was about 56%. This year it’s 79%, which is amazing! No doubt our intervention has played a significant role. We are now considering adopting the school so we can look at their resource needs in a broader way.

 What lessons would you share with other professionals looking to start and successfully operate multi-million rand operations?

  • Discover your passion.
  • Have a Big Hairy Audacious Vision.
  • Plan your exit very well.
  • Never look back, because the lure of corporate life is very strong.
  • Surround yourself with good people.
  • Learn the skills of managing a business and continually develop yourself.
  • You will never be able to be your own boss until you are able to discipline yourself.
  • Cash-flow management (or lack of it) sinks most businesses.
  • Lead a balanced life (if you don’t prioritise this you can get crazy).

Future plans for Duma Travel?

Our vision is to be in the top five companies by 2015 and in line with this vision we launched our incentives and events division (Duma ICE) 18 months ago and it’s already making waves in the industry. This year we will be launching Duma Sport, a division that will specialise in sports travel so we are very excited about our future as a company.