From car washer to workshop owner – a lesson in perseverance


Meet Thembi Sithole (50), whose inspirational journey is a lesson in why it pays to persevere

Sithole’s story started 13 years ago when she began washing cars for her then boss Gavin Masters at his panel beating workshop. She quickly ascended to receptionist and even helping out with quotations.

“He received many compliments from clients about the lady who answered the phone and her beautiful voice,” she says. “That’s how I landed the receptionist job. I seized every opportunity to learn new skills and was soon doing quotations and estimations.”

Years later, after leaving the business, their paths crossed again when Masters approached Sithole with an offer she couldn’t refuse – a 50-50 partnership in a new panel beating business.

And that’s how G&T Auto was born.

With no start-up capital to speak of, she took out a personal loan to raise the capital required for a deposit on the premises that they’d agreed to lease for three years.

But in 2010, barely two weeks after opening the shop, Masters’ main business went into liquidation, Sithole’s backer “disappeared” on her and she was suddenly facing a major crisis.

“The problem was that we were locked into a R30 000 a month lease agreement that we were obligated to pay whether we were up and running or not,” she says. “We had also leased most of the large equipment and had these fixed costs to pay.”

With no permanent job, she was unable to secure a bank loan, and was forced to max out all her credit cards and cash in her provident fund.

It was enough to keep the business afloat, but not enough to purchase the expensive equipment needed to be graded by the SA Motor Body Repairers Association (SAMBRA), meaning that for two years no insurer would give them business. But they kept pushing on.

She got her big break from an insurance company in 2012 when her workshop was able to repair two cars that two other panel beaters in the Randburg area had written off.

“The big turning point for us was when we started getting work from an insurer that was impressed with our work,” she says. “They started sending more business our way and by the end of the year we were able to buy the equipment we needed to get the SAMBRA grading.”

By the end of that year, they had broken even. Today she employs 15 people and the business has an annual turnover of R6,5 million.

G&T Auto is also a fully accredited major structural repairer, which means it’s authorised to fix serious damage to vehicles, like chassis damage, something that distinguishes the business from most other panel beaters.

Sithole says her greatest accomplishment thus far is securing accreditation from Mazda to become one of its authorised workshops to fix vehicles that are still under warranty.

“It shows that Mazda believes in the quality of work we do and reaffirms that we know what we’re doing,” she says.

Before joining Sanlam’s Enterprise and Supplier Development programme last year, Sithole says she was working in her business and not on her business – a common mistake many entrepreneurs unwittingly make that is often detrimental to the growth potential of small businesses.

“Sometimes it’s the little things that can actually take a business to the next level. I think we as business owners, especially in this industry, lose a lot by not delegating some tasks because we think the only way of doing things is by being hands-on.”

If her entrepreneurial journey has taught her anything, it’s the importance of remaining resilient and persistent in the face of challenges.

“You need to focus, do it and don’t look back,” she says. “No matter what happens, you need to be prepared to move mountains for your dream, no matter how insurmountable they might seem.”

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