As a child I remember walking home one day and finding all our furniture in the street. Our family was removed from Maitland to Elsies River because of the Group Areas Act. We were moved to Cravenby, but after a while we couldn’t afford the rent … and you know what this means.
I attended Holy Trinity Primary School in Elsies River and then Livingstone High in Claremont.
I enrolled for an engineering degree but financial difficulties forced me to put my studies on hold. I joined Triamic to become a learner surveyor and studied towards the land surveyors course at the Peninsula Technikon.
After my studies were completed, I worked myself up in construction from land surveyor to quantity surveyor to commercial manager at the Basil Read head office, until I joined Odebrecht of Brazil on a US$32 million road contract in Mozambique in 1994. Perhaps I haven’t answered the question fully, but Mervyn Chavda is a humble workaholic who loves to entertain people.
What are the things that are most dear to you? Straightforwardness and honesty are important to me. Humility is also important, but a positive attitude is the most important. These values strengthen my outlook every day.
What was growing up in South Africa like?
It was extremely tough, even more so when you came from a home that at times did not have running water or electricity. You must remember this was still the era of apartheid. I had originally wanted to study agricultural engineering and there wasn’t a college that would accept me. To enroll at UCT I needed a permit because I was not a white South African!
You’re a successful entrepreneur. Tell us about the challenges you’ve faced in getting here?
Getting into business is not that easy. It is highly competitive and part of staying true to the cause means that you have to be really tough and you have to take the knocks. I have taken the knocks but I get up in the morning and face the world with renewed energy every day.
What would you say is your secret to success?
Hard work. And a positive attitude to life. I am a very optimistic person. I work an average of 15 to 17 hours a day. I get up at 5 am most mornings. I am not the kind of person who sits back and says the opportunities will come to me. I work hard at creating opportunities. I never switch off my phone. I could be in hospital, or it could be 2 am or 4 am and I will take your call. The most important person behind my success is my wife. She is wonderful and gives me the space to pursue my dreams, which often means she has to tolerate me being away from home, sometimes for many months on end. When I was pursuing the Angolan deal I spent a week a month away from home for 6 months.
What are the things you love most about this country?
I’ve traveled the world – India, Brazil, Australia, Angola, Mozambique, all over Europe – but I still love coming back to South Africa. I will never live anywhere else. South Africans are a special people; they have warm, open hearts. I also love the landscape – Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Cape Town, my home town. During my time in the construction industry, I worked in Umtata, Grahamstown, the Drakensberg (Olivierhoek Pass), Ficksburg, Sasolburg and a range of smaller towns in the Free State. I’ve even lived in Welkom. This has given me a deep understanding of South African culture, our languages and an appreciation for all South Africans. I speak English, Afrikaans, Gujarati and Portuguese.
What drives you?
Success. This is in whatever I do. Perhaps this has something to do with my parents. My father was a member of the ANC and he was committed to change and the struggle. I think that this spirit resides in me. I am applying his resilience and focus to the world of business.
What are some of the highlights of your business career?
One of the highlights would have to be the Chavda Empowerment Consortium, which I led. Had this come together we would have had a controlling stake in Basil Read. The upside of losing the deal was that I ended up with a 20% stake in a construction company and we are now building an 8,000-seater church in Soweto.
I have now doubled my premises. I am expanding the business. The new deal with Enditrade means that what I am doing will also benefit South African business. It is important to develop the skills base in the areas in which you trade – our company also employs Angolans and supports technical skills transfer in the countries in which we operate.
What would you say are things that really irritate you?
Negativity. Negative thoughts. Negative surroundings. Poor service and unprofessionalism.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Successful businesses don’t just happen; it’s all about hard work. Hard work is not only to earn money but provides for personal development and growth, which eventually leads us to greater development and growth for our country. So work at it. And good luck!
You speak Portuguese, how did this come about?
I went to work in Mozambique, but did not speak a single word of Portuguese. I had to learn, and fast as even some of my colleagues did not speak a word of English.
What are your plans for the future?
We would like to supply many more mines in the rest of Africa.
Your favourite musicians?
I love classical Indian music, and personally invited Ustad Wajahat Khan to the country for a weekend private concert at my home earlier this year. As a South African I also love African Jazz – Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Coetzee… and I know that this is not jazz but I really respect Johnny Clegg. He truly represents a level of musical and political integrity.
Your favourite politician?
Geraldine Fraser Moleketi. Even as a classmate at school she always stood up for what was right and I admire that in people.MRA