At the beginning of this year, Monalisa Zwambila had no idea just how big a year 2014 would turn out to be.
This is not to say she doesn’t do her research. If anything, she is known for her dedication to research and her talent for seeing around corners. It’s just that this year’s achievements even she, with all her careful planning, couldn’t have prepared for.
Zwambila heads up The Riverbed Agency, a Johannesburg-based through-the-line agency, focusing on advertising and design, brand activation and events, and public relations. This is a business that she started seven years ago, and which in one year has just doubled in size. This after she acquired 70% of Chillibush, a 15-year-old communications company in August.
Practically overnight her team grew from 10-15 staff members to around 30, not only increasing the skills and capabilities, but doubling the size of the business as well. This immediately enabled the company to start pitching for accounts that before, were out of their reach because of their smaller size.
“Fear is the feeling of not knowing the outcome”
Group Managing Director of
The Riverbed Agency and
A bird in the Chillibush
There are two ways to grow the size of your business, Zwambila explains. You can either grow organically, which takes longer, or you can go the acquisition or merger route.
Chillibush originally approached Zwambila with a proposal for merger in early 2014. But this was not what Zwambila wanted. She was after an acquisition. This way, she explains, she would continue to have control of both businesses almost immediately. She also believed that would also help to consolidate the two businesses and help to maintain a clear vision.
Challenges and opportunities
A bold business move like an acquisition does not come without its challenges. The most urgent of which was client retention. The company had to make sure that they would not lose any clients because of the new leadership. This is because “clients buy into people” she explains. This was overcome by assuring clients that their business was understood and that they were in good hands.
The second challenge was making sure that the (now much bigger) team didn’t feel left behind. “I had to get them to buy into me, I had to assure them that we had their best interests at heart and that change would be good in the long run”.
“If you are always comfortable you are not growing, growth can only benefit everyone,” she adds.
Taking risk in her stride
Zwambila says she went into the acquisition process with eyes wide open: “I was aware of the risks, but we focused more on the opportunities it would present.”
It has helped that the Zimbabwean born Zwambila who is in her late 40’s is a veteran entrepreneur (Riverbed is her third business venture), but also a strategist, having provided strategic counsel to large corporates and parastatals, driving all strategic deployment in the business.
“I was very clear on what not to do,” she says, adding that she’s a fearless type of person. “Fear is the feeling of not knowing the outcome.”
While many may fear change, Zwambila has embraced it and believes other SMEs should be similarly excited as they “can adapt to change quicker”. The bigger companies often have to contend with “bigger overheads and people, they may see the changes but they take longer to adapt” she adds.
Big, bigger, great
The goal, she says, is to be one of the top 10 agencies in the country, which in South Africa, means that the agency would have to bring it at least R300 million per annum. The businesses currently bring in R100 million revenue per annum combined.
Zwambila, however, says she is was never after big for big’s sake.
“The vision was not how big, but to provide great ideas and service,” she says. “Growth came as a result.”
She brushes off concerns that the bigger the agency gets, she would lose some of the agility of a small business.
“Sluggishness is a mindset and how you structure the business,” she says. “The question is, do I want to be a big agency? Yes, I do. But I want to ensure the mindset of a David not a Goliath” she says.