Govender, 48, started his practice in the basement of his father’s house in Effingham Heights in the mid-1990s and has grown it into an operation with offices in Umhlanga, Pretoria and Cape Town, serving clients ranging from private homeowners to major commercial property developers.
“I grew up in the centre of town in the same flats as Pravin Gordhan. My father was an entrepreneur and used to run a very successful family owned store in the middle of town in Prince Edward Street called Bargain Centre Supermarket. We were there for almost 60 years,” he said.
Govender worked in the shop serving customers when he was just 6 years old.
“In those days everything wasn’t pre-packed and if a person came and bought a kilogram of dhal, you had to dish it up and it had to be packed. You started up as a ‘disher’ and then worked your way up to a cashier. I put stuff into a wheelbarrow and transported it to the market for clients,” Govender said.
He said he was inspired to become an architect after attending a festival at the University of the Witwatersrand where he became interested in the possibility of designing large buildings, which he realised were not just the forte of engineers.
“In the late 1980s when I started architecture, you could literally count the number of black architects on one hand, that’s how few there were.
“We had a lot of draughtsmen and architectural technologists that drew house plans and we knew that market but it wasn’t what we wanted to do,” Govender said.
He graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with a BA in architecture in 1993 and landed his first job with GM Khan and Associates.
But it wasn’t long before he started taking on additional jobs in his spare time, first for his father, and then odd jobs like designing boundary walls and granny flats for residents of Effingham Heights.
“Like any entrepreneur and architect, I started working in the basement of my dad’s home under the staircase, just myself drawing plans, weekends, late nights, seven days a week,” Govender said.
He eventually joined a start-up firm, Architects for Africa, which was one of the first black-owned architectural companies.
“I joined with another colleague and we started working out in the townships all over KwaZulu-Natal for the Independent Development Corporation. They used to build schools and that’s how we got a lot of our work assignments in those days,” Govender said.
His big break came when he responded to a newspaper advert posted by Richard Gaylord, the developer of the Medieval-inspired Camelot Estate in Hillcrest.
“Camelot had placed an advert for young architects with bright ideas to design small town houses, so I went to see him,” he said.
“All those years ago he ended up becoming not only a client but an excellent mentor when BEE wasn’t a buzzword.
“I completed the last four villages and the feasting hall in Camelot Estate because the previous architect had passed away. It was a 360° turn for me from modern era architecture to design Tudor houses,” Govender said.
“That first experience in the developmental world has stood my practice in good stead to give value-added services to developers who are the crux of my business,” he said.
As the Camelot project grew, an opportunity arose for a part time lecturing post at ML Sultan Technikon (now Durban University of Technology).
Govender quit his day job at Architects for Africa in 1996 and focused on lecturing while establishing PGA Architects.
He expanded his home in Effingham Heights and ran the business from there before moving it to an old house in Blackburn Road in Durban North.
“We grew from a single practitioner practice to one employee and then two employees. We subdivided and extended the balance of it and in 2008, we outgrew it completely. We had too many staff and a lot of work had come in,” Govender said.
He purchased land in Umhlanga Ridge town centre and developed his own office block, PGA Park, from where he runs his practice with 23 staff.
The company also has offices in Pretoria which opened in 2009 and in Cape Town where he expanded the business two years ago.
His wife, Anusha, who holds a BSC Pharm from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an MBA, quit her high-profile job as an industrial pharmacist with Colgate Palmolive to take up the role of chief financial officer in the business in 2008.
PGA Architects has designed many high-profile buildings in Durban including the flagship Grand Floridian on Umhlanga Rocks Drive, Coastlands Hotel, One on Herrwood and Millenium Towers in Umhlanga.
Govender has collaborated closely with some of Durban’s foremost developers including Africa Rising and Misty Blue, and also designs private homes and offices for clients in Gauteng and the Western Cape.
He is now working on projects designing a new art gallery and a dance studio for the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“One percent of the work is the most important thing in an architect’s office - its that initial conceptual design that I do that sends us the work. You have got to be able to think out of the box because every situation is completely different. If you can’t sort problems out then this is not the profession for you. People pay a lot of money to sort their problems out,” Govender said.
Asked for his secret to success, Govender said: “People always say I smile at everything. I am very calm. In our industry on a Friday afternoon when something goes wrong and the wheels are crumbling you just have to remain calm, put a smile on your face, roll up your sleeves and keep moving forward. There is nothing else to do,” Govender said.
He said he had also appreciated the support of his developer clients who had led to him expanding to Gauteng and the Western Cape and other local businessmen such as Santha Naidoo, who had helped him by giving the bank a good reference when his business needed a loan.
And of course, the strong values of “service, service, service” and “an attitude to get things done” has provided a firm foundation.
“We are a service-orientated industry - you have got to know your stuff, undoubtedly, but the service orientation I grew up with working for my dad in the shop at an early age is a characteristic that has kept me in good stead with all my clients through many years,” Govender said.
PGA Architects is an ISO9000 and Green Building Council of SA accredited firm and a member of the South African Council of Professional Architects (SACAP), the South African Institute of Architects and the South African Institute for Interior Designers.