Landing on their feet after starting from scratch in a new country

By Roz Wrottesley Time of article published Mar 18, 2019

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There are not many financial setbacks as stark as having to start all over again in your forties in a new country. 

In the first in our new monthly series, Financial Rescue by  Roz Wrottesley, Gary Pentland-Smith describes how he and his wife, Felicity, left their Zimbabwe farm for Cape Town 16 years ago - with two teenage children, all the cash they could scrape together, and the grit and determination to make good what they had lost.

“When the Zimbabwe government started taking the farms, it was time to move on and start again. Every Friday, the designated farms were listed in the Government Gazette. For the farmers, that meant collateral was taken away, overdraft facilities were cut, loans were withdrawn It was a disaster.

“I had grown up on a farm and farmed with my dad for 20-odd years when our property was gazetted in 2001. It was his land, but my business. Between us, my dad and I decided I should get out. He was older, so the chances of him finding employment anywhere else were next to nothing.

“Felicity and I decided we didn’t want to leave the continent, as lots of our friends were doing. We had our families in Zimbabwe, so we didn’t want to be miles away - we just needed to know we would be okay somewhere else. So we moved to Cape Town in 2003.

“After 20 years of working and investing in the farm, I arrived here at the age of 43 with about R280000, much of it from a last-minute sale of some bales of tobacco. Our children were aged 18 and 15. My son was accepted into Grade 10 at South African College Schools and started almost immediately. My daughter had finished school, so she took a year off before going to Rhodes University. My wife had owned a garage in Zimbabwe, so she had a good business head and found an accounting job straight away.

“I knew I had to make my own way; there was no way I was going to get into farming here. A close friend had moved down and started a guest house in Oranjezicht. He suggested I look at that business, so I stayed with him for a month, sleeping on a camp bed in his office, before the family arrived.

“It got me thinking: a guest house business is primarily an investment in a property until the bond is paid off, so I wouldn’t need to learn new skills. Of course, I didn’t have any money to invest, so I wrote a business plan, hoping my brother-in-law in Zimbabwe would come in with me, but the rand was weak at the time and he wanted to invest overseas.

“In the meantime, another friend asked me to look after his holiday home on the False Bay coast and find tenants for it. One day, he saw my business plan lying in my car, read it and liked it. Suddenly, I had two friends willing to invest in a business that I would run full-time.

“To cut a long story short, I found a house in Fresnaye, above Sea Point, that we could turn into a guest house with living quarters, on the ground floor. I did the conversion myself with lots of help, and we started out with eight rooms. Then we built on to expand it to 11 rooms, and that’s when we really started to do well. The costs didn’t go up much but the property became much more productive, and at last we could start saving.

“Fifteen years later, Felicity and I are still there, although we can afford to buy a house of our own. That’s a very key element of this whole thing: keeping costs down. It’s not ideal to live on the premises of your business but the idea is to be where we need to be financially, before we invest in our own home. I’ll be 59 soon, and my wife is 57. She has been working for the same family-owned business for 15 years and has worked damned hard to put money away.

“We borrowed money for the business and for one car, but never for holidays or a new fridge, or anything like that. We knew borrowing was a trap we didn’t want to get into, so we’ve kept our overheads as low as possible, which was very tough when the kids were both studying - nothing was being put away at that stage.

“I was very worried - the first five years were not nice at all but we knew we had to stick it out and make up our losses. At one time, I worked for 23 weeks without a day off. After the global financial meltdown in 2008, people weren’t travelling, so our eight rooms were only about 60% full.

“That’s when I got a second job: a friend and I started a business exporting food to Zimbabwe when it was in short supply. I would work Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the guest house, then our manager would take over and I’d fly to Johannesburg early on Monday, do all the grocery shopping, get it packed into pallets, do the paperwork and see put it on the trucks. On Thursday, I’d be back in Cape Town Work in the guest house over the weekend Fly back to Joburg on Monday and so on.

“Slowly but surely it got better. The guest house became extremely popular - I couldn’t travel like that now. And the kids got good qualifications and went their own ways.

“We had made one investment early on: a very small deposit on a flat, in a new development in Milnerton. It was going to be the start of our property portfolio. We knew the export business wouldn’t last, so we used the money we made to pay off the flat in five years. Then a couple of years ago, we sold it for a profit. We took that money, plus the money we no longer had to spend on our children, and asked our financial adviser to start an investment portfolio. That’s what we’re building on at the moment.

“We don’t have a place of our own now, but we have our share in the guest house and there are only about three-and-a-half years left on the bond. I have paid back every cent my partners put in, so now they just get a share of the profits, and they are delighted. And, of course, they can’t touch their investment in the property until it is sold - which suits them. They say: ‘Don’t give me the money! It’s my retirement!’

“We are paying our dues now, so that later we’re okay. What my wife and I have done right, I think, is to be very, very consistent. We’ve talked about a plan, we’ve made a plan and we’ve stuck to that plan. We might have changed it a little bit along the way, but we haven’t hopped from job to job.

“Our financial adviser says we can afford to live till we’re 100, but I’m not sure about that 90 maybe!”


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