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Ever since he was a young boy growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda Dlamini has been obsessed with how things work, taking toys apart just to figure out how to put them back together again, then dismantling them again to try different repair configurations…
Fast forward to 2012 and Dlamini has channelled this childhood fascination into completing an Honours degree in Engineering and Environmental Geology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. But it was only after starting his first job out of university at Langa Geotechnical Services that Dlamini realised his true passion. “I knew nothing about geotechnical engineering until then, but I quickly fell in love with this field.”
Also known as geotechnics, geotechnical engineering is the science of predicting the Earth’s behaviour over time in order to ascertain where and how human developments should be built. “For me, it means ensuring people who build their homes have long-lasting houses, as we ensure the architectural designs are suitable for the land upon which it’s being built,” explains Dlamini.
The young engineering enthusiast went on to work for two more geotechnical companies, Roadlab Laboratories and MS Mabuya Civil Lab, gaining enough experience and confidence to eventually start his own geotechnical engineering consultancy, Royal P Holdings. “It didn’t take me long to realise that there was a huge demand for geotechnical consulting, especially as government has made it a pre-requisite for any new development. I also felt I’d gained enough knowledge to run my own consultancy, so I went for it.”
Dlamini did not rely on loans or family money to get Nelspruit-based Royal P off the ground, he used the savings he’d been stashing away during his first years of working to start his business. “I started buying equipment bit by bit, but my client base grew more rapidly than expected and I did not have the funds to buy all the equipment needed, so I had to outsource a lot of my work in the beginning,” he recalls.
Cash flow would continue to plague the self-starter through the early years of his business, and he attributes Royal P’s survival solely to three loyal staff, Khutso Makua, Innocent Mgiba and his wife, Nomcebo Tsela. “Some months there were no funds to pay them or myself, but they were as persistent and dedicated as I was so they worked without salaries and would only get paid as funds came in.”
This all changed after Dlamini applied for the SAB Foundation’s Tholoana programme, run by business incubator Fetola. “It was a game-changer,” he says. “It was the first time I was trained in all aspects of running a business, and from there I was able to access grants to buy more equipment and broaden the scope of our work. The one-one-one mentorship I received benefitted me tremendously in terms of how to make a passion-based business profitable.”
It was through this process that Dlamini figured out his unique selling point and leveraged it: “Our service is client tailored and our business model is not guided only by profits, which allows us to offer clients prices that do not cripple their project but also allows us to grow, albeit gradually. Above all, we value quality over quantity.”
Royal P has since expanded its niche services to offer land surveying, pest control and geo-hydrological consulting in addition to geotechnical engineering. The business has grown beyond Mpumalanga to reach Limpopo, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, and Dlamini now has aspirations to become the leading geotechnical consulting firm in South Africa
The company has also grown to employ 14 staff, most of whom fall into the “youth” category. “I’m a firm believer in empowering South Africa’s young people, especially in a specialised field like geotechnical services,” says Dlamini. He also strives for gender diversity in an industry that has historically been male-dominated. “Four of my permanent team members are female, and we have another two female junior graduate geologists under training.”
The Covid-19 pandemic hit Dlamnini’s business hard, as he was forced to shutdown for a few months and had to access loans to ensure staff and rental were paid. Ever the optimist, Dlamini says he’s learned a valuable lesson through this crisis: “In good times, save what you can so that you’re able to weather any storm that comes your way.”