Master Investor: Deon van Zyl A Servant Of The Industry He Loves. 

Master Investor: Deon van Zyl A Servant Of The Industry He Loves. 

A construction industry hemorrhaging jobs. A property development industry losing skills to other sectors and regions. Someone needs to say something. Enter Deon van Zyl, the chairperson of the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF), who recently called on local and regional governments in the Western Cape to shake a leg. 

The 48-year-old businessman and the main man on our cover this month, Van Zyl is an unassuming businessman keen to get on with his job and to support the property development industry.  

Chairperson of the WCPDF, Van Zyl cut his teeth in the redevelopment of brownfields land with exposure to land remediation and recently became the CEO of AL&A, a Development and Project Management Company based in Cape Town. AL&A is involved in development consulting and project management, as well as construction project management. With Alwyn Laubscher, the founder of the business, now moving more into a consultancy role, he’ll be ‘stepping into his very large shoes,’ says Van Zyl of his new challenge. 

He describes himself as a ‘multi-skilled generalist’. Handy for a private businessman and public head of an industry lobby group.  

‘Our industry should reflect the needs and profile of the market we serve.  I would like to contribute, albeit in a small way, to making our industry reflective and serving of the community we live in,’ he says. When asked on the opportunities available to South African property investors he says the answer is simple: ‘Property development is the proverbial bellwether industry reflecting the true state of the economy and confidence levels.  The opportunity is about strengthening the role of the property development and construction sectors – and all the other professions that are involved in it – towards becoming a serious force not only in the development of private and public infrastructure, but in becoming one of the most significant sectors contributing to employment in South Africa and beyond.   

‘I believe we are not giving the construction industry its due credit for getting money to some of the poorest community groups that sell their labor.  Whilst this industry is suffering now, scarce skills will be rewarded in due course.’. 

The WCPDF recently raised the major issue of slow turnarounds in Government procurement of professional and construction services on the one hand, and decision making on development rights on the other, with the two together severely impacting investment in the Western Cape. 

An increasing slowdown in approval processes by local and provincial governments is costing the Western Cape thousands of jobs and will lead to the loss of scarce skills, according to WCPDF.  

The situation is deemed to be so critical that the WCPDF is in talks with provincial economic development agency Wesgro to facilitate a process between its members and government, and the Forum has also made the current situation the theme of its upcoming annual conference in May.  

‘This is not a finger-pointing exercise. It is our very serious attempt to highlight the impact that government processes have on the economy. We wish to bring the public and private sector together to discuss the state of not only the property and construction industries in the Western Cape and the challenges they face, but the significant role they have and will hopefully continue to play in the economic development of this province and indeed the country,’ says Van Zyl. 

Deon van Zyl grew up in the home of a civil servant with a background in law and social work.  His father was responsible for multiple public projects in his career, ranging from housing developments to education and health.  ‘He was effectively a property developer in Government,’ says Van Zyl. 

‘I initially thought that architecture would be a good point of entry into a similar career but soon realised that I needed to understand scale and have a multi-disciplinary understanding.  City planning and urban design taught me scale, but the hard slog of project management taught me the value and purpose of a multi-disciplinary approach to development.  I am very thankful for the training process,’ he says. 

His first property investment saw him use his entire overdraft to buy an erf in Montagu on spec. ‘I made 300% in nine months! My decision was made on the basis that you could not produce the property at the price it was on offer for and, at the same time, the town was a productive town. For example, the fruit farmers in the area were doing extremely well.   

He says the lesson he learnt was to invest in productive areas, and to stay away from nice-to-have investments.  

His gap into real estate development came around 18 years ago when his boss at the time returned to England and the corporate decided at that point not to replace him but to allow Van Zyl, at the tender age of 30, to run multi-million Rand projects with an experienced team of external consultants.  ‘This allowed me to learn on the job in a way that no formal training could ever do.’ 

 However, looking back on a career of achievements, Van Zyl says it is difficult to choose any single event as his biggest achievement.  

‘Every development that hits the ground is a miracle.  The probability of passing through the quagmire of statuary constraints and financial hurdles make it a miracle when you get to put a spade in the ground.  Every project, whether public or private, that I have worked on and which has broken ground is a highlight and worthy of a ‘biggest achievement’ award.’ 

Currently, Van Zyl’s vision for AL&A is honesty and loyalty to clients who take the real risk. According to Van Zyl: We have several projects in the company ranging from smaller commercial and residential projects all the way to a new harbour city. 

On investing in the SA property market: 

  • I believe that affordable and mid-market residential in well-located areas are a sure winner.  I don’t like fads.  I believe that there is value in property segments that serve the people who work and live in urban environments. 
  • In my personal experience, my best returns have been in small Boland towns where timing on buying and selling was perfect.  Its all about seeing potential and getting the timing right. 
  • You cannot say you know this industry if you have not lost some money in it and seen the pitfalls.  Many projects, on which you may spend years, do not necessarily happen.  I invested five years in such a project and have nothing to show except scars and experience. 
  • My best investments stem from making logical, not opportunistic, investments. 
  • The biggest lesson is that it’s all about torque not speed.  You have got to be willing to stick it out for the long run.  If you are going to cut your losses, do it quickly.

On the WCPDF 

Going forward Van Zyl says he’d like to ‘leave the place a bit better than I found it. This would be mainly through his work at the WCPDF – an organization on which many related property and construction industries have representation. We all do what we do for the Forum on a voluntary basis and we do it to ensure, on the one hand, that the industry speaks with one voice in governmental and regulatory environments and, on the other, we want to change the perception of the industry and grow it into a well-respected sector recognized by all for its important contribution to the economy.  

Van Zyl says he also wants to change public perception of the industry. Many feel that developers in particular are a necessary evil without realising, as the Forum’s treasurer Rod MacPhail, himself a developer, recently noted: If you live in a house of any kind, of bricks and mortar, you have a developer to thank for it.’  He also says that related industries are not only the backbone of development in the private sector, but 80% of all our resources are involved in the construction of public infrastructure. 

 

THE WESTERN CAPE PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT FORUM 

Improving the property development environment 

The Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF) was founded in 2008 to create awareness and address the challenges that impede the property development industry, and to be the collective voice of the industry in the Western Cape.  It focuses on the production line of property 

To do this, it actively engages and lobbies politicians and government representatives and provide detailed input and feedback on draft legislation and policy to make the public sector aware of the ramifications that decision-making processes and service delivery has on property development and, in term, the economy and most importantly jobs.  

While the industry is also impacted by national legislation, the most critical development issues tend to occur at ground level, and therefore the Forum’s emphasis is regional.  Property is produced at municipal level. 

The awareness it strives to create can only be achieved through ongoing networking and lobbying, and the Forum has therefore actively sought membership from the broadest spectrum of representative bodies from various professions that rely on the industry so that it may be able to speak with one voice. As a result, the Forum is very proud to have a number of industry organisations represented on its management committee, including the following: 

  • Association of Construction Project Managers (ACPM) 
  • Association of South African Quantity Surveyors (ASAQS) 
  • Cape Institute of Architects (CIA) 
  • Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) 
  • Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) 
  • South African Association of Consulting Professional Planners (SAACPP) 
  • South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) 
  • Youth in Property Association (YIPA)

The Forum is also linked to the Stellenbosch School of Public Leadership and its Stellenbosch Good Governance Forum, and also works closely with the Property Committee of the Cape Law Society.  

Its association with YIPA and in turn its association with the UCT 100UP programme enables it to also drive transformation in the industry. Since early in 2018, it has been driving biannual intern programmes with high school learners who may be encouraged to consider a career in one or other of the sectors in the industry, and the Forum is currently investigating a bursary programme for post graduate students.  

The Forum’s focus areas are therefore: 

  • To be a representative body for the property development industry in the Western Cape that is recognised by relevant authorities, particularly in terms of the vital role it plays to the province’s economy through investment and job creation 
  • To promote the interests of the property development industry  
  • To interpret and facilitate understanding between the authorities and the property development industry 
  • To inform its membership of changes in legislation and policies 
  • To co-operate with the various property-related professions in making the greater Western Cape sensitive to the need for property development  
  • To actively engage in the education of the industry. 
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