Phenomenal Woman: Owner of a Shell fuel station – Nontobeko Mkhize

Have you ever passed a very busy filling station and wondered how that business works? It’s often full, but is it safe? How can it make more money than others if fuel all costs the same? DOES fuel at all stations cost the same?

Enter Nontobeko Mkhize, an Umlazi- born, bred and educated single mother of two. She started working more than 28 years ago, and her first job was as a secretary at Unilever’s marketing department. She later studied through Unisa and graduated with a BCompt, majoring in accounting and auditing, and did a further post-grad advanced diploma in tax. She also had a short stint as a secretary at Umlazi’s Mangosuthu Technikon (now Mangosuthu University of Technology). She then moved to Johannesburg, and joined Shell as an area manager visiting and advising retailers on business performance. That was when she developed her dream of one day being one!

I asked her about what it was like taking a career in fuel, and what she thinks is the best advice for upcoming entrepreneurs in fuel space.

What does your current job andcareer entail?

A few years into my area manager role at Shell, I then realised that I could run my own filling station. Seven years ago I took the plunge and left my job to start my life as an owner of a Shell filling station. I am running this filling station full time, according to Shell compliance and safety rules. This business is certainly not for the faint hearted – I have to be Finance, HR, Wellness, Enquiries and Customer Service focal point all in one.  I have staff and delegate, but even delegated tasks have to be supervised as any mistake, omission or action will bear consequences on YOU.  The most critical and delicate asset in any business is cash, so its flow must be meticulously managed to avoid disruptions in the business cycle flow.

What made you choose this particular career?

The seed germinated to go on my own as I imagine, many do, whilst working in the same field.  I then consulted my work and environment at Shell from an angle of understanding best practices on operational issues that impact a business like this one and started writing a business plan, bit by bit. 

What are some of the great things about it?

I like the feeling of looking forward to being at the business, as each day presents an opportunity for improving on the previous day’s performance.  My staff give a lot of input on our weekly goals and I help them stay on course to achieve those. They enjoy the small incentives on offer for meeting these goals too. Retail is detail and making it a routine to go into detail pays off. I JUST LOVE WHAT I DO!

What are the challenges? 

I believe that each business has its challenges, some more than others. In our case it is a safe trading environment as we are a 24-hour operation and every customer must feel that they are being treated like a guest. We work with a delicate product – fuel – and training is done every morning for 10 minutes before starting the shift. Staff, being human, are in different spaces on a given day and we always pull our energies to keep the focus on the customer.  Technology is a big challenge as we cannot work if the computer system that communicates with pumps is down (which hardly happens), and if the banks are offline and a customer has a full tank in a Range Rover and only has a card on themselves to settle the bill, it needs to be resolved swiftly, which we do manage to do. 

What advice and lessons can you give others on what they can do to reach the top?

  • Give yourself the benefit of being better than the day before – it’s simply taking small steps to arrive at a “grand destination”.
  • Do it in your time and not on anyone else’s timeline. 
  • When entertaining the idea of having a business, note that you will feel lonely at times. Your staff cannot be friends with you, it blurs the lines.
  • Always have another like-minded person around to bounce off your frustrations and ideas.
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