Theo Baloyi, founder of Bathu Shoes.
Theo Baloyi, founder of Bathu Shoes.

At a time when the SA economy is shedding jobs, Bathu, a local sneaker brand, has bought office and storage space and expects to have 100 employees on its payroll by June. That is more than double the 48 permanent staff it currently employs.

The man in charge, Theo Baloyi, 30, is a former accountant in a plaid suit and chameleon sneakers (they change colour according to their exposure to natural light). It is easy to label him as another street-smart, fashion-forward, fun-loving guy. He is all those things but also much more.

He built his sneaker business from his uncle’s back room in the township of Alexandra. Baloyi lived with his uncle, Katlego Maubane, while studying for a BCom accounting degree. "My dad had to sell his car in order for me to study," says Baloyi. Even though his father was able to raise the funds for tuition fees, a room in Johannesburg was too expensive. "So, I squatted with my uncle."

Guided by the principle of doing whatever it takes to succeed, Baloyi and his best friend Andrew Lale approached a local street vendor, in the hope of helping him sell merchandise. "We sold knock-off perfumes," he says. "A lot of our clientele liked to dress well and smell good, but they couldn’t afford the real thing."

Their door-to-door business model turned out to be a winning formula. The business was so prosperous, the young men would make well over R1,200 a day, each. "We were making real money, but we were young so the business didn’t grow from there," he says, laughing off their lack of foresight.

After graduating and landing a job with PwC, he moved to Dubai. The cushy job meant he could care for his family after his father died.

But the entrepreneurial bug never left him. "My seniors at PwC were supportive of me having a side hustle," he says.

So Bathu was born. Baloyi’s vision was simple: a sneaker company with unique and innovative design, produced in SA, that would eventually compete with the global giants.

Bathu sneakers are made using a breathable mesh, which is an original concept of Baloyi’s. Mesh is normally a component of sneakers, but in Baloyi’s product it is the main material.

He found a factory in Durban that would make the sneaker, but his design first needed their approval. It took him 18 months to research and develop his prototype. Only on his 21st try was the sneaker ready. The factory took a loss on the first batch it produced because Baloyi could only afford to have 100 pairs made.

"In order for it to be worthwhile for them to switch on their machines, the minimum order quantity had to be about 1,200 pairs." Baloyi began selling them from Maubane’s back room and from the boot of his car.

Lale, with Maubane, kept the business going when he returned to Dubai. "They helped me deliver and Andrew conducted media interviews on my behalf, but I was always hands-on."

But after five years at PwC — three in Dubai — Baloyi quit his job and invested his savings into building his dream to become an entrepreneur making a real impact in his community.

The risk paid off. Baloyi now sells his sneakers online and from five Bathu-branded retail stores, where he also employs 20 casual workers. The stores are in Bloemfontein, Thohoyandou, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Newtown in Johannesburg. The sneakers sell for between R800 and R2,100.

In 2019, the brand entered into an agreement with Opel and it will soon announce a partnership with Sprite.

Baloyi attributes the company’s success to his ability to delegate and care for his employees. "You must have the right people in the positions they enjoy."

His personal vision is to see the growth of wealth in black communities. "The corporate space exposed me to wealth building and my vision is to build that wealth."

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