After 13 years working for some of the biggest names in the South African property sector, none of the trappings of success has gone to Vuso Majija’s head. Sitting across the table in the plush new offices of Fortress REIT Ltd., the diversified listed property group, he still embodies the humility that was instilled in him during his rural Eastern Cape upbringing.
Made in Mthatha
Born in Mthatha, where he completed his early primary school education, Majija moved to the Western Cape to stay with his aunt in Cape Town from Standard 2 (Grade 4). Coming from a family of teachers, he was inculcated with the importance of education from a young age. He soon settled into life in the Mother City where he was enrolled at Rosemead and then Battswood Primary schools before moving on to Wynberg Boys High. Inspired by a mini-building boom he witnessed in Mthatha in the early to mid-1980s his initial aim was to study architecture upon completing high school.
“It was probably around 1987 when several new developments went up in Mthatha, which for the first time provided houses that young professionals like nurses and teachers could afford,” he says. “That really sparked my interest in building as I witnessed first-hand the sense of optimism and urban renewal that it could engender. At first I thought I’d be an architect but the fact that drawing was not my strength made me consider other options.”
Majija eventually decided on Civil Engineering and enrolled at Cape Technikon, now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. After completing the compulsory two years of theoretical study he joined Africon International, a civil engineering consulting firm, to do his third year in-service training in 2001. Placed in the roads department, he gained a thorough grounding in the development of thoroughfares to and from new retail centres and other developments.
“Quite a few of the projects involved the construction of roads for shopping centres, where I found myself exposed to the property ownership side,” says Majija. “As a civil engineer you are told what to do and you execute. I really wanted to be on the side driving the development.”
As fate would have it a good friend informed him about a new degree being introduced at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a Bachelor of Science in Property Studies. After completing his in-service training at Africon he quickly enrolled at UCT the following year and found himself thoroughly absorbed in the new Property Studies degree, which covered everything from economics to town planning and even a bit of quantity surveying. In 2005, during the fourth and final year of his degree, he met his future wife, Vuyokazi who also hailed from a family of Eastern Cape teachers.
After graduating Majija moved to Johannesburg and was initially employed as a property manager focusing on managing industrial properties and smaller shopping centres in decentralised nodes. Majija quickly progressed to junior asset manager, and cites this period as critical to his development as a property professional.
“I worked under Andrew Texeira who really took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the industry,” he says. “It was an excellent grounding in property management.”
After a stint of working as a centre manager, Majija soon progressed to a full asset manager working on the entire Fortress retail portfolio, something that put him in direct contact with an extremely diverse range of retail tenants.
“Working closely with tenants really allows you to get a thorough understanding of your tenants’ trading environment and how they view the market,” says Majija. “The great thing about retail is that it’s forever changing, which really allows you to learn a lot about trading conditions and the general health of the economy. When you’re engaging with tenants every day you really feel like you have your finger on the pulse of the economy.”
Yet despite his love of retail he concedes that South Africa is oversupplied with large regional shopping centres, particularly given the bleak economic climate at present. The ill health of the domestic economy was confirmed when Statistics South Africa revealed that real gross domestic product shrank by 2.2% in the first quarter of 2018, the biggest quarter-on-quarter decline in nine years and far worse than anticipated.
“We’re still emerging from an economic headwind and that’s complicated by the fact that South Africa has probably built an excess number of retail centres,” he says. “There probably isn’t much room in the current economic climate for more large malls like Sandton City or Century City but there are still opportunities for smaller centres here and there.”
Majija says the big focus in retail property right now is lifestyle and convenience. Consumers increasingly want retail experiences that offer more than just the opportunity to shop. Nevertheless, he sees the rapidly developing township market, which is seeing more malls being opened, as a definite growth opportunity. Online shopping is another area that is likely to expand but Majija cautions that the growth trajectory of the digital retail segment will be slower in South Africa than elsewhere due to logistical challenges and unique spatial challenges of South African cities, a legacy of our divided past.
Plans to steamline
Having obtained his MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science in 2016 Majija was appointed as a retail executive last year. In his newfound role he has big plans for the Fortress retail portfolio, which currently comprises 66 properties of varying sizes and quality. He aims to streamline that to about 50 properties that are as similar as possible to the fund’s two flagship centres, the 34,000m² Weskus Mall and the 36,000m² Evaton Mall.