Billion Group was formed by South African property magnate Sisa Ngebulana in 1998 with the aspiration to create a property development firm, which would have a significant impact in terms of bringing socio-economic advancement to new areas in South Africa. Now in the year of its 18th birthday, it is clear that Billion Group has most certainly come of age. From early beginnings as a property development junior, the business has gradually evolved into a publicly traded firm with a substantial market share, following the birth of Rebosis in 2010. A year later, Rebosis (a subsidiary group of Billion) became the first majority black-owned property fund to be listed on the JSE, a landmark milestone for the company. ABN talks to Billion’s development director Dewald van Staden, who charts the rise of one of South Africa’s most influential property development firms.
Billion Group provides a number of property development services to several key sectors, including retail, commercial, residential and mixed-use projects, all of which are underpinned by a steadfast philosophy. Billion prides itself on undertaking projects with bold architecture in highly accessible locations, which are likely to have a transformative impact in the local area.
The company’s portfolio reflects a sustained focus on mixed-use retail projects located in new urban development nodes across several South African cities. Consequently, Billion’s current portfolio alludes to its astute approach to property development.
“We try not to do what everybody else does,” claims van Staden.
“We look at different sectors and are pioneers in some of the areas where we have managed recent property developments, from a geographical point of view.
“The bulk of our developments are in areas where we have been the catalyst for further development in that region. We look at market indicators and growth patterns for the various locations, and then come down into these areas and start off the development process.”
Therefore, Billion’s concentration on developing retail projects in new urban precincts represents a very calculated method of building markets and communities in tandem, with shopping malls acting as the very foundation of this growth.
This phenomenon can be observed in many of Billion’s completed mixed-use developments, including the Forest Hill City mall in Centurion, Pretoria West and the BT Ngebs City mall in Mthatha, Eastern Cape.
“BT Ngebs was the first blueprint of our strategy to bring retail to communities where it has never been before, and it has been very successful in this respect.”
The 60,000m² state-of-the-art regional shopping centre has offered a comprehensive retail experience to its visitors since it opened in mid-2015, with a diverse mix of popular tenants.
But crucially, the development has become the focal point of a thriving regional economy in Mthatha, through job creation and a subsequent rise in consumer activity, along with related infrastructural developments.
Based on the socio-economic development BT Ngebs has brought to Mthatha, Billion has followed up on this success with the construction of a hotel, which is set to open in the coming months, and has further scope for expansion with casino facilities.
However, Billion’s stand-out success story has been the development of Port Elizabeth’s 90,000m² Baywest Mall, which became the largest shopping centre in the Eastern Cape when it opened its doors in May 2015.
The super-regional mall is a sight to behold with its striking architectural design and comprehensive mix of 250 retail brand stores, restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities including a cinema with an IMAX screen and an ice rink.
Since its opening, Baywest Mall has consistently performed above expectations and has taken Billion’s catalyst development strategy to new heights by becoming the catalyst for something much bigger.
The mall has proved to be just the beginning of the Baywest development, with the landmark Baywest City set to follow it over the next 15 years. Dubbed ‘a city within a city’, Billion has taken sole responsibility for the development of the wide-reaching urban development node.
“We have identified Baywest as a growth point for Nelson Mandela Bay and as such, we are working very closely with the local government’s economic development department in order to ensure that we take responsible care of the development of the precinct.”
The development will, over 300 hectares of urban space, have 6,000 residential units, a number of commercial offices, industrial centres, parks, schools and other various public facilities, many of which are already under construction.
“We are in the process of securing a national hospital group for the precinct. The license has already been awarded so the next step will be the roll out of that, which is imminent,” explains van Staden.
“Then the rest of the growth surrounding the shopping mall involves government and commercial offices, restaurants and a major residential development that will be backed up by schools and other supportive institutions.”
To have the roots of a brand new urban development shoot up from the construction of a retail mall represents the purest attainment of Billion Group’s growth-inducing and society building strategy.
The company has always maintained that Baywest City represents much more than just a large-scale development project, but an opportunity to advance the lives of many through job creation and the construction of an inclusive, fully serviced and integrated community.
“The biggest thing that we want to try and establish in all of our precincts is job creation, and raising the standards of living for the people around us.
“We aim to create a model with mutual benefits between the community and the precinct, and a sustainable development, which is what we are doing at Baywest City.”
Sustainability has recently become a buzzword among South African construction companies, but for Billion Group sustainable development means much more than just environmentally friendly business practises.
Particularly throughout the Baywest City development, sustainability has been consistently defined along the lines of how the planned growth will positively impact the community within the precinct.
“We are very much focused on community and making sure that it is not a one-sided approach, the community is all part of the growth experience of the development.”
Consequently, Billion believes this community-minded approach to the project will allow Baywest City to eventually flourish into a contemporary urban centre that people will aspire to be a part of.
During the remainder of 2017, Billion Group aims to continue on the long path towards the grand unveiling of the Baywest City project, while also looking to develop sustainable growth opportunities around its existing precincts.
In particular, the firm will focus on completing a few residential developments around its precincts, in order to further reinforce its various nodes.
“The short to medium term goal is to strengthen our nodes to make sure that there is business outside the malls that can feed back in and vice-versa,” explains van Staden.
“We’ve got a very exciting pipeline there are plenty of opportunities floating around and it’s going to be a great two to three years for our development opportunities around our precincts.”
Billion’s winning strategy, whereby it creates a thriving retail centre in locations earmarked for future growth, has guaranteed the company further success, as more development opportunities arise in the area.