In the first week of January 2021, my team arrived at our training school in Johannesburg to heavy duty chains on our doors locking us out. Firstly, it is illegal for a commercial landlord to chain a tenant out of their space without 20 days written notice.
Alongside too many small businesses, social enterprises, non-profits, we fought with every last reserve we had in 2020 to survive. My business partner and our team clung so desperately to the bones of this organisation we have given all of ourselves to build that we still have the remnants of 2020 stuck under our fingernails.
Our biggest suppliers by far are our landlords.
The more I read about all the different guidelines from opinion pieces from law firms to articles on government websites to the Department of Trade and Industries various gazettes, the more I realized that I cannot be silent, take the pain, internalize the abuse and move on. I have to fight. The advice I read and conversations I had seeking more opinion were similar and spoke about:
Being proactive in communicating with the landlord regarding your particular challenges that prevent you from operating, your affordability and your thoughts on how you could financially contribute over the period. We started sending emails to landlords the week lockdown was announced. We knew many were themselves overwhelmed and trying to fathom how to approach things but we wanted to send our thoughts, show our openness to communicate and try to solve this unfathomable time together. Most thankfully were receptive and continue to engage with us on a recovery plan.
To the one we’re navigating a nightmare with, we sent emails, requested time to convene over virtual calls and received no response. For context, we lease from a number of landlords including the biggest funds in the country, all of whom had responded to us, taken the time to host the beginning of a discussion on what we could work out and were clearly focused on how to work with us tenants to survive this period. This landlord, the smallest of the lot, hadn’t even responded to an email.
This landlord has a history of incapacity to deliver on the very simplest of requests: like sending an invoice monthly or sending a utility bill/reading on time. The duplicity of the landlord is now, looking back on their operations, impressive. They have a slick, smooth-talking sales person that manipulates you into thinking that if you “forgive” the small oversights, the mistakes, the lack of service delivery, the lack of follow through for the sake of building a trust relationship, the landlord will in turn show the same generosity. Laughable really that we were that gullible. But when you no longer have the stomach for their mistakes and you grow tired of their excuses and look at how to hold them accountable – they whip the friendly sales person out of the room and replace them with lawyers who will not reason and who begin the slow, consistent chipping away of your confidence and your sanity.
It’s disgustingly pitiful how little protection there is for small business and non-profits particularly regarding commercial leases. It’s astonishing how there is really nothing that holds commercial landlords accountable to being reasonable. It’s no wonder this landlord runs such a dismal operation and feels so entitled to hit below the belt. Some of their behaviour is just illegal. But then, they have nothing to fear because which small business is going to spend millions trying to get courts to hold them accountable?
Here’s a timeline of events that lead up to us basically saying “ENOUGH” and what happened thereafter:
Since we occupied space with this landlord, we did not receive accurate, consistent invoicing. We took occupation in August 2018 and from day 1 there was just a complete haze of confusion when it came to issuing us accurate, regular billing.
By May 2019 we were beside ourselves trying to get this right that we paid for our own bookkeeper to go into the landlord's office, sit with the landlord's accounts team and sift through every transaction manually. Back then, it was already flagged that the landlord’s records were in a complete shambles, no one at the landlord knew what was going on, payments we made to the landlord weren’t even correctly allocated to our account. We knew things weren’t run very well but after paying our own resources to go and spend time trying to get to the bottom of what was not working we only then realized the extent of the nightmare and we were panicked.
Around this time, the landlord hired a head of accounts (how a landlord that owns over 40 buildings thought it was okay to not have a head of accounts is something I still can’t get my head around). The new head reached out to try and get things back on track. We had a productive meeting where it seemed someone was finally getting to grips with the numbers and we agreed a payment plan that addressed the months that weren’t billed and/or that we did not agree on the amount to be billed.
We stuck to that payment plan religiously and sent proof of payments according to the agreement however, that didn’t stop the landlord from harassing us claiming we weren’t sticking to the plan.
4 months later, in September, the head of accounts resigns suddenly. The entire encounter again, just bizarre because the day he resigned he texted me in the morning to confirm that we had a meeting to touch base scheduled at 12 that day. A few hours later he texted to say he can no longer take the meeting because he has resigned.
We feared yet again without a head of accounts we would be back to square 1. Disorganisaton, chaos, confusion and when nothing can be resolved: aggression and intimidation.
Shortly after the head of accounts resigned, a political party spearheaded protests around a labour dispute the landlord was in with their cleaning staff. The riot forced people out of their premises, burnt premises and prevented people from accessing their premises. After this calmed down, the landlord sent their friendly salesperson around to do the PR talk and make tenants feel like they would be issued credit notes for that period. The tenants, who grew impatient waiting for this to translate into action collectively appealed to the landlord to follow through on this commitment. To this day, we are waiting for those credit notes.
In November 2019, my business partner hounded the landlord to get a meeting with its CFO. None of the measures we had agreed around accurate, consistent billing were being done and we feared finding ourselves in yet another payment dispute. The sparse statements they would send contradicted our own accountants numbers and we decided we needed to escalate the issue.
At that meeting, the CFO promised us they would compile a proper recon and deliver it to us so that we can get a handle on the numbers.
We received that recon in November 2020, 12 months after we made the request (and followed that request up with over 50 emails). Early into 2020, COVID hit.