PROFILE: How Andrew Robinson makes WeWork work

The flexi-office giant’s entry was scuppered by Covid but now it’s expanding in South Africa

Andrew Robinson at the WeWork offices in Rosebank

Andrew Robinson tried to persuade WeWork to bring its co-working business model to South Africa in 2017. At the time, he had just founded pan-African real estate strategy and investment firm SiSebenza.

He got an audience in London with the flexi-office space provider. The company was not interested.

Two years later, when WeWork changed its mind, SiSebenza facilitated a deal with Redefine Properties, which owns The Link in Rosebank and 155 West Street in Sandton in which WeWork opened its first two premises in 2019 and 2020. A month later it opened at 80 Strand Street, Cape Town.

WeWork, which listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2021, began its pay-as-you-go concept in the US in 2010. It grew in major global capitals and became the go-to for techies and start-ups who no doubt identified with its community-centred collaboration culture and trendy designer spaces.

In South Africa it built a following among one-man bands, SMEs and even Naspers and Standard Bank. Within eight weeks of opening in Rosebank, WeWork’s office space, spanning 12,500m² over six floors, was 98% let. Occupancies in Sandton (11,000m²) and Cape Town (4,500m²) were heading in the same direction.

Barely two months later, in March 2020, Covid hit. It all but destroyed WeWork’s local growth plans. 

Three years on, SiSebenza has again entered the WeWork picture — this time as the company’s local franchise partner. The deal gives SiSebenza the right to operate WeWork’s locations in South Africa and expand to the rest of Africa. “Our WeWork story has effectively come full circle,” says Robinson.

He believes the renewed push into Africa is well timed on the back of shifts in how and where people work.

“WeWork allows companies that have adopted hybrid working policies to save enormously on rentals because you don’t pay for space you don’t use.” It also offers an escape from load-shedding.

Lease terms are flexible, allowing for daily, weekly, monthly or yearly use. WeWork’s rentals or fees range from about R1,200-R4,600 per person per month, depending on whether you’re sharing a communal space or dedicated desks in a private office.

Fees include 24/7 access to Wi-Fi, communal chill areas, soundproof phone booths, kitchenettes, boardrooms, printers and stationery. Unlimited cappuccinos are an addition.  

Robinson says SiSebenza is well placed to drive WeWork’s expansion in Africa, given its real estate experience and knowledge of local markets. 

The BCom graduate founded SiSebenza six years ago together with lawyer-turned-business strategist Stefano Migliore. Joburg-based Robinson’s entrepreneurial journey started in his mid-20s two decades ago when he founded Sipahh, a company that makes flavoured milk straws. His interests have since expanded to other areas — from wine farming and commodities trading to venture capital, infrastructure development and real estate investment.

As a past chair of the Johannesburg Golden City chapter of the Young Presidents Organisation, a global leadership group of 34,000 CEOs in 150 countries, Robinson supports the organisation’s ethos of “making a difference by becoming better leaders and better people’’.

Under SiSebenza’s banner, Robinson has helped grow a diverse group of global and local companies in Africa. In terms of WeWork’s expansion plans, Robinson plans to take WeWork to other metros in South Africa; Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius and Nigeria are next on his radar. 

SiSebenza’s priority is to increase occupancy rates at its Joburg premises. Robinson says capacity will be reached quickly on the back of a significant increase in inquiries. “Most of these are from larger enterprises that are looking to modernise and reorganise the way they work,’’ he says.  

Global companies that recently took space in WeWork’s Joburg locations are TikTok, Spotify, H&M and IBM subsidiary Red Hat. 

Tenant demand for WeWork Cape Town has bounced back strongly since mid-2022, he says. The premises are now fully let compared with a pandemic-induced low of 19% in January last year — no easy feat at a time when most traditional landlords are sitting with large pockets of empty office space.

This article was published in Financial Mail

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