Just when you think you know it all, you learn something new

Mbali Mavuso | EBR Industries

I started my business during my second year of studying IT at the University of Johannesburg. I’d been working for a company as a junior engineer while I studied and that’s where my love of product design started. Most of my family is in engineering so it was a natural fit. I wanted my dad to go into business with me but, because he had a failed business venture behind him, he wasn’t interested. However, he did recommend me for a business opportunity at a company he’d worked for in the past. I took the opportunity even though I wouldn’t be manufacturing servers which is where my interests lay.

The company had a division that wasn’t doing very well and they wanted to sell it to me. I accepted and started to grow the business over the next two years. Some months were good, others bad, but my love of manufacturing continued to grow. With my IT background, I had the ability to design user-friendly products like a heater that communicated with a cell phone. My father has always been there supporting and guiding me. We now work together and his years of experience have played a big part in building the business.

For me the biggest challenge has been bargaining power – or rather the lack of it. It’s a challenge to buy metal at wholesale prices, especially since production has slowed down in South Africa and grown in China. Although we buy large volumes of metal, we still have to pay retail prices. I believe this is an area where South Africa really needs to step up. Another challenge was my credit relationship with my suppliers. When I started the business during my varsity days, I travelled back to my parents’ house on weekends to use my father’s grinding machine and ensure I could deliver on products. It took a while for us to get our own machines. If we’d had more bargaining power, we would have grown faster. The market is also quite closed, which was challenging. I know of no other female-owned engineering company and, if I’m presenting in a boardroom, I’m often the only woman.

At one point, I told a friend I wasn’t sure I was doing things correctly and needed help from a financial point of view. She told me about Raizcorp. I did an online assessment but didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Only after I’d made my panel presentation and was accepted on to the programme did it really start sinking in that I was in for some hard work.

Since joining the programme, I have really gained in confidence. While I’ve always thought of myself as confident, I discovered I had underlying issues that were stopping me from thinking broadly. Now, even if I experience failures, I have the confidence to pick myself up. Also, while I’ve always dreamed of a large company employing many people, I was never able to see the complete picture. Now I have a proper strategy. The programme is constantly pushing us to the next level. Just when you think you know it all, you learn something new.

Before joining the programme, I was working at a loss but now I am in profit. Understanding business fundamentals has played a big part in that. Our turnover has grown by over 260%! In the past, I would undercharge just to secure a job but, once you’ve set that tone, it’s hard to reverse. Now, I am able to say no; I won’t work at a loss and cripple myself. We’ve also grown our staff from 12 permanent and five temporary staff to 13 permanent and nine temporary staff and there’s a chance that we’ll take on four of those temps permanently.

We’ve recently secured a contract with a pump and valve company that’s very exciting and which could lead to more work. We’re also working with a large company to create specialised concrete specs for old buildings that need better foundations. I am constantly challenging my employees to learn and take on new projects. We never say that we know everything; there’s always room to learn.

If an aspiring entrepreneur asked for my advice, I’d say, just do it! The best way to learn is by doing. You can read as much as you like but, in the end, you have to put yourself out there. The longer you wait, the more your fear will grow.

I’d like to say thank you to Murray & Roberts. This programme has played a big part in helping us understand where we want to go. I hope they can do the same for other companies to help better the country. Their support has certainly helped our community (our factory is in a squatter camp and we’ve been able to hire people from the camp and upskill them).