Nerves of steel will benefit your business

2015-04-09 15:00

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Deciding to start a small business can be a daunting prospect, but if you learn as much as you can and never give up, you can succeed, writes Maya Fisher-French

Being a woman in the steel fabrication business is not easy.

“It is hard sometimes to be taken seriously,” says Gail Small, owner of Angel’s Steel Fabrication in the Western Cape.

The real challenge, however, is running a successful small business, irrespective of your gender or industry.

Small, who was named top student at the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Small Business Academy for 2014, and her husband Angelo Small started the business in 2009 which currently employs four staff.

Small had been retrenched from her accounting job and her husband had just finished a contract as a ship wielder. With their combined skills of administration and technical knowledge they felt they could start and run a successful steel fabrication and automation business. They offered steel solutions across the range from burglar bars to tables and chairs and staircases – anything that could be made from steel.

Unfortunately 2009 was the start of the recession and it hit their fledging business hard.

“Although it started well, it slowed down after two years and Angelo had to go back to work, but I decided to keep trying to get the business going,” says Small who identified that without her husband on the job full time she would have to go and train for some technical skills. With the rising demand in automated security solutions such as garage doors and gates, Small went on technical courses provided by their supplier.

“On the course as the only woman they made a lot of comments but then they saw I knew what I was doing, I gained a lot of respect.

“Sometimes you are working on the site and men will come past and make comments like ‘do you know what you are doing’ and I am thinking this is the new South Africa, women can do basically anything you can do and probably more”, laughs Small.

Last year Small joined the Small Business Academy programme run by University of Stellenbosch Business School and received her mentor Piet Briel, an MBA alumnus of the university.

“I learnt so much about running a business and also what we were doing wrong. The business went well for a while but we didn’t have the knowledge to grow it,” says Small who says she was very surprised to learn how many things they had never thought about.

“We had to do a SWOT analysis to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and also the strength and weaknesses of our competitors.

“You don’t really think about your weakness or your competitors. That is really important – understanding your competitors,” says Small.

Small says marketing, or the lack of it was one of the business’s biggest weaknesses. Through working on the course and with her mentor Small has created a plan on how to reach their short and long term goals as well as putting together and implementing a marketing plan.

Small also identified the need for her to focus more on running the business and to have processes and staff in place for the day-to-day work that allows her to focus on growing the business.

Small also learnt that while you must know your weaknesses you also need to identify your strengths and build on it. In X case, the company’s strength was its diversification of product lines.

“Security is a big part of our business but there are many other companies offering this. General fabrication is more specialised with on-site welding and my husband is a qualified ship builder,” says Small who adds that they want to use this strength to build up to a size where they can set up plant lines “with X skills and knowledge there is a great opportunity for us, our aim is for him to come back full time”.

Small says the course also made her aware of the amount of funding available to small business. “Although government offers funding we don’t really know about it, it is not getting out to the people”.

Cash flow remains the biggest challenge for the business, however, and this is true for most capital intensive businesses which require cash to buy the materials for manufacturing. (Piet comment?)

One of the major challenges is the decision a few years ago by the Western Cape not to pay deposits for work. “Last year for example I had a R30 000 order for a job and I needed R15 000 to buy the supplies, but despite having the paperwork confirming the order the bank would not give us a short-term loan”.

This sort of cash flow constraint can kill a business overnight. “We had to make another plan, we got the job done in the end but the experience was very disappointing - that the [the bank] weren’t there when we needed them”

Small subsequently investigated all the banks’ small business offerings and has found that Absa provides the most support for small business.

“They are the best support for small business as they offer bridging finance to help pay for the supplies; it is a short-term loan that you pay back once you have been paid by the client”, says Small who is in the processes of moving her business account to the bank.

Small remains frustrated with the fact that while government claims to support small business their refusal to pay a deposit makes it difficult for small business to tender due to cash flow constraints. “Bigger companies with cash balances are the ones getting the jobs,” says Small who does add however that the Western Cape government are good payers.

“Although they have 30 days to pay the invoice, I can even be paid within one week of invoice,” says Small.

Due to the publicity generated by winning the SBA Small says she has received many calls from companies to do work for them.

“I had to turn down a big order as we just did not have the space to create the large steel structures required. So our next step is to find bigger premises”

In terms of advice for other entrepreneurs, Small says simply - don’t give up. “There were many times when I felt like I should just give up now, but then I would think ‘I have come this far, I have put so much effort in the last few years, try give it another shot’.

“My advice is to go out there, find support, get help and try again”.

Small business academy

The Small Business Academy is run by the University of Stellenbosch Business School. The nine month programme provides training in financial and business management and growth, labour legislation and HR issues, marketing and sales after which the participants graduate with an NQF level 5 certificate from Stellenbosch University.

The Academy is open to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain-based business owners who have had their business for at least one year, are over the age of 25 and have a matric. After completing an IQ and EQ assessment to ensure they will manage with the academic course, every candidate is matched with a mentor who is a graduate of the business school. Current MBA students are permitted to incorporate assignments on the SBA as part of their thesis research.

The nine month programme incorporates four one-week long training sessions and two workshops.

Each week-long training course helps the participants towards developing a business plan and additional workshops are held to further develop business skills such as supply chain management as well as social media and branding.

The course is funded by the Distell Foundation and Absa although participants pay a commitment fee.

FACTS

Over the next ten months City Press will be following the latest intake of students for the 2015 Small Business Academy programme.

We will provide interviews and advice from lecturers and mentors and hear from the entrepreneurs themselves who will share their stories and experiences.

The small business supplement will be published in the City Press on the first Sunday of each month.

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