Winning Women – Angela Chris Pitsi: A DIY success story

2013-11-19 08:00

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Angela Chris Pitsi, managing director and founder of XChem Chemicals, which makes adhesives and sealants, is sticking to her resolve to build a globally recognised manufacturing business, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Manufacturing adhesives and sealants is not what the average person would expect a psychology master’s graduate from Cambridge University to do as a career.

However, Angela Chris Pitsi – who was raised in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria – has seldom done what was expected of her in the 20-something years since she left her township school.

She has, on the whole, followed her heart and her clever mind as she set about determining just what it was she wanted out of life.

It has led her incrementally, and surely, to where she is now, with her XChem Chemicals (Pty) Limited.

She has received an order, just before we meet, to supply her products to 54 Builders Warehouse and Builders Express stores throughout South Africa.

Furthermore, she is exporting into several nations ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ghana and California in the US.

“It’s a huge order,” she acknowledges, as we chat in her tastefully furnished, air-conditioned office above the factory in the Gateway Centurion industrial park near Pretoria. “But we’re geared up to cope with it because, until recently, we were not working to our full capacity.”

Pitsi established XChem in 2006 using her life savings to acquire a detergents company that had gone into liquidation.

But she wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to continue making products in the cut-throat detergents industry. So she took two careful and well-considered years to do a great deal of market research before deciding that manufacturing adhesives and sealants was the route she wanted to take.

She hired the best people in the business to help her, continuing to use her own finances as she forged her way forward.

Getting into the South African chemicals industry was challenging, “and especially so for a woman, so instead of focusing here, I looked beyond our country’s borders to sell our products”, she says.

The move paid off. In 2011, a contact in neighbouring Botswana alerted her to an Agoa trade show in Zambia attended by former US first lady Hillary Clinton.

“I exhibited there and one month later, I got a call from the American embassy here telling me to expect a visit from a high-powered American trade delegation,” she says.

Shortly afterwards, a spectacular cavalcade of stretch limousines pulled up in front of XChem, disgorging men in black suits with red ties “and the tallest man I’ve ever seen”.

He was Michael Camunez, the US assistant secretary of commerce for market access, who asked me “if I was doing business with Walmart. I told him that I hoped ultimately to work with the retail corporation.”

Two weeks later, Pitsi received a personal note from Camunez inwhich he wrote that visiting XChem had been “one of the highlights of his SA visit”.

Shortly after that, an invitation to present her products to Massmart followed “and at the end of the meeting, we had an indication that business with Walmart might follow”.

Pitsi, with her cool, calm and businesslike manner, can still hardly contain the excitement of those momentous events.

As a consequence of all of this, XChem today manufactures a range of products that it has developed itself, of adhesives and sealants covering both the DIY and industrial sectors.

Products for the latter go into the construction, mining, power utility, refrigeration and paper sectors, to mention just a few.

XChem DIY adhesives and sealants are used in homes, offices, schools and other institutions.

The products for both sectors are marketed under two brand names – Fort-tite adhesives and Fortseal sealants.

Today, Pitsi’s determined and ambitious approach to business is a far cry from the matriculant whose only thought when she left school was to do something in the field of psychology.

Her father, a bus driver, and her mother, a nurse, supported her application to Wits University and applauded her for winning a scholarship to Cambridge University in the UK.

She says: “The culture shock I experienced there was immense, from the food to the way everybody spoke and it wasn’t long before I wanted to come home.” But her wise father urged her to continue and she graduated with her psychology master’s in 1996.

She spent nearly five years working in human resources, manufacturing division, at Nissan SA before deciding that she wanted to start her own business. She founded Added Approach, a human resources consulting firm, in Centurion in 1999.

She still runs this successful business to this day, “but I woke up one morning and realised there were nearly 500 people on my payroll from South Africa to Nigeria and Dubai”.

“I felt I’d reached a bit of a plateau and concluded that I needed to be in a business where I could be part of the mainstream economy.”

Pitsi’s years at Nissan SA had given her a feel for manufacturing and she began putting out feelers, which eventually resulted in her acquiring XChem.

Today, this mother of two, who works a 24/7 week, says she relaxes “by sleeping and gardening”.

Her future lies, she says, in getting a return on her investment, ensuring her staff feel comfortable working for her and developing environmentally friendly products.

The world is going to hear a great deal more about Pitsi in the years to come.

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