Winning Women: Geared up for safety success

2013-05-12 14:00

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Mellanie van der Byl left a top job in the insurance world, with all its perks, to open her business four years ago, writes Sue Grant- Marshall

At first glance, the protective gear and clothing Mellanie van der Byl has in her Observatory, Joburg, office makes it look like a war zone.

There are face masks that look as if they have been modelled on the ones used by soldiers in World War 1. Earmuffs that wouldn’t look out of place in a music studio lie next to a gas-detector unit.

The war zone analogy is not all that far-fetched, for these, and multiple other products at her disposal, are to protect people in workplaces, ranging from a sophisticated medical environment to miners toiling away kilometres underground.

They are used in car-assembly and petrochemical plants, in factories where toilet paper is manufactured, and by gardeners spraying insect poison on plants.

The more I look at Van der Byl’s array of protective “tools”, the more apparent it becomes that many people take workplace safety for granted.

And that is what led this passionate entrepreneur to work in the field she does.

A close family friend, who had been exposed to asbestos at work, developed lung cancer years after he had moved on to other work.

His lingering death, the grief of his family and their subsequent financial hardship made a huge impression on the young Van der Byl.

She became passionate about protecting people as they work and she gave up a top job in a large insurance company to start her own business.

She had the corner office, a PA, a company car and a floor of financial advisers reporting to her. “But in time it became stifling for me, especially as there was a conflict between the company values and my own”.

Van der Byl bought a shelf company called Let’s Share Trading and set about finding a business that needed protective gear for its workers.

“When you start up your own small business, you need to think smart. So I got a manufacturer of safety products to fund me on what is known as the ‘Pick n Pay model’. Your business is financed by your suppliers,” says Van der Byl.

That was back in 2009 and, since then, the plucky entrepreneur has established herself in her chosen field, to the extent that she now supplies protective wear for various parastatals, government departments and private companies.

They range from Transnet to Denel Land Systems, Murray & Roberts, and several municipalities.

“I have a 3M distributorship and receive specialised support from them in occupational health and safety.”

She has always worked in a sales and business-development environment. So her background in “cold calling” clients enabled her to knock on company doors, armed with the knowledge that everyone needs to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“Once the door was opened to me, I always ensured that I delivered and that I exceeded expectations. I like to say that I underpromise and overdeliver.”

But in the beginning there were days when she wondered where the next meal would come from.

“I am resilient. It is part of my make-up, but I also worked on it over the years. They say that tenacity is the breakfast of champions.”

If possible, Van der Byl tries not to do the “debt thing”, as she calls it. She realised early that the function of big banks is not to fund small entrepreneurs.

She secured funding from Anglo’s enterprise development and investment initiative, the Zimele Fund, which funds businesses that come into their supply chain. But she repays her loans as fast as possible.

She believes this is good business sense, but she had another reason to be financially prudent, as she is the single mother of a teenage daughter.

“I have been divorced for 12?years and I want to ensure that I give my daughter the very best chances in life, such as an excellent education. So you could say that she is my driving force.”

It is a further reason that Van der Byl thrives in her own business. She says: “I don’t have to answer to anybody, beyond being hugely self-disciplined, and I can locate myself in such a way that I am always there for my child.”

The Joburg-born Van der Byl grew up in Reiger Park and attended the CJB School in Bosmont, western Joburg.

She is self-educated on a tertiary level, having taken advantage of any training offered by the various companies she has worked for.

This ranges from public relations and communications courses to studying for a Bachelor of Business Administration.

Her background provides the impetus for her expanding business as she provides training in the correct use of safety wear.

“We have a trainer who speaks all 11 official languages,” she says proudly, adding that anybody who attends such training is given a certificate.

“We can also do environmental assessments. For instance, in noise levels where we use the correct machinery and expertise to ascertain the decibel levels.”

The ambitious Van der Byl has moved fast in four years, and plans to keep this up as she continues to expand her business.

»?If you are a female entrepreneur who needs a springboard to more success, sign up for the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10?000 Women Certificate Programme for Women Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute for Business Science

»?Visit www.gibs.co.za/10000women

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