Wired to be the boss

2013-03-31 10:00

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Winning Women, City Press’ series on established and up-and-coming entrepreneurial women, continues with Helen Kruger. She has been working in the branding and signage industry for the past 10 years, seven of which have been running her own company. A couple of painful life experiences led her to where she is now, writes Sue Grant-Marshall.

One of the largest offices I’ve sat in during a lifetime of journalism can hardly contain the energy of Helen Kruger, who leaps up and down showing me posters, signs and designs.

Ironically, the one she can’t show me right now is that of her company, Panache Branding Solutions. It is being re-branded as we speak.

She has just merged her Limestone Advertising business with Panache, relocating from her Wynberg factory near Sandton City to Bertrams, Joburg’s oldest suburb, near Ellis Park.

We hear huge printing machines being moved around and the scent of fresh paint is everywhere as Kruger and her two partners amalgamate their businesses.

If a client is providing a product or service that it needs the marketplace to know about, then Kruger and Panache will put it out there.

They use everything from T-shirts and coffee mugs to sandblasted windows, flagpoles and banners as well as wrapping cars and buildings with a brand name.

In 2006, the lively Kruger left a significant job as a regional manager for Sign-a-Rama, one of the world’s largest sign franchises with more than 1 000 outlets in 50 countries,  to go it alone.

“I had a big job, earned well and had my own houses, but material objects aren’t everything,” says Kruger emphatically. “I enjoy being my own boss.”

In its first year of operation back in 2007, Limestone signed up major clients including Plascon and Builders Warehouse.

By 2009, sales figures had increased by 71% on the previous year and in 2010 they increased again by 79%.

But the global recession hit hard in 2011, and last year Kruger reacted positively to a suggestion from Wolfgang Auth of Panache Graphics that they merge their two companies.

“We had been working on projects together for several years and it made sense to combine the strengths of both our operations and go really big,” says Kruger.

Today she’s managing marketing and sales, her area of expertise and passion, although she has handled every aspect of running a business over the years since she began working in 1997.

Her two partners, Wolfgang and Jurgen Auth, are managing finances and production, respectively, at Panache.

Kruger says: “We are now one of the best known printing, signage and branding companies in South Africa and our areas of speciality include virtually every discipline required for effective brand promotion and development.

“We like to think that we are now a one-stop shop.”

Their clients range from Coca-Cola to Nando’s, Nestlé and Tiger Brands.

According to Kruger, in the five months since they merged, they “have already achieved a target of R1?million in sales per month and will supersede that in March,” she predicts confidently.

“We have a five-year plan to franchise our brand and we want to create hubs throughout Africa. We’ll look at countries like Nigeria and Mauritius.”

Kruger grew up very much her father’s child, “the son he always wanted”.

At the end of her school day, she would work in his electrical engineering business, the core of which was automating factory production lines for companies such as Usutu Pulp (Mondi) and Hudaco Friction brake pads.

At the age of 14, when her schoolmates were painting their nails and roaming shopping malls, she was wiring up electrical panels for her father.

A couple of years on, she was creating computer programmes for him, earning about R1?500 a month, and paying her mother for board and lodging.

“She said that if I could earn, I could pay. It taught me how to budget and gave me a sense of responsibility.”

Her tertiary education included courses at Unisa and Damelin before she joined her father in his E&I projects business, overseeing the daily running and financial operations of the company for a couple of years.

“But father and daughter working and living together didn’t pan out,” she recalls, and she went on to work for various other companies.

Then her world fell apart when her parents divorced and she had a fight with her dad on the day he was killed in a car accident.

“It shook me to my foundations, and my personal relationship collapsed because my partner couldn’t understand what I was going through.”

Others might have clung to what they knew in the face of disaster. But the forthright Kruger decided to re-evaluate her entire life, leaving her top job at Sign-a-Rama to venture out on her own with Limestone Advertising.

She values a balance in her life, even though her early years at Limestone meant she was up at 5am daily to get to her factory. There she ran the machines for a few hours to do the branding she’d sold to clients, and then she was back on the road selling more of her services.

She loves gardening (she says her spinach is “fantastic”), taking her dogs for walks, hiking, and spending time with her family and partner.

She was thrilled last year after bring accepted for the Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10 000 Women project.

“It shows women how to grow their businesses, how to impart skills to their employees and it helped me incredibly.

“My ‘ah-ha’ moment came when we were asked to do a business plan.”

Naturally, Kruger had done lots of them but at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) she learnt that a plan is much more than something you show to a bank consultant.

“It’s a road map to success. And, at the time I had to decide whether I should fork out money to buy more machinery for my Limestone business, or consider merging my company with Panache. Gibs helped me with that.”

In the years to come, Kruger believes she will look back on this time as a major turning point in her life.

» If you’re 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 of Business Science. To apply, visit www.gibs.co.za/10000women

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