Winning Women: This entrepreneur is clearly on a roll

2013-06-16 14:00

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Shereen Crowie spent 20 years working at a bank, learning everything she could about business, before taking the plunge and starting her own toilet tissue manufacturing company, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

It’s not the most riveting subject in the world, yet Shereen Crowie of Curviro Trading realised some years ago that if she wanted to start her own business, she needed to find something we all use, every single day. And she hit on one of life’s necessities – toilet paper.

“It’s a commodity with no age restriction and no seasonal production demands,” says Crowie at her Robertville factory in the Roodepoort area, west of Joburg.

It’s a bright and cheery place, and as her new machine spins the wide sheets of toilet tissue down to the roller where it will be wound around cardboard cores, the morning sun catches it and reflects light throughout the premises.

There are ceiling-high stacks of neatly packed toilet rolls, awaiting collection along one wall. On another are the long rolls of cardboard cores, waiting for their wraparound.

Every single item has its place and the general perception that a factory is a messy place does not hold true here.

“That was one of the big advantages for me of going on the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-Gibs 10?000 Women Certificate Programme,” says Crowie. “I learnt about production flow and how to prevent bottlenecks occurring.

“I also had wonderful mentors who helped me with branding and marketing.”

She started her toilet paper business four years ago with a small, second-hand 1.3m machine that she bought for R30?000.

Last year, Crowie received a grant from the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) for new and bigger machinery. Seda is an agency of the department of trade and industry, established in 2004 to help small enterprise development.

The grant transformed Curviro Trading. On her small machine Crowie was restricted to using a particular paper that was expensive, which made her unable to compete in the market place.

“Fifteen members of Parliament (MPs) came to visit my factory to ascertain if I was entitled to the Seda grant,” says Crowie.

She learnt that when one of the MPs had seen her initial application for a grant, he had groaned, “not another toilet paper factory”.

But Crowie had a vital point of difference.

Early on in her manufacturing process, she realised that she would have waste pulp. And instead of throwing it away, she decided to use it productively, making children’s paper toys from the tissue waste.

Crowie developed moulds into which she poured waste that she had blended to fit the moulds. The result is little toy planes, dinky cars and cartoon characters that children can paint in lively colours.

It teaches them fine motor control and they’re consequently in demand at schools for the disabled as well as crèches and preschool facilities.

That landed Crowie the Seda grant, which enabled her to buy a much bigger machine at the beginning of this year and that, in turn, allows her to now buy paper from any paper mill of her choice.

She was, until six months ago, restricted to Sappi, although, many of her clients “prefer it” as it is thicker tissue and dissolves more quickly in septic tanks.

“The crepe of their (Sappi) paper is more resilient, so it is a superior tissue,” she says.

However, it is more expensive and Crowie wanted the freedom to supply to different income brackets.

“High income earners want the best quality, middle income are happy with anything that’s reasonable and of course the low earners want the cheapest they can get,” she says.

Crowie grew up in Eldorado Park, south of Joburg, and married when she was too young to have had any tertiary education.

She joined First National Bank on the lowest rung of the ladder, applying to go on every in-house training course that she could – learning accountancy, financial control, management, communications and business analysis over the 20 years she worked at the bank.

Crowie also studied for her BCom degree in Business Management through Unisa, putting in hours at night after hard days’ work and putting her two little girls to bed.

Just when she was able to come up for air and her children were moving into their 20s, she decided that she was in a comfort zone.

“Life had become monotonous and I needed new challenges,” she explains.

She left the bank knowing she wanted to contribute to South Africa’s gross domestic product and initially thought of making soap. “But you use a lot of chemicals and it’s a complicated product.”

That is when she decided to go the toilet paper route and today, her wholly black women-owned manufacturing company also supplies soap dispensers, hand-dryers, toiletpaper holders, detergents and other paper related products.

Her extensive client base includes a couple of shopping malls and cleaning companies.

Crowie’s dream is to have her own name brand and to sell her products with it on, into the big supermarkets.

Her waste product toys, which began as a sideline, will in time be packaged in such a way as to become attractive to international markets, “starting with the United States”, she says.

The one-time bank worker certainly thinks big. It’s why she will continue to be the success she envisages.

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