Business with heart

2008-03-11 00:00

Heart is not what you'd expect to find in an engineering works amid the lathes, mills, drills and steel cutters. But that is what made Maritzburg Engineering what it is today and heart is what founder Ronnie Chetty has plenty of.

Maritzburg Engineering is one of KwaZulu-Natal's most respected high-precision engineering shops, providing components to companies such as Hulamin, Illovo Sugar, Aberdare Cables, Rainbow Chickens and Kaymac, among many others. On the side, and quite incidentally, Maritzburg Engineering has also supplied its competitors with some of the best artisans and tradesmen in the game.

Most of all, the company's founder is a living example of a previously disadvantaged man overcoming adversity with a smile and true grit.

Chetty started life poor. After school he managed to complete his NTC3 at the old Maritzburg Technical College. He was apprenticed to an engineering firm in 1981 and it was there that he had his first taste of the realities of apartheid.

"They told me that if I qualified for my NTC6 they'd give me the position of pupil engineer," recalls Chetty.

Chetty took up the challenge and for the next four years he went to night school regularly, never missing a class, even if it meant missing practice at his favourite sport, soccer. It was tough going, often on an empty stomach, but it paid off and by 1982 Chetty had passed his NTC4, NTC5 and NTC6 with flying colours.

But the promised position never materialised - it was given to a white youngster instead.

"That hit me hard. I decided then and there that I was not working for a boss ever again."

At the time Chetty had no money and a wife and child, but he was determined to go into business for himself. Needless to say, the banks didn't do cartwheels to give him financing.

It was a dark time, but Chetty didn't give up hope. One Saturday morning he was looking through The Witness classifieds when he saw an ad for used machinery. Without a cent in his pocket, Chetty went to have a look. On the premises of an old engineering shop in Victoria Road he found an elderly, silver-haired man sitting alone in an office.

The man turned out to be George Burnside, the owner, and he was intrigued as to why an impoverished young man wanted to buy old tooling machinery. The two got talking and when Burnside heard Chetty's story he told him to come back on Monday wearing a jacket.

On Monday morning Chetty appeared in an ill-fitting jacket he'd borrowed from an uncle and Burnside whisked him off to a local bank. He walked straight into the manager's office (who happened to be an old friend and business colleague) and introduced Chetty.

"This young man is going to need some finance for machinery and I'm going to be the guarantor," Burnside announced.

Chetty chuckles at the memory. "It was amazing. Within a week I had a brand new lathe and milling machine, and a friend let me use an old warehouse at his factory in Willowton." He also got his first client: the delivery firm that brought the machines from Johannesburg wanted some new nuts and bolts and paid for them on the spot.

"That was our operating capital."

Before long, word got around about the quality of the work and the shop's competitive prices, and soon clients began to queue. The firm was producing top-class work, but Chetty's administration systems, as is so often the case with new enterprises, were non-existent.

"We put the income in our back pockets and paid the bills out of our front pocket," laughs Chetty.

When Chetty's brother, Flynn, a financial manager, joined the business it took him and a team of accountants five years to sort out the books.

The business grew from strength to strength, but Chetty's eye was not on profit only. He also wanted to give back to the community he had come from. In 1992, he offered his services to the New Horizon School for the Blind as a full-time tutor, teaching mechanical science and metalwork. One result was that more than a dozen partially sighted students passed their NTC3 and went on to find meaningful employment.

When Chetty rejoined his firm in 1994, he set up a programme for apprentices. He believes strongly in training.

"Skills are what this country needs and I want our company to contribute as much as possible in this area."

This project has bloomed and in the past 10 years there has not been a single trade test failure among his apprentices.

If that's not enough, the firm also sponsors a football team and develops young players. In the past 20 years, the firm has averaged around R30 000 a year in sponsorships.

"It's good to turn out a quality product," says Chetty, "whether it's a machine part or a human being."

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