Message from Melanie Veness, chief executive officer of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business

2014-11-08 00:00

IT’S time to look back at 2014 and to assess whether it gets a thumbs up or a thumbs down, to consider what has been achieved, what’s worth building on and where there are opportunities for the future.

Despite poor economic growth and near impossible trading conditions at times, I think that there is a great deal worth celebrating. It’s in tough times that we have to dig deep and the result is often innovation. As Robin Sharma says: “Difficult times disrupt your conventional ways of thinking and push you to forge better habits of thought, performance and being”.

In an effort to help local businesses to become more productive and competitive, the PCB invited and hosted renowned author and international productivity expert, Dr, Michael Ballé to conduct two “Gemba Walks” in Pietermaritzburg factories, Somta Tools and Pfisterer. The Japanese concept of Gemba Walks comes from lean manufacturing, which is based on the Toyota production system. Gemba Walks are essentially “learning walkabouts” with a Sensei (a learned individual). Lean thinking, the philosophy of lean, is about reconciling companies and their customers, management and their employees, and performance and creativity. At the heart of this, is respect.

Dr Ballé led a limited delegation of 30 local executives through the factories to “the place where value is created” in order to learn and improve. The process was one of questioning and criticising with a view to driving change, which in turn, results in productivity improvement.

Lean thinking challenges the traditional management approach, and the results are proof that it’s the strategic leadership approach for the 21st century. The executives who attended the Gemba’s were impressed and challenged and we hope that this will act as a catalyst to growing the lean movement locally. Our largest challenge during the year has definitely been infrastructure failure, and we have worked closely with the municipality to ascertain the reasons for outages in order to be able to convey accurate information to our members, so that critical decisions can be taken.

We have also tried to assist on a more practical level where possible. Many of the extended electricity failures could be directly attributed to cable and/or electricity theft, which has cost government and the private sector millions of Rands. The Msunduzi electricity officials have displayed a willingness to partner in some innovative attempts to solve ongoing theft challenges. In one particular instance, we facilitated a meeting between the municipal officials in the electricity department and the business community in Mkondeni. We went “to the Gemba” and met on site to try and solve a serious theft problem. The thieves were tapping into two road meter points and directly into the mini substation and were causing continuous outages. All efforts to counter the theft up until that point had been thwarted. The infrastructure was vulnerable and impossible to protect, so the officials agreed to move the two meter points under the fence and in to two different factory premises. The factory owners agreed to cement the curb and to brick up and steel reinforce the mini substation door on the road side.

A door was then opened up on the factory side of the substation and a gate access created for the municipality. To date, three months later, no theft or outages have been reported.

Aside from being responsive to our members needs and assisting to clear obstacles to economic development and growth, our team is passionate about having a positive impact on our unacceptably high levels of unemployment. Being a team of all ladies, we felt particularly compelled to do something to empower rural business women. In an effort to try and assist rural women to have better access to market, the PCB partnered with the KZN provincial Treasury and the KZN Financial Literacy Association and trained 180 rural women entrepreneurs in various skills – pricing, sales, exhibition and display, negotiation, taking orders and general financial literacy. We then took Hall 1 at the Royal Show and transformed it into a rural market, complete with a tavern and spaza shop. Each lady was given an opportunity to exhibit her wares, and sales in excess of R1 000 per day were made.

The ladies were given practical experience and were actively mentored over the show period. We are very confident that this intervention has had a significant impact on the lives of these business women, who now have the skills to take their businesses to the next level. The partnership won the Trophy for Best South African Exhibit on show.

We also partnered with The KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Hulamin and the Witness on an exciting entrepreneurial skills development and capacity building competition, called The Entrepreneur. Winners and prizes were announced at the annual banquet. It is hoped that we will build on the success of this year’s program and make this an annual one.

From a city perspective, I think that it’s very exciting that Provincial Government seem to be serious about the establishment of a Government Office Park and Legislature Precinct in Pietermaritzburg. Provincial Treasury has committed the funding for the feasibility study in the current year and some money has been set aside in the medium term budget for the actual development. It sounds, at last, like we might get the capital city that our province deserves, a city with squares and buildings commensurate with its status.

Chatter in the corridors has indicated that consideration is being given to developing the office park outside of the city centre, because there is a lack of parking in town. To me, this is the perfect opportunity to re-imagine and redevelop our city centre.

After all, cities are not evaluated or judged on the merits of their suburbs.

Thinking about redevelopment brought to mind something that I read recently in Fortune Magazine. It was in an article about Founder and Chairman of Related Co’s, Stephen Ross’s ambitious plan to redevelop an area on the West Side of Manhattan, New York. Fortune called it “America’s biggest real estate project ever”, but it wasn’t the scale of the project that impressed me, it was the vision of the man.

The article’s author, Shawn Tully, describes how they were standing on a dilapidated branch of an ancient, elevated railway, overlooking a bleak industrial landscape, when Ross exclaimed: “This is not how New York should look! We will change that”.

Tully goes on to describe how Ross begins sketching the skyline of a future city. You can’t help but be enthralled, as Ross brings to life the picture in his mind’s eye.

He describes state-of-the-art buildings and new landmarks that will rise up in the future against the famous New York skyline. I felt myself wanting to yell “bravo” and wishing he could stand and make that pronouncement over Pietermaritzburg: “this is not what our capital should look like! We will change that.”

The point that I’m making is that perhaps our leadership could see this as an opportunity to redefine our city rather than just a project to accommodate government offices.

American businessman and writer, Max De Pree said: “Leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader always is: ‘Who do we intend to be?’ Not ‘What are we going to do?’ but ‘Who do we intend to be?’”

We shouldn’t be limited by what is, we should dig deep and imagine what we would like to see.

Author and Management Consultant Robert Fritz said: “If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise.”

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