The disruptive innovator

Say the word “Pratley” and most people will think of Pratley Putty®, which, by the way, is the only South African product ever to have gone to the moon. Talk to people in the building and mining industries and the first thing they will come up with is Pratley cable glands and junction boxes. Kim Pratley, CEO of the Pratley Group, talks about the company’s journey to success.   

Pratley was started by your dad, George ‘Monty’ Pratley. Tell us more about him. What did he do before he started the company? 

He was a very fair person, but a tough businessman and great engineer. He was an inventor and entrepreneur at heart. No matter what he looked at, his first thought was always about how he could improve it. 

Monty grew up in South Africa, but studied mechanical engineering at Lanchester Polytechnic in England after his father died. He attended evening classes and during the day worked at British Thomson-Houston Company (BTH), which later became a subsidiary of the General Electric Company. When WWII broke out, he started working as an apprentice turbine engineer as part of the team at BTH in Rugby, who secretly developed the British jet engine under the guidance of Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine. 

Later during the war he joined the British Army and landed in Normandy, France on D-Day with the 7th Armoured Division. He was swept all over Europe until the end of the war. He and my mom, Marguerite, met while he was still studying in Rugby. They came to South Africa about a year after the war was over. I think he just wanted to get back home.    

What happened when Monty came back to South Africa?

I believe he had a study loan from Rand Mining, so he worked at Durban Deep Mine when he came back. He got extremely frustrated with general inefficiencies in mining, but even more so with the inertia in big mining groups when trying to address inefficiencies. 

In 1948, he opened up his own engineering jobbing shop – taking on engineering jobs outsourced by the mines. Besides an engineer, he was also an amazing artisan and had been building small engines and models since he was a child. He positioned himself in the market as someone who fixed difficult jobs, in other words, jobs that other shops avoided. 

What were the company’s greatest breaks?

Being an inventor, my dad had thousands of ideas on ways to improve things in the mines. Some of these early ideas, which he patented, included a vulavala valve, a hose connection and then the one that gave him the big break around 1950: the world’s first electric explosive delay igniter. The company who bought the patent made delay fuses and saw the igniter as a huge threat to their core business, so they never marketed it. They nevertheless paid my father enough for it to get him into manufacturing. 

After that, he patented another first of its kind – the Pratley adjustable cable gland, which helped to significantly accelerate company growth.   

How has the company grown since then?

My father worked alone for most of his first year in business. Thereafter he employed two people, Sam Mathebe and Don Cock. Sam worked here until he passed away a few years before my dad, and Don retired several years ago and has since passed on. We currently employ over 200 people.  

Our business has expanded greatly over this time. We manufacture electrical products, high-performance DIY and industrial adhesives, decoupage craft products and we mine and sell unique zeolite and perlite products. We even have a haircare division and a laboratory providing micro-analysis services.  

The company is very diversified. How do you keep things together?

On the surface it might seem that these business divisions have nothing to do with each other, but at a technical level they are actually quite interconnected. Many of our electrical products rely on polymers to impart specific properties such as being flameproof, or watertight sealing. Modern adhesives are also polymer-based and the research and science we bring to bear in this field is also uniquely applicable to the electrical products. 

Who is your competition and how do you maintain your competitive edge?

Our main competition, as with many local companies, is cheap imported products: adhesives from China and electrics from India. The fact that we are a well-established brand name that is associated with good quality helps to differentiate us from these products.

I don’t, however, see competition as a threat to a company. Competition is normal and can even be healthy. All businesses have to deal with it. The biggest threat to South African businesses, in general, is our government with its anti-business and -manufacturing policies and legislation.  

Could you give examples of these ‘anti-business’ policies?

Labour legislation is one of all manufacturers’ biggest headaches. SA has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Even so, government does not seem to realise that you cannot create employment without an employer. Hence, instead of creating policies that significantly increase companies’ risks when employing more people, government should rather aim to create an environment where companies want to employ more people. Put the cart before the horse and create employers; employment will naturally follow. 

Most business won’t acknowledge this openly, but I tell you that the number of employees required to successfully take on a new project is one of the biggest determinants of whether a company will pursue a new task or not. It is because of this issue that many manufacturers have closed down shop in the country or started sourcing components from overseas instead of producing everything locally. Pratley would employ 10% more people tomorrow if it weren’t for these unfriendly policies. 

Are there more ways in which government makes life difficult for business and the manufacturing industry?

Complex taxation and government inefficiencies also drain business potential in the country. We, just as an example, recently discovered that somebody was selling fake “Pratley” products in Africa. The company is faking our packaging and even fraudulently using my signature on the packaging. Asking the department of trade and industry (dti) to help us resolve this issue has been fruitless. The dti could not even give us diplomatic assistance into the country. 

Then there is the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). Many of our products carry the SABS mark of approval. Currently renewing these test certificates is near impossible, as it seems that the SABS has become totally defunct in our industry.  

How does the company deal with the policy environment? Would you consider moving the business overseas?

No, we are not going to move overseas, we will stay here. We might, however, consider importing some of the components we previously bought locally or manufactured ourselves to reduce our risks. These imported products would, however, have to comply strictly with our product specifications and quality standards. 

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 13 April edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.
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