Strong team rises from the ashes

What do you do when a fire sweeps through your business premises, destroying most of your stock, office contents and factory equipment; leaving disaster in its wake and threatening the lifeblood of the business you’ve sweated blood and tears for?

Wendy Turton and Sonja Klopper, co-directors of Elcarbo and Ekamant, two companies located in Montague Gardens, experienced exactly this. The team of directors include Wendy, Sonja, Megan Smith; Muneeb Thomas and Andrew Doubell.

It is a story of resilience and courage; of being action-orientated and rising above severe loss.

It is also a story of teamwork and focus, of true hustling and commitment, and of building a business based on principles that will see it established well into the future. It is a story with many valuable lessons and inspiration to share…

Ekamant was founded in Sweden in 1928 and, as one of the oldest manufacturers of coated abrasives in the world, continues to offer high quality and consistent products and services in more than 50 countries around the globe. Ekamant South Africa was founded in 2009.

Elcarbo Industrial Supplies started as a family business in Johannesburg in 1991, with the Cape Town branch founded in 1999 and growing from a humble start of five employees to a head office facility boasting more than 30 employees and 1000sqm of warehousing. Both companies have a strong commitment to developing their staff, and this extends to enterprise development.

On the evening of November 1 2017, the company directors received reports of a fire on the premises.

By 8pm, a number of staff had arrived on scene, but were not allowed to get close to the building due to the ferocity of the fire.

About an hour later, limited access was granted and director Muneeb Thomas went into the building and assisted the fire department with access, helping them navigate their way around the building in the dark and smoky conditions. This act of courage resulted in the fire being kept away from some of the production, thus reducing the overall damage.

However, the damage done was close to devastating. They lost all finished goods and racking, as well as 65% of raw material. Most of the office contents were lost, with all factory equipment badly contaminated.

A disaster of this magnitude can have a paralysing effect with fears and worries exacerbated by so much uncertainty. This can lead to further loss of external traction and deepening of internal discouragement.

However, in this instance, the team responded strongly. Within the first two hours they had set up new operations at Elcarbo. They diverted the phones to their “operating centre” and immediately contacted all of their customers and shareholders, knowing that communication is vital.

Recognising that there was a journey ahead of them, they met as a management team to decide on the responsibilities and accountability of each person.

This probably reduced an unnecessary waste of time and gave clarity on who the decisions lay with, along with different remedial actions.

They appointed an assessor speedily, who was on site quickly to provide authorisation to start the cleaning of machinery.

The time of the year in which the fire occurred was also critical in terms of stock building for the busy season ahead.

They needed to count stock to assess how much of the raw material would be usable, and write off all damaged stock.

After assessing the stock loss, they started immediately with reordering of critical items from offshore suppliers.

This had to be done, with their cash flow top of mind.

They made the further choice to facilitate their own process with the assessor, to speed up the claim process.

All this helped them to start new production runs with a scheduled overtime plan, a mere four days after the fire. By working overtime for six weeks continually, they were able to supply their customers satisfactorily. Truly a case of customer orientation!

The team showed flexibility and adaptability in the midst of consistent pressure and challenge. Team members changed roles to make the process of getting up more efficient.

The production function was under immense pressure to rebuild stock and at the same time fill orders.

What lessons stood out?

On reflecting back, Wendy and Sonja believe that the incident showed them some invaluable insights.

This included building a team that is committed; then no challenge will be able to keep you down. It appears that this conscious building of a team has been part of their DNA for a long time, not just from November last year.

They realised that they were truly stronger together than they were individually. In reflecting on the team, they learnt that people have more capacity and chutzpah than one would expect.

In turning to their clients they were amazed at the loyalty and kindness displayed. Even their competitors were really kind and offered assistance and help.

On the operational side, they saw how risk management is really important for every business and should be a high priority.

Thus business owners should constantly check that they understand their insurance policy and that all values are assessed in detail.

As communication is so critical to this business, it is beneficial to have the server in the cloud.

Throughout the relating of this event, I could not help but marvel at how strong and seemingly unwavering these two directors appeared to be.

There were times when they must have felt overwhelmed and devastated. But, it really does go to show, that if you surround yourself with good people, and treat them well, they will go to war with you. And of course, don’t panic – there’s always a way out if you keep moving forward.

Steve Reid is the manager of the Centre for Entrepreneurship (CFE) at False Bay College. Email steve.reid@falsebay.org.za or visit www.falsebayincubate.co.za for more about the CFE.