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 Armadillo proves vitality of SA manufacturing

 

 When Lola Robertson joined a manufacturing company seventeen years ago as a junior buyer, she was one of a handful of women among almost 250 men, and she had a hard time convincing her colleagues that she knew the intricacies of industrial manufacturing.

Four years later, when she took over as general manager, she found none of that resistance - she had proven herself as a top manufacturing executive. Since then she has become the owner and has made sure that half of the staff, from senior managers to factory-floor workers, are female today.

Her thriving company, Armadillo Concepts in Kempton Park, is proof of the vitality and potential of South African innovation and manufacturing. It was started in the early nineties when a retired entrepreneur, Amiel Smith, who was doing handyman chores for his wife’s property business, was robbed of his tools off the back of his bakkie at a traffic light.

Back home, he adapted a roller-shutter garage door to fit like a lid over the back of his bakkie, and the roll-top bakkie cover was born.

Smith refined and patented his invention, and built a company that was largely focused on the export market. But it was a massive local contract to supply Telkom with thousands of specially fitted bakkies which prompted him to recruit the young buyer in Robertson from an industrial supply company to set up a buying department at Armadillo.  

At the time Robertson had nine years of experience at the industrial hardware company which she joined straight after school, and when Smith recruited her, she had expert knowledge of industrial equipment.

Her new job at Armadillo was daunting, though. The company was ramping up for the huge Telkom contract, and she started off as the only buyer. Soon she was leading a procurement team of six members with a monthly budget of R18 million.

Armadillo peaked at about 300 employees during the Telkom contract, and when it started winding down to its original size, Robertson found herself taking on more and more of the tasks of the departing managers. By 2004 her appointment as general manager was virtually only a title change, because she was doing much of the job already, she said.

When Armadillo’s founder retired shortly thereafter, Robertson rose to the position of managing director. So strong was her belief in the potential of the product, that she bought a 20% stake in the company with her savings.

A few years later she had the opportunity to cash in her stake when Smith wanted to sell the company to a manufacturing firm from KwaZulu-Natal, but she could not accept the fact that the prospective owners were planning major retrenchments that would leave the Armadillo factory gutted.

Her colleagues were keen to join her in a management buy-out, but few of them had the means to raise the required finance. In 2011 Robertson approached the banks, but they found the deal too risky. Robertson then took the proposal to Business Partners Limited, which agreed to fund the buy-out after a thorough due diligence process.

Robertson says that during the buy-out process the daunting prospect of the huge amount of debt that she was about to sign up for started stirring doubts in her mind, until someone pointed out that she had successfully managed and developed the business for six years as employed MD and as majority owner she would have even more freedom to shape the business to her vision.

This proved true, but not before Robertson’s talents as a manufacturing entrepreneur were severely tested. A year after she bought the company, Armadillo’s distributor in the UK went under, leaving a R1,7 million black hole in the company’s books.

Robertson tackled the crisis with characteristic resolve. She implemented a strict policy of austerity in the company, some of which still helps to keep Armadillo sleek and efficient today. She also steered the company to broaden the scope of its work. Whereas previously they would turn away jobs that were slightly outside of the usual, they now take on almost any request from the market. The result has been that her truck-door division’s turnover has shot up by as much as 70%.

Today about 60% of Armadillo Concepts’ output goes to the local market, with 40% exported. Apart from the roll-top covers for vehicles, the company makes a high-end cover for pools and safety shutters for homes. Robertson says she aims to develop a new line at least every three years.

Robertson’s innovative approach extends beyond a focus on products to the management of her staff, which she describes as the most important aspect of her job. The gender equity that she has brought into the business has helped with the broadening of the company’s products from the bakkie to the home.

Early on at the helm of Armadillo, Robertson realised that the company was vulnerable to the loss of staff members because workers had become specialists at certain tasks. She embarked on a multi-skilling project to ensure that workers could stand in for one another. It was a difficult project because some workers jealously guarded their positions and resisted having to teach others to do their jobs, but she pushed through.

With the same firmness she also tackled the massive motor-industry strike that crippled many companies a few years ago. She roped all eleven administrative and sales staff members into production and by the time the factory workers returned from the strike, they had filled and shipped the two containers of orders that had needed to go out. The experience had the added benefit as it gave management a deeper insight into the production process.

Robertson is just as passionate about keeping manufacturing local as she is about her products. Throughout the years, she has had to listen to industrial experts urging Armadillo to rather outsource manufacturing to China and downsize to a marketing branch in South Africa. Her commitment to local manufacturing is more than just loyalty to her staff - it is also a sound business decision. The hassles of manufacturing in China are just too many, and you don’t get the same quality, she says.

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