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Cathy Newton

Lighting the way for local manufacturing

As a teenager, Cathy Newton used to buy wire frames from a small lamp-shade factory called Wire World, to make and sell her own lamp shades for pocket money. Her early hustles gave her a good inkling that she would one day run her own business, but there was no way for her to know that she would one day buy Wire World from its founder – and that she would build it into the largest lamp-shade manufacturer in South Africa.

Today Wire World, a bustling 50-worker factory with its own 2800 square-meter premises in the Stikland Industrial area of Cape Town, has added furniture lines and contract powder-coating to its product range and is on the verge of expanding overseas, with its first major export orders already under the belt.

Cathy was scarcely five years old in 1986 when Wire World was started by established in Salt River, Cape Town. She grew up as the creative one in a family of hard-nosed entrepreneurs. Her father believed in teaching his children self-reliance by paying for education only – they had to work for any luxuries themselves. So, Cathy started making jewellery and decorated lampshades to sell, which made her a customer of the business that she was destined to own one day.

After school, Cathy studied interior design and launched her career by working at several high-end furniture and decor businesses in Cape Town as a furniture designer and buyer. This included stints at Coricraft and Woolworths where she gained deep insight into the world of designer furniture and decor.

The conviction to work for herself never left her. In 2011 a friend who worked as a sales rep for Wire World, which was then based in Brackenfell, told her that the company was up for sale. Cathy jumped at the chance. She cashed in her savings and pension fund and convinced her brother, who was doing business in China, to buy in as a passive shareholder. Together they put down enough for a deposit and agreed with the owner to pay the rest in instalments.

Taking over an established two-decade old factory was nothing short of daunting. Cathy’s strong suit was furniture, and she found herself on a steep learning curve in the world of lamp shades and lighting. Furthermore, as a young woman it took a few months for her to establish authority among the senior factory workers.

These obstacles proved to be her smallest in a difficult first two years. Paying off the purchase price was much harder than she had anticipated, and at one stage her brother even argued in favour of cutting their losses and closing the business down.

But with a fierce determination that only an owner-manager can muster, Cathy grit her teeth and made it work, forcing herself to focus on the business’ positive growth rather than on the difficulties of the unfavourable purchase agreement.

Finding new premises for the business proved to be a crucial step. She spotted an empty building in the adjacent industrial area of Stikland, and with her trained designer’s eye saw that it would fit her business perfectly. The shaggy old building had been standing empty for years, so Cathy had no problem negotiating a favourable lease.

Not only did the move allow her to double the size of her factory floor, but it gave the business a much-needed spurt of starting afresh. And after a wildly successful participation in a design exhibition in Johannesburg, Wire World started thriving.

In 2019, Cathy managed to turn the premises into the permanent home of Wire World by buying it from the landlord with finance from Business Partners Ltd. None of the banks which she had approached were willing to take a chance on the business, but Business Partners Ltd saw the value not only of the property, but the potential of the business and her skill as an entrepreneur. An added advantage was the fact that Business Partners Ltd provided 100% finance in return for a minority stake in the building which Cathy will incrementally buy back over time. This arrangement allowed her to use all her available cash for growing the business rather than putting it down as a hefty deposit.

Since buying the business, Cathy has grown Wire World to at least four times its size. When she took over, most of the clients were big furniture and home decor retail stores, and only a few were hotels needing to have their rooms refurbished.

Since then, the mix of clients has almost flipped, with hotel and rental accommodation work forming the bulk of Wire World’s order book. The trend was strengthened during the pandemic when empty hotels took the opportunity to refurbish. Those used as isolation centres have also been refurbishing with the eye to the revival of tourism.

With the pandemic, Cathy’s entrepreneurial spirit went into overdrive. The business quickly started making masks, and she designed a prototype hospital bed with the view to manufacturing them in masses for Covid-19 field hospitals. When those proved unnecessary, Cathy pivoted to making beds for the lively student-accommodation market.

This furthers Wire World’s expansion from lighting into new lines of decorative furniture. With the addition of a second powder-coating oven, the business is now offering the service to other metal manufacturers.

Cathy says Wire World’s whole operation fits comfortably into its premises, but there is still lots of room to grow further.

About the Author: BPL Admin

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