Answering adversity with entrepreneurship
Like thousands of South African business owners Elizabeth Baillie stared into the abyss as one of the strictest lockdowns in the world shut down the South African economy and her business.
As she saw the R4 million monthly turnover of her Johannesburg-based company, Plastic and Packaging Products, vanish to nothing during April, she had no inkling that she was only months away from possibly the biggest breakthrough of her business career.
“It gnawed at my nerves,” says Elizabeth, who kept her business open as an essential supplier of plastic nursing aprons, among many other products. But she found the hospitals had stocked up before the lockdown, and with the economy frozen there was no hope of landing any other orders for the dozens of packaging products her business makes. Most of her fifty workers had to remain idle at home while Elizabeth scrambled frantically for emergency finance.
As a long-standing client of Business Partners Limited, through which she financed more than one of her many manufacturing machines, she qualified for a loan through the Financial Assistance Programme to keep her business afloat – R750 000 paid out in four monthly tranches, repayable in a year’s time.
The emergency finance provided just enough stability for the business for Elizabeth to return to what she does best – searching for opportunities and finding innovative solutions. This is a trait that enabled her to start out on her own as a freelance sales rep of plastic products in 1992 and to build a thriving manufacturing business over three decades.
In response to a query about body bags, Elizabeth started working on ideas to improve them, drawing on her large network of industry associates to test the practicality of her ideas. She started developing a prototype, improving the positioning of the handles, among other innovations, but her big breakthrough came when she worked out how to incorporate a zip that can follow a curve.
The interest from the health industry to her new design has been overwhelmingly positive, and Elizabeth finds herself on the verge of signing her biggest contract ever with a large private hospital group. Her design also has the potential for success overseas.
How does a 60-year-old owner-manager of a 24-hour packaging factory, who does not have any formal design or engineering qualification, find time to invent new products?
Elizabeth says the best solutions to the problems she faces during her busy days come to her in the early morning hours when she wakes up; sometimes with an idea fully formed in her mind. “I then have to write it down so as not to forget it and inevitably I start planning around it, thinking who from my network to draw in to make it happen,” says Elizabeth, adding that she usually manages to get a nap in before sunrise.
It also helps that she has worked hard over the years to set up strong systems in her business with excellent managers, including her daughter Renate who heads the company’s finances, and her son-in-law Paul Dreyer, who manages the operations. “I have an awesome team that really pulled us through when the COVID-19 crisis hit,” she says.
Much of Elizabeth’s resilience in the face of adversity probably stems from her difficult childhood. With both her parents suffering from mental illness, Elizabeth held the family of five together through sheer force of will, working on weekends at a local shop to add to their meagre income. Straight after finishing matric she worked in a series of jobs including a year of nursing and bookkeeping at a printing company.
It was her last job as a sales representative for a packaging company that propelled her into starting out on her own. When they refused to pay her the rightful commission, she earned on landing huge contracts for the company, she resigned. As “punishment”, the company made her work out her notice in the factory, which gave her an intimate knowledge of the workings of a packaging operation.
She started her own business as a freelance packaging broker, and soon started making small bags on a second-hand machine in collaboration with a bigger manufacturer. She would place orders for bigger bags with them, and they agreed to pass orders for small bags on to her.
Elizabeth’s innovative approach is not only limited to improving the designs of packaging products. Throughout her business career, she has been constantly looking out for such niches in which a small manufacturing outfit can thrive, providing smaller, specialised runs that are not vulnerable to the flood of cheap imports from the East.
Today Elizabeth’s operation occupies four units in an industrial park in Wadeville, Germiston, and while most of the rest of the industry is scaling down, Elizabeth is making plans to occupy a fifth unit for her growing business.