In 1998, Shahnawaz quit his mechanical engineering studies to join his father’s paint manufacturing business, Regal Products in Pietermaritzburg, but he never stopped learning. His father, Abdulrehman Essop, an early computer programmer who became interested in business systems, started the enterprise in 1987 together with a business partner. Shahnawaz grew up in the business, working as a labourer during his holidays to earn pocket money.
When his father’s business partner decided to emigrate in the 1990s, Shahnawaz was faced with a stark choice - either he joins his father in the business so that they could make a go of it together, or the business is sold.
He quit his studies, joined his father’s business to help with paint formulation and product development, and enrolled in part-time industry-based paint manufacturing courses. In those early days Shahnawaz also spent lots of time on the road, building relationships with hardware shops that are still important to the business today.
The 40-year-old Shahnawaz, who took over the running of the business a few years after joining, says their relationship with their suppliers were crucial in getting the business off the ground.
After learning as much as he could about the chemistry of paint, Shahnawaz says he “kept on a learning path” and focused on personal development. A formative experience for Shahnawaz was a personal-development training course trilogy by Dr Steven Gullan called Life Dynamics. He found it so inspiring that he has since got his fifteen management staff members to do the course as well and more are in line to attend.
Regal Products started small, but they managed to grow by servicing the budget-paints market rather than competing in high-end decorative paints market. Despite numerous competitors, says Shahnawaz, quality and service standards were such that the market remained hungry for a reliable paint supplier, and Regal was able to grow year after year.
But growth amplifies the weaknesses in the systems of any business, and during the recession years the businesses hit several rough patches.
Looking back on it, Shahnawaz can see that the problems were caused by a lack of adequate systems to handle the fast growth of the company rather than a slowdown because of the recessionary economy.
He would probably not have been able to gain this insight had he not embarked on the next phase of his learning journey - an MBA through Mancosa.
He chose a modular correspondence course that would allow him to implement every aspect of what he learned in the business. “It is not about getting the degree. It is all about what I can use in the business,” he says.
As part of the course, he came upon an approach called lean thinking, which he recently started implementing at Regal Products’ 7000 square metre factory in the Table Mountain area of Pietermaritzburg. The lean-thinking approach, which is based on the management principles that led to the remarkable rise of the Toyota company, seeks to constantly improve business processes and eliminate wastage.
Shahnawaz has hired one of his MBA lecturers, Patrick McLaren, to help implement lean thinking throughout the company. The intervention has, among other things, brought about a profound improvement in the industrial relations in the company, which only a few years before had suffered a strike.
Regal Products’ growth has also fed the need for expansion finance, and throughout the years the business was able to fund its growth through its profits and through bank finance.
About four years ago, Regal Products sought another round of growth funding that included some rebranding, but needed some time for the expansion to bear fruit before they could start repaying the finance.
The only institution that would consider such an arrangement was Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), says Shahnawaz. He believes that dealing with the financier is also helping to prepare his company for large institutional investment that would propel it to a whole new level.
Today, Regal Products normally employs about 80 workers, but the number grows up to 160 during the Christmas peak as DIY home owners embark on home improvement projects.
The company’s footprint currently covers KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Free State, but Shahnawaz’s growth vision stretches beyond the borders of South Africa and into Africa.
The remarkable thing about this vision is not so much its scope as the precise detail with which Shahnawaz is able to describe it. He has a detailed five-year expansion plan, complete with 21 points of investment that he expects to be made.
It is the product of years of hard work, learning and preparation for business growth.