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 Curiosity, tenacity make this business owner no roll-over

 

 Christine Geldart is used to the look in the eyes of many of the men in the metal industry when she walks into the meeting room, the look that says “Oh goodness, what does this little poppie know?”

She has never let it stand in her way of building up her company, Marven Equipment, from the ranks of thousands of tiny bakkie canopy makers to one of South Africa’s top manufacturers. 

Two characteristics of the 52-year-old business owner has enabled her to sweep away any male chauvinism as a mere irritation in her extraordinary career. One, she was born with an insatiable curiosity about science, the world and how things work. Two, she never gives up. 

Today Marven Equipment’s 2100 square meter factory in Benoni is bursting at the seams with 46 workers and state-of-the-art metal working equipment. The company designs and fits custom-made work infrastructure to the back of bakkies and trucks, and manufactures its own patented world-leading roll-over protection structures branded Ndlovu.

Christine was born in Mozambique and came to South Africa with her mother, who worked as a translator, and her father, who was a cattle farmer in Mozambique but became a fitter and turner in South Africa. 

Christine reckons she inherited her restless energy from her father, who was always busy building something, often with her at his side. While her peers played with dolls, she became fascinated by the first personal computers, and her parents always encouraged her to pursue her interests. 

Studying IT at Wits Tech was a logical next step after school even though the field was almost completely dominated by men. Christine says it was tremendously exciting to enter such a revolutionising and rapidly evolving industry.

After her studies she entered the corporate world, starting as a data capturer, and steadily moved up the corporate ladder working in the IT departments of Toyota SA and Ford, among others. She ended up leading many IT teams and specialising in enterprise resource planning and material requirement planning applications, which proved very useful for later running her own company. 

Christine says she virtually worked herself out of a corporate job. She had set up the IT system for the head office of a diversified multi-national financial corporate, changed the company’s IT philosophy, and “was sitting in my glass office watching the system tick over”. She was bored stiff. 

Her then husband ran a small factory making catering equipment, and had run into cash-flow difficulties by 2004. When he suggested that she join him, she jumped at it as an opportunity to do her own thing. She found the freedom and excitement of entrepreneurship exhilarating.

Soon she was running her own aluminium canopy-making business alongside her husband’s stainless steel business. She started with one worker and rudimentary welding and grinding equipment, but with her relentless curiosity, she learned everything she could about metal manufacturing materials and techniques, and started innovating. 

“I was never afraid to ask if I didn’t know things. I Google it, I find out, I phone people until I gain an understanding,” she says. 

Using computer simulations to test her canopies, Marven Equipment introduced square designs which proved much stronger than the rounded canopies that was on the market at the time. At the same time, she targeted large corporate fleet managers, making contact with local technicians and moving up to regional managers in order to get to the head office to pitch her products. It was a tedious process, but Christine never gives up. Soon Marven was building work stations and specialised canopies for fleets of bakkies.

In 2007, a new law requiring mine vehicles to have protective roll bars and reinforcement against falling objects turned into a major opportunity for Marven, but it required Christine to fend off a major international competitor who was ready to sell their already existing systems to the local mines. 

Christine spent many nights researching solutions, and her company built no fewer than nine prototypes before they managed to beat the competition with a stronger, more light-weight product. 

One of the highlights of her career was when she presented her Ndlovu range of rollover protection systems to the board of BHP Billiton - one of only three women in a hair-raising meeting of more than 40 men - and aced it. 

By 2010, all the big mining companies had approved Ndlovu, and the orders came streaming in. Christine sold off the catering company in order to focus on the vehicle systems. 

In 2013, Christine was diagnosed with cancer, and a year later a SARS audit slapped Marven with an eye-watering tax bill. 

A lesser entrepreneur may well have thrown in the towel at this point, but not Christine. The banks refused her finance applications, but she remembered her former husband’s dealings with Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), through which they bought the building that Marven occupied. 

Based on Marven’s promise and Christine’s strength as an entrepreneur, BUSINESS/PARTNERS agreed to finance the tax shortfall. “What is great about BUSINESS/PARTNERS is their mentorship. They don’t leave you alone, but they are not in your face all the time either,” she says. 

Christine is also making use of BUSINESS/PARTNERS’ Technical Assistance facility, in the form of an interest-free loan, to help her gain ISO accreditation for Marven, which she hopes to get before the end of the year.

A next step for Christine is to focus on building specialised bodies for working vehicles instead of just retrofitting adaptations on top of existing bodies. She is also passionate about convincing the minibus taxi industry to adopt Marven’s rollover protection system which will save many lives. 

Of late, Christine have had to spend some time away from her business as she fights the cancer, but she has built a strong team which includes her daughter, they manage the business while she recuperates.

She does so with her characteristic determination and curiosity. “I’ve met the most amazing people in the hospital who simply won’t give up,” she says. 

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