The pivotal moment in Down’s career as an entrepreneur was also the lowest. In 1996 the property market fell, and Down lost his entire construction business which he had built up over the preceding decade.
After school, Down had studied civil engineering and worked for all of two years for someone else. He was “pushed over the edge” into entrepreneurship when the company he worked for went bust. He always knew he would start out on his own, and took the loss of his job as an opportunity to start his own construction company. It would not be the last time that he would turn a setback into an opportunity.
Things went well. Soon he was employing his father and they built their business on the opportunities that were opening up in mass RDP housing.
In 1996, when the market fell, they found themselves completely exposed. Not only was their company liquidated, but Down himself was sequestrated. Little did he know at that stage that he was about to embark on one of the greatest learning curves of his life.
Some subcontractors with whom he worked in the past asked him to take on an opportunity in the emerging field of vehicle tracking technology. They put up of the money, and Down put in the sweat equity. Despite the fact that he worked on a computer for the first time only three years before, he built up the technology company and took it to listing on the JSE within scarcely two and a half years.
The experience was empowering on several levels for Down. The listing was a huge financial success, and Down could exit the company with his wealth restored, ready for his next venture.
The corporatisation of their electronics firm as it listed on the JSE showed him how an owner-managed business can be scaled up and controlled remotely through proper reporting structures and professional management.
“I used to be very hands-on. Right up until after we sold on the stock exchange, I used to control every cent. But then I had to work (at the newly listed company) for a year and I watched (professional managers) taking control and stepping back. They sort of taught me how to let a company run itself and just to give it strategic guidance. So what I do now is I buy a company, and look for the opportunities to take it up to the next level,” says Down, adding, “It’s all about people and keeping them motivated.”
Most importantly, Down found that the experience of being able to pick himself up after having lost everything, had liberated him from the fear of failure.
“Once you’ve fallen and you’ve gone through the dip, you realise that no matter what happens, you’ll always be able to pick yourself up because you’ve got skills that will allow you to survive. Your fear of failure falls away, and as soon as that happens, you are able to see things clearer.”
Down says he is now able to take quick decisions when he spots opportunities.
Today, Down is involved in no fewer than three business, including an industrial pump manufacturer, a surfboard manufacturer and a metal foundry based in Benoni, called Hi Alloy Castings.
Down plays a non-executive leadership role in Hi Alloy. He says he has been exceptionally fortunate in having three fantastic partners, Daryl Meyer, Frans Smit and Anton Britz, a team which allows him to think strategically about the business rather than getting bogged down in operations. His solution to a bad patch that the business went through last year during which they had to scale back from 160 to about 120 workers is indicative of a bold strategic move that they as a team are able to make.
Rather than just cutting back and leaving it at that, Down and his team decided on an expansion plan that included some upgrades, and negotiated a loan with Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) to finance part of the plan.
He says the banks would not have considered financing the plan, especially after the dip in the business last year. BUSINESS/PARTNERS, however, takes what Down calls “an entrepreneurial view” of the business, looking at the business potential rather than the balance sheet.
Down is optimistic that Hi Alloy will be able to settle the loan of about R2m within a year.
As for the future, there is little sign that Down’s eagerness for new business will be fading any time soon. “You tend to use the energy of the people around you,” he says.
His next plan involves a company, not yet operational, with the aim to grow it to listing internationally, a project that no doubt requires a certain amount of fearlessness that only comes with hard-won experience.