Her father was a formidable entrepreneur who started as a fruit seller and built up the multi-million rand Chilwan’s bus company in Cape Town. Her six brothers all joined the family business. Oaten certainly felt like a square peg in a round hole more than once in her life.
Yet the entrepreneur inside her could not help but emerge, and today she runs the pioneering vehicle-testing business AVTS Roadworthy Stations, with seven branches and a staff complement of 78. She is also the co-CEO of the South African branch of the German multinational testing, inspection and certification company TÜV SÜD. She is a leading figure in both the Businesswomen’s Association and the Retail Motor Industry, has previously served on two government boards and has received awards such as the Most Influential Woman in Business and Government in the Services Sector.
Her unusual journey has taught her an important truth: no matter what you do, no matter how menial the job, the insights you gain will help you in your own business one day. “Even if it bores you, it will stand you in good stead. They are all stepping stones,” she says.
Oaten had a taste of it in her first job at Koeberg power station, which she landed because she did French as one of the subjects in her librarianship qualification at UCT, and the French-built Koeberg had more than just English documentation in its archives. She spent the first three months filing aperture cards that contained information about the different systems of the power station. As boring as it was, the filing project allowed her to become familiar with aspects of the plant which was a necessity in the subsequent jobs she held. Not surprisingly, she moved up the ranks at Koeberg, and for the next 13 years worked in documentation and records management (and the library), human resources, management services and quality process management.
It was the best possible training ground for an entrepreneur in the vehicle-testing business, which requires strict control systems over processes, the maintenance of standards, and compliance to regulations. A vehicle-testing station cannot be allowed to be run informally, as so many start-up businesses do.
For a long time, vehicle roadworthy testing stations were run only by government departments, but in 1989, this function was privatised. Oaten’s brothers saw the business opportunity, designed and built a “state of the art” testing station and persuaded her to run it on behalf of the family business. Seeing her role as a corporate manager hired to run an established business, she took over the station at the end of 1992 and soon realised that it was much more than that. Her brothers left her to it, and she found herself fully in charge of a fledgling business in which lots of pioneering had to be done.
She laid down standards and systems fit for a nuclear power station, and added good customer service to differentiate the business from the dozens of municipal testing stations that were still around.
It was only when the family transport business stopped trading, that the entrepreneur in Oaten fully emerged. She decided to buy AVTS and build it as her own business.
She managed to raise bank finance for the purchase of the business, using her husband’s house as collateral. She also negotiated finance with Business Partners to buy the property on which the testing station was built. Today, Business Partners still own a minority share in it.
Oaten embarked on an energetic expansion programme, opening a new station almost every year. Business Partners have helped her to finance new projects, such as the weigh bridge at her Airport Industria branch. She says just like the entrepreneurs whom Business Partners celebrate, the organisation itself is a square peg in the round hole of ordinary finance. It takes calculated risks on the potential of the entrepreneur rather than on the balance sheet of the business.
The 2008 financial crash hit the retail motor industry hard, and vehicle testing was the next domino in the line. This, together with the fact that there was a proliferation of testing stations before the government started putting stricter standards in place, meant that AVTS had to do some serious belt-tightening.
“We didn’t retrench anybody at the time. I sold my Merc, and drove a Charade. I called it my Charrari,” says Oaten.
The hard times revealed that Oaten, in spite of having been such a reluctant entrepreneur, truly fits the profile of Business Partners’ square peg movement, aimed at celebrating and unleashing South Africa’s entrepreneurs. Oaten has joined the movement because it encourages South Africans to defy standard categories, to think and act differently, especially when it comes to solving problems. “When you look at the businesses that are thriving, they were started by people who make their own space. They swim a little upstream when others swim downstream,” she says.
Arguably, creating your own space and acting entrepreneurially is even tougher in the vehicle-testing industry because it is highly regulated. For example, vehicle testers may not offer repair services. But that has not stopped Oaten from thinking out of the box.
She introduced value-added testing and evaluation of vehicles over and above narrow roadworthy checks. Additional services, such as the correcting of light beams, vehicle assessments and comprehensive testing have been added. Paid-for services that do not clash with the regulations are offered, such as number-plate sales, the weighing of vehicles and micro-dotting – a spray-on vehicle identification method. And Oaten has taken AVTS to a higher level by maintaining ISO 9001 certification since 2002. She also consults to the local industry as well as internationally, helping to set up and commission a vehicle-testing company in Mauritius among other projects. Today, 15% of AVTS’s revenue comes from services other than roadworthy testing.
An important step forward for AVTS was partnering with the German TÜV SÜD, which now holds 26% of her company. Her work as co-CEO of TÜV SÜD South Africa is supposed to take a fifth of her working time. Asked if she manages to contain it all within a work day, she simply says: “ I have a great team, and I work at night.”
No strict closing times for this librarian