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 Pioneering engineers doing it for themselves

 

 In the early nineties, when the brutal conflict in KwaZulu-Natal was at its peak, it was no surprise that Bheki Lembede, the son of a domestic worker and a truck driver in Durban, scored low in almost every subject at school. Schooling in the killing fields of the war between the ANC and IFP was severely disrupted, and there were widespread fears that thousands of young South Africans’ futures would be destroyed even if they survived the conflict.

What was surprising about Bheki’s reports were his marks for maths and science. No matter how badly the violence disrupted his schooling, his maths and science scores remained high, showing not only his natural talent for the subjects, but also his enduring interest in them.

Since then, Bheki Lembede has become a shining example of how talent and drive can overcome the worst circumstances, not only as an employee in someone else’s company, but as a pioneering black entrepreneur. 

He became an engineer, and, together with his university friend Landiwe Nene, they built a formidable electrical engineering company called Enzani Technologies. Since 2005, the Johannesburg-based firm has steadily been making a name for itself in designing and manufacturing electrical control systems and automation systems for the mining, renewable energy, railway and water sectors. 

By the time Bheki matriculated in ‘94, his high science and maths marks earned him a place at Wits University and he was snapped up by Sasol where he was soon appointed as a head of a section. 

Sasol is so large and the jobs so specialised that junior engineers only get to use a fraction of their skills, says Bheki, who looked elsewhere for a more stimulating opportunity. He found work as a systems engineer with a small Pretoria-based firm where he was able to exercise all of his engineering skills, and also gained invaluable experience in the financial and bidding side of engineering projects. 

As his experience and confidence grew, so did the desire to take control over his own destiny and build his own company. Even for engineers, a steady job for life had become a thing of the past as modern companies hire per project, says Bheki. Building his own business was the way to create a legacy and to secure wealth. 
He contacted his former university mates and no fewer than three of them were of the same mind. One of them was Landiwe, who was working at Eskom at the time. 
They were young and to a certain extent still unencumbered by family commitments.

Thankfully, they were also somewhat naive about the difficulties of starting a business, else they may have hesitated slightly longer before “plunging into the unknown,” says Bheki.

Bheki brought the further advantage of a commitment by his employer to support them by subcontracting them for his projects. 

In 2005, the four engineers left their jobs and started Enzani Technologies. 
Inevitably, the first few years were much more difficult than anticipated. Bidding for contracts was challenging without a track record, and financiers wanted to see orders first before even considering funding the young company. 
Soon their cashed-out pension funds were depleted. One of the four co-founders, who was the only one with child-care responsibilities at the time, decided to call it quits.

The remaining entrepreneurs persisted, and kept overheads low by working from their homes. They were essentially selling their knowledge and their time rather than products at that stage.

But then came two crucial breakthroughs. Enzani landed a substantial contract to design and install electrical control systems at an Impala Platinum mine and at Johannesburg Water, and has not looked back since then. 

Their work soon included the manufacturing of electrical control panels and the company moved into a 1000 square metre workshop in Ormonde from where they operate and assemble the custom-made control systems they design for their clients. 

At times, their workforce numbered over 400 as they landed more and more projects. Currently, they have a workforce of just more than 60 after a slow year because of the economic downturn.

But in a clear sign that Enzani Technologies has become a solid player in the industry, they were able to buy the premises from their landlord with the help of finance from Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS). 

BUSINESS/PARTNERS provided 100% for the purchase of the property in the form of a ten-year term loan, and with a minority ownership that Enzani will be able to buy out in future.

Most recently, Bheki and Landiwe have bought out the shares of their third co-founder, who opted to explore other business opportunities. 

Looking forward, Bheki says they are optimistic about opportunities in the renewable power generation sector which is bound to grow. Enzani designed systems are already installed in a wind farm in Jeffrey’s Bay and in two solar power stations at De Aar and Droogfontein.

The company’s designs are also operating in several mines to the north of South Africa, and Enzani is planning to increase its international clients. Another frontier for the company is to acquire more machinery so that their fabrication operation evolves from just assembly to the actual manufacture of the sub-components of their systems. 

While the current slump in the economy has had a direct impact on their order book, Bheki knows that Enzani Technologies is set for robust growth. He has overcome much more difficult times in the past.

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