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 Pursuit of quality keeps business growing

 

 The sheer size of the Libra Joiners and Interiors factory in Lansdowne, Cape Town, instantly tells you that this is no ordinary shop fitting business. The slanted green roof towers above the surrounding factories and covers 4 300 square meters and 150 workers.

And the history of Libra tells you that the entrepreneur behind the company is no ordinary businessman. Adnaan Achmat started the business twenty years ago on his own with nothing but a set of old-fashioned skills and old-fashioned values.

He studied woodwork at school, and considers himself lucky to have caught the last wave of apprenticeships before the system was dismantled in the nineties. Today, one of his main struggles in his business, which does high-end shop fitting for the likes of Woolworths, is to find suitably skilled craftsmen. He laments the fact that the learnership system which was supposed to replace apprenticeships is limping, and is very difficult for small and medium businesses to access.

Probably more important than his vocational skills are the values with which he grew up. His father’s youngest brother, with whom he shared a room in the extended-family home when he was growing up in Surrey Estate, planted in him an uncompromising quest for quality in whatever he did. “He always told me: ‘Be the best in whatever you do.’ Those words stuck with me,” says Achmat.

The same uncle, a jeweller, gave him his first job just after school, before he signed up for an apprenticeship at a large shop fitting company.

Another family value with which he grew up was thrift. As long as he could remember, Achmat always managed to save his money, starting with the pocket money he earned when helping his father, a builder turned dental technician.

Even as a qualified artisan he paid most of his wages to his parents until he got married, and the “pocket money” which he kept for himself he saved. By the time he was ready to start his own business, he had R50 000 saved up.

Achmat excelled as a woodworker. He completed his apprenticeship and trade test in record time, and in one year was declared the number-one artisan in South Africa in the National Skills Competition.

His development as a business owner was more gradual. The construction and shop fitting industry was going through drastic changes, not only because of economic fluctuations and new technology, but also because of tightening labour laws. First Achmat became a contract worker as opposed to a full-time employee. A bit later, in 1994, he registered Libra Joinery and started working as a subcontractor, albeit at the premises of his “employers”.

At every opportunity, Achmat deliberately moved towards ever more independence, knowing that he would one day stand on his own two feet. “I wasn’t going to remain a subcontractor my whole life,” he says.

He gradually built his own small team of trusted workers, he carefully learned about the administration, structures and business systems of the firms he was subcontracting to, and he was constantly on the lookout for second-hand equipment with the aim of having his own workshop.

In 1997, he was about to buy all the equipment of a workshop in Epping that was closing down when the owner persuaded him to take over the lease as well, keeping the workshop intact. His “employer” at the time was not very happy to see their top subcontractor move into his own workshop, but they had little choice but to accept his increasing independence.

Libra’s growth was unstoppable, and cemented its reputation with every big project it participated in such as the building of Grandwest Casino and the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Strong working relationships were forged with construction giants such as WBHO and Group Five. Prestigious companies such as Woolworths became regular clients.

The company soon outgrew the Epping premises and since 2003 occupied two adjacent factories in Lansdowne, which Achmat was able to buy. Logistically it was difficult to work from two different premises, and Libra’s continuous growth and strong market position gave Achmat the confidence to take the leap to the next level.

In his biggest finance application to date, Achmat approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) to finance the new factory to the tune of R17m. The deposit that he would have had to raise for traditional bank finance would have crippled his cash flows, but BUSINESS/PARTNERS agreed to take a third of the ownership of the building in lieu of a deposit.

Achmat believes his success stems from his basic business philosophy. Rather than aiming to make money, he aims to complete each job with the highest quality workmanship possible. “Nowadays when contractors are asked to do something extra, they’re always asking: ‘Who’s going to pay me for it?’ When you’re chasing money, you just run around in circles,” says Achmat.

Even though his reputation for quality is well established by now, the construction and shop fitting industry remains a difficult one for a company such as Libra to operate in. Competition is fierce, and often becomes ruinous when clients accept unrealistically low quotes from inexperienced bakkie-based operators.

But there is one thing Achmat knows for sure: “If you chase quality, good business will keep coming your way.”

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