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 The ultimate test of the strength of a business

 

 The ultimate test of the strength of a business is if it can survive the loss of key people and still keep on flourishing.

Michelle Adcock, CEO of Electrocoat, says the death of her mother, Gloria Bloem, a year ago was a devastating blow to the business she had built with her husband Joe Bloem. And a few months later the production manager of the small family-owned coating business in Port Elizabeth, Danny Schoombie, died tragically in a car accident.

Michelle believes there is no bigger tribute to her mother’s business prowess than the fact that the business continued without any loss of clientele, turnover, production or even a single missed deadline. It simply kept on ticking over like the well-oiled machine that was its founder-CEO Gloria’s pride and passion.

Michelle says the tight systems engineered by her parents, who started Electrocoat in 2008 as a “retirement project”, held the workforce of just over twenty people together as they tried to overcome the shock. The investment in quality control by way of a stringent ISO system paid off, and Michelle was able to step into her mother’s role and recruit a new production manager without the loss of a single order.

In the normal course of running a business, the paperwork involved in keeping ISO certification can be a tedious, says Michelle, but the system really came into its own when the crises struck.

Michelle believes that another reason for the strength of Electrocoat was the flat staffing structure and the cultivation of a constant flow of information between all the members of the team. The Bloems decided to run Electrocoat, started with a multi-million rand loan from Business Partners Limited in 2008, without staff meetings. Instead, each manager knows when to inform the others of important developments on their watch, and information is constantly shared. This meant that every member of the team has a holistic view of the business, and can step into each other’s roles with relatively little disruption.

But Michelle says filling shoes of those they have lost remains a challenge. For example, it is tricky to find a balance between the job of production manager as described by the system they’ve developed, and the personality of the new production manager. It is important that he is given space to bring his own personal style to the job and to the team, she says.

As for her taking over as new CEO, she had been well prepared by her mother, who had suffered from a rare auto-immune lung ailment. Gloria had to use oxygen while she worked and Michelle was groomed to stand in for her when a suitable donor for a lung-transplant was found. Unfortunately, it never happened. Gloria worked up until three days before her death and Michelle found that she had to step into a pair of enormously entrepreneurial shoes.

Electrocoat was the Bloems’ fourth business, each of them built up into success. The couple moved from Johannesburg to the mining town Phalaborwa in the early eighties to start a fibre-glass business in the mining industry. They sold the business and retired to Port Elizabeth (PE) to be close to Michelle who was raising a young family there.

But the Bloems’ entrepreneurial drive did not allow for retirement, and as soon as they turned around the derelict game farm they had bought, they sold it to buy a small electroplating business that supplied to PE’s dominant motor-vehicle manufacturing industry. It was here that they identified the opportunity for an electro-coating plant, a cutting-edge process where paint is applied to the surface of automotive components using an electrical current.

Their formidable entrepreneurial track record convinced Business Partners Limited to finance the R6 million plant that was commissioned and built from scratch in Johannesburg before being assembled in PE. Despite launching as the world economy crashed in 2008, Electrocoat flourished, and is completely debt-free today.

Growth prospects are good. The car industry has recovered well, and Electrocoat remains on the forefront of the technology. Output can expand by adding a third shift and turning Electrocoat into a 24-hour operation. Then there is a need for a new plant that can handle larger objects – an opportunity that Michelle knows her mother was keen on.

For now, though, Michelle is still making sure that the business and the team, including her 66-year-old father Joe, are strong enough to take the next step and fulfil Gloria’s dream.

Michelle, who clearly has inherited the entrepreneurial traits of her parents, has also developed a food business of her own, called Gourmet Goddess.

She says that although they would probably be able to get expansion finance from any number of financiers, she would not think twice about approaching Business Partners Limited first. Not only do they give finance, but also mentorship and deep industry knowledge. And, for the past year, Business Partners Limited also provided emotional support.

Michelle, who clearly has inherited the entrepreneurial traits of her parents, has also developed a food business of her own, called The Gourmet Goddess. She is assisted by her fiancé, Henry Clapton and together they make a formidable team with great plans for the future.

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