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 Gender equity drives SA entrepreneur to success

 

 There is still a misconception in South Africa that certain sectors are reserved for specific genders, however, Lola Robertson, owner of Armadillo Concepts – a Kempton Park-based manufacturer of high quality automotive roll-top covers – was not deterred by her male counterparts’ misgivings when she started out as a junior buyer at the company, 17 years ago.

Instead, she worked her way up the corporate ladder, initially taking over as general manager and has since become the owner. Along this path she also led the way in shifting misconceptions and today, Armadillo Concepts can proudly say that half of its staff, from senior managers to factory-floor workers, comprise of women.

Gugu Mjadu, executive general manager at Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) says that successful women-owned businesses are especially important in order to inspire South Africa’s younger female generation and showcase entrepreneurship as a viable career path. “The recently released Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women’s Entrepreneurship report 2016/2017, highlights South Africa’s low overall female entrepreneurship rate and attributes it to the relative lack of participation among the younger age groups between 15-35,” says Mjadu.

Mjadu also highlights the low percentage (24,4%) of females who take part in the manufacturing and transport sectors – a stereotypically male-dominated industry.

Armadillo concepts was founded by Amiel Smith, a handyman whose tools were one day stolen off the back of his bakkie. This lead him to conceptualise and create a roller-shutter garage-style door to fit like a lid over the back of his bakkie, and the roll-top bakkie cover was ultimately born.

Smith then refined and patented his invention, and built a company that was largely focused on the export market. But it was a massive local contract to supply Telkom with thousands of specially fitted bakkies that led him to hire Robertson as a junior buyer for a newly developed procurement division.

Subsequently she ended leading a team of six members with a monthly budget of R18 million. Following the retirement of Armadillo’s founder, Robertson had already taken on so much responsibility that she rose to the position of managing director and believed so strongly in the potential of the product, she bought a 20% stake in the company with her savings.

However, a few years later she had the opportunity to cash in her stake when the owner wanted to sell the company to a manufacturing firm from KwaZulu-Natal. “I could not accept the fact that the prospective owners were planning major retrenchments that would leave our factory gutted, so I started with the buy-out process,” she explains.

However, the daunting prospect of the huge amount of debt that she was about to sign up for started stirring doubts in her mind, until someone pointed out that she had successfully managed and developed the business for six years as an employed MD and, as majority owner, she would have even more freedom to shape the business to her vision.

This proved true, but not before Robertson’s talents as a manufacturing entrepreneur were severely tested. A year after she bought the company, Armadillo’s distributor in the UK went under, leaving a R1,7m black hole in the company’s books.

Robertson tackled the crisis with characteristic resolve by implementing a strict policy of austerity in the company, some of which still helps to keep Armadillo sleek and efficient today. She also steered the company to broaden the scope of its work. “Previously the business would turn away jobs that were slightly outside of the usual, but now we take on almost any request from the market which has resulted in our truck-door division’s turnover growing by as much as 70%,” says Robertson.

Robertson’s innovative approach extends beyond a focus on products to the management of her staff, which she describes as the most important aspect of her job. The gender equity that she has brought into the business has helped with the broadening of the company’s products from the bakkie to the home.  “Apart from the roll-top covers for vehicles, we now also produce a high-end cover for pools and safety shutters for homes and aim to develop a new line at least every three years.

“It was through Robertson’s persistence, drive and entrepreneurial prowess that she grew the business into the successful and inclusive business that it is today. Her thriving company is proof of the vitality and potential of South African innovation in the manufacturing space and should be seen as an opportunity for all genders,” Mjadu concludes.

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