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For Erica and Gordon Miller, business is all about family, which is the source of not only the meaning and joy of their work, but also of the resilience of their company, GEM Plastic Manufacturers in Meyerton, Gauteng. “The atmosphere here is relaxed and warm,” says Erica, who has built GEM up from a single printing machine in the late ‘90s, to a 1000 square metre factory with 21 workers today. The couple’s daughter and son-in-law are both involved in the business and are preparing to take over in the not too distant future when Erica and Gordon, respectively 62 and 72, retire.

The staff have become part of the extended family as well. Their longest-serving worker has been with Erica from the very beginning of the company. He taught her how to operate her first plastics-printing machine that she had bought on auction and set up in a converted chicken run on a smallholding in Walkerville south of Johannesburg. But the family-nature of their business does not mean a slow and laid-back pace – quite the opposite. The whole team is able to pull together at a moment’s notice and work at a furious pace whenever it is necessary, says Erica.

This is how they landed a substantial contract from a large firm one December holiday. Most of the industry had shut down for the festive season, but Erica and Gordon were able to mobilise their team of workers to take on the job for the desperate client. More recently, this kind of team work ensured the very survival of GEM in the face of load-shedding, which is devastating for a plastic manufacturing process. The machines take a while to heat up, and have to stay hot during a production run, which means that many hours of uninterrupted power is required in order to produce anything.

During Stage 6 loadshedding there is scarcely enough time from one black-out to another to produce anything, and if the power cuts out in the middle of a production run the wastage can be enormous. Diesel generators are too expensive to run and solar simply would not be able to generate enough power for the factory. The solution, says Erica, was once again to pull together as one big family. Their staff agreed to break up into shifts throughout the day and night in order to work around load-shedding.

Erica started GEM on a whim in 1997, when a neighbour, who was running a small plastic-bag plant, complained about having to cart his produce to Pretoria for printing. Erica, who was trying out being a stay-at-home mom after working at a bank and a medical aid firm, was keen for something to do as a sideline, and she and Gordan bought a second-hand printer at an auction.

The sideline soon blossomed into a full-time business as Erica started manufacturing plastic bags herself, and three years later the work became so much that Gordon resigned from his banking career to join the business.

An essential part of GEM’s steady growth was Business Partners Limited, who have always been ready with finance whenever the banks were unwilling. In fact, it was a bank that referred Erica to Business Partners in 2014 for finance to buy out her sister and brother-in-law who joined GEM’s move to formal factory premises in Meyerton. Since then, Business Partners have financed several of GEM’s state-of-the-art machines.

Erica foresees the continuation of GEM’s steady growth, but never to a size so big that she no longer knows everyone in the business. Instead, the aim is to evolve the company’s strength in niche manufacturing, especially in the production of recyclable plastics which her daughter has pioneered for the company.

This, for Erica, is their biggest achievement – a business that continues to drive prosperity from one generation to the next of a large, closely knit family.

About the Author: BPL Admin

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