Coping with calamity

Jan 07 2013 13:20
Cape Town - How do you keep things going when tragedy strikes and your family business loses not just one but two key staff members in succession?

Michelle Adcock, CEO of Port Elizabeth metal coating business Electrocoat, says the loss of her mother a year ago was a devastating blow to the business she had built with her husband Joe Bloem.

A few months after Gloria Bloem's death the production manager of the small family-owned business, Danny Schoombie, died 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 or production.

It simply kept on ticking over like the well-oiled machine that was its founder-CEO Gloria’s pride and passion.

So what was their secret? Michelle says the tight systems engineered by her parents, who started Electrocoat in 2008 as a “retirement project”, held the workforce of just over 20 people together as they tried to overcome the shock.

The investment in quality control by way of a stringent International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) industry guideline system paid off, enabling Michelle to take over 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 pain, says Michelle, but the system really came into its own when calamity struck.

No staff meetings

Michelle believes another reason for the strength of Electrocoat was its 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 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 means that every member of the team has a holistic view of the business, and that they can step into each other’s roles with relatively little disruption.

But Michelle says filling the 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 have developed, and the personality of the new production manager.

Michelle had been well trained for the CEO role by her mother, who suffered from a rare auto-immune lung ailment.

Gloria had to use oxygen while she worked and Michelle was carefully groomed to stand in for her when a suitable lung transplant donor was found. Unfortunately, it never happened.

Gloria worked up until three days before her death, when Michelle suddenly found herself at the helm of the family firm.

Electrocoat was the Bloems’ fourth successful business. They moved from Johannesburg to the mining town of Phalaborwa in the early 1980s to start a fibre-glass business in the mining industry.

They sold the business and retired to Port Elizabeth to be close to Michelle, who was raising a young family there.

But the Bloems’ entrepreneurial drive did not allow them to sit back. Soon after turning 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 which applies paint to the surface of automotive components using an electrical current.

Their formidable entrepreneurial track record convinced Business Partners to finance the R6m plant that was commissioned and built from scratch in Johannesburg before being assembled in PE.

Debt-free despite the global slowdown

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.

The company can expand production by adding a third shift and turning Electrocoat into a 24-hour operation. It also needs a new plant that can handle larger objects – an opportunity Michelle knows her mother was keen on.

But for now, 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 has clearly inherited her parents' entrepreneurial drive, has also developed a food business of her own called Gourmet Goddess. 

 - Fin24

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