“We don’t see our customers as just customers,” states Julian Lipson, General Manager of Waco Industries, “we see them as partners that we forge close relationships with from day one as we work to meet their requirements and solve their problems.” It is this approach to business that has seen Waco grow from an importer of industrial plugs and sockets into one of the biggest manufacturers and distributors of industrial electrical products in Southern Africa.
From its humble beginnings in 1949 Waco Industries grew steadily over the subsequent decades, becoming part of the Voltex group in 1991, which itself merged into the industrial division of Bidvest, BidIndustrial, in 2002. Since then Waco has expanded its product range and infrastructure in South Africa to the point where today is distributes a range of well-known local and international brands, such as ABB Enclosures, Phillips Lighting, 3M Products, CCG Glands and CRC Maintenance Chemicals, to the electrical wholesale trade and original equipment manufacturers.
From its 9,000 square metre distribution warehouse the company receives and distributes its comprehensive range of more than 6,000 line items. “We have always seen ourselves as something of a wholesalers wholesaler,” Lipson explains, “and as such we have always endeavoured to act as a one-stop-shop for our customers, providing them with a plethora of solutions and items. In many ways this has created a scenario where the wholesalers see us as something of a warehouse ourselves and as such we work tirelessly to ensure that we act as a reliable, constantly stocked warehouse.”
Waco has five main divisions that make up its business. Its general products division consists of products lugs and ferules, tools, step ladders, air conditioners and many more electrical, contractor and hardware orientated products, while its power products segment consists of various technical industrial products such as rotary switches, timers, sensors, enclosures and LG switchgear.
Waco’s lighting division meanwhile consists of two parts, the first being light sources and lamps, which comprise Phillips at the top end of the market and Waco branded, economically priced lamps, while the second is light fittings. Here the company supplies both locally manufactured products from Prism and a range of imported light fittings mainly for domestic use.
The aviation warning beacons that the company produces are particularly interesting as they link back to Waco’s invention of said beacons which are today used by many large telecommunication companies and airports. These beacons serve as warning devices that can be placed on high buildings, masts, towers and cranes. These products are very robust and designed to withstand Africa’s unique environmental conditions, and have become a highly profitable part of Waco’s business. Last but not least is Waco’s latest venture, its fixings and fasteners division.
The core of Waco’s business in its early years centred around industry plugs and sockets, and these simple yet hugely important products remain crucial to its customers, particularly those in the mining sector where virtually every mine across the world uses a vast number of them. These plugs and sockets remain the biggest single product that the company sells to customers in the mining sector.
“In the last several years the market around us has changed rather dramatically from being one in which the majority of products that we supply would be sourced from local manufacturers to one where anyone can source cheap goods from China,” Lipson continues. “This has meant that we have had to rethink our own approach and this has led to our business becoming much more nimble and research focused then we were say 15 or 20 years ago.”
Another of Waco's key objectives is to keep on expanding its product range in order to keep up with technology and the changing needs of its customers. Waco's innovative approach ensures that its products stay up-to-date with customer needs and has to-date enabled it to develop entire systems. The company’s research & development department develops systems from the ground up and refines customers' needs to produce many successful end-products.
Energy is very much the source of Waco’s growth today and with the cost of energy, particularly in South Africa, soaring in the last five years or so the company has become more involved than ever in energy saving initiatives, primarily in the areas of water heating and lighting. In the former category Waco has been getting more and more involved in the supply and installation of heat pumps. With research showing that these devices can produce electricity savings of up to 70 percent there has been a surge in demand for these solutions, particularly from mine operators looking to make significant cost savings.
“The development of LED lighting in the last three years has also been a source of real interest for us,” Lipson says. “Energy saving initiatives will play a big role in our business over the coming months and years and we believe that the single biggest growth area for us will be LED lighting, while we anticipate reaching its peak by no later than 2015. While it is reaching this peak we will be putting in a great deal of effort in the form of research and development to establish Waco as the leading player in this field of expertise.”
Since the start of July, Waco Industries has taken over responsibility for growing the retail market for electrical products on behalf of Bid Electrical. The company’s increased involvement in the retail side of electrical distribution comes at a time when a consumer led boom continues to spread out across African countries.
“I believe,” Lipson concludes, “that consumer consumption is going to continue playing a big role when it comes to GDP growth in South Africa and we feel that this is steadily being replicated across the rest of Africa as well. Coupled with the growth of the mining sector across the continent and the development of oil and gas fields in and around the Western coast we are very confident that future opportunities for our company are out there and waiting for us.”
Written by Will Daynes, research by Paul Bradley