A window on the world
Andrew Pelis talks to one market leading manufacturer about the importance of protecting product quality when venturing into new markets, both at home and overseas.
All companies will tell you that growth is the key to success but of course the downside is that when it happens too quickly, it can overwhelm a business and even lead to its destruction. It is fair to say that when Hillaldam saw its window of opportunity to enter the global marketplace, it did so with a carefully measured strategy that has helped the company through the recent economic turbulence.
Hillaldam Coburn Systems is a long-established South African manufacturer of specialist sliding hardware which is extensively used for doors and windows in homes, offices, schools, hospitals, restaurants, shops, warehouses, factories and aircraft hangers. Over the past five years it has extended its reach beyond being South AfricaÔÇÖs market leader, to the UK, Australia, Asia and beyond.
Yet from its first steps in South Africa, the company was steeped in international history, as managing director Rowan Dancer describes: ÔÇ£We started out as a UK-based company called Hillaldam Sliding Door Gear and my great-grandfather brought the agency to South Africa where we sold products on their behalf. The business really took off and in 1958 we began manufacturing here in Johannesburg as a joint venture under my grandfather; then in the 1980s we became an independent company.ÔÇØ
Dancer says that the company remains very much a family-run entity, boasting a 5,500 square metre site at its headquarters in Johannesburg, and a 1,000 square metre facility in Natal, which provides a base for the companyÔÇÖs specialised products and technical development.
ÔÇ£As a boy, with my family, we spent the holidays working in the factory on the drill presses and manning assembly tables etc, so we have a real feel for our wide range of products and the marketplace,ÔÇØ says Dancer. ÔÇ£Today we manufacture over 2,000 different products and varietiesÔÇönot the actual doors or windows themselves, but the hardware that makes them slide. These are typically made of combinations of steel, aluminium, brass or nylon.ÔÇØ
While Dancer acknowledges the industry is a niche one, it is also broadly spread; and HillaldamÔÇÖs products cater for a wide range of applications. Market intelligence and insight into customer needs has given the company its position of strength. ÔÇ£We are probably the market leader domestically because we talk to all the markets and understand our customers best. It is essential to understand who does what and to cater for their needs. Today, we supply a host of merchantsÔÇötypically builders merchants and DIY stores, plus the steel and timber suppliers, manufacturers of aluminium and glass doors and the more specialised steel manufacturers who build aircraft hangars, for example.ÔÇØ
Roughly two thirds of the companyÔÇÖs 140-strong workforce is based at the Johannesburg site. The majority are factory workers: skilled fitters, turners and welders, as well as those who work on the assembly lines. Dancer says that training plays a crucial role in the companyÔÇÖs progression and this has been backed up by its subscription to the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority (merSETA), a body dedicated to teaching skills to previously disadvantaged people. ÔÇ£We put a fair whack into our social responsibility commitment,ÔÇØ he states, ÔÇ£and this year we were recognised by merSETA as one of their top 100 companies. We are also enrolled in the Black Empowerment initiative in South Africa and our training programmes aim to encourage personal development among our workers. We are a family-owned business but that doesnÔÇÖt have to mean we are family-run in the future. Everyone here knows that my job is open for them if they can prove themselves and we have some great examples of staff working their way up from the assembly floor into management.ÔÇØ
The companyÔÇÖs overseas initiatives have really gathered pace over the past five years. Dancer says that previously, approximately 85 to 90 per cent of HillaldamÔÇÖs work was for the domestic market, whereas today, export accounts for 30 per cent and is rising. The change in market focus is now driving the need for change at shop floor level, as Dancer explains. ÔÇ£Over the last couple of years we have begun to seriously look at ways to improve our efficiency and we recognise that large expansion internationally will put strains on some areas of operations.
ÔÇ£We are now working towards ISO 9002 accreditation and hope to achieve this by the end of the year. There are lots of basic processes that need to be looked at and over the last four months we have started to instil a new sense of culture and have explained to our workers how this will benefit everyone.ÔÇØ
He emphasises the importance of quality and believes that ISO accreditation will merely reinforce this advantage. ÔÇ£Quality is the crux of our businessÔÇöwe are known throughout the industry for this, and for our innovation. China represents a challenge and has affected market prices but the quality of our products stands out. Our research and development work is very proactive and has led to the creation of hugely popular items like our Vistafold sliding folding products, which are now famous worldwide.ÔÇØ
So what of the future? ÔÇ£Well, along with our ISO aspirations we are now starting to introduce IT to some of our manual processes here in Johannesburg. Our Natal site tends to be more automated but again, we are looking at ways to improve efficiency whilst maintaining our reputation for quality both locally and overseas,ÔÇØ says Dancer.
The company has taken a stepped approach to entering new markets and has spent a lot of time on research and travel before launching in the UK and Australia. ÔÇ£More recently, we have also entered the Asian market but we did so conservatively and in the knowledge that our quality must not be compromised,ÔÇØ Dancer explains. ÔÇ£Longer term, North America would be fantastic but we need to know the market and legislative issues first.ÔÇØ
Product protection has become an issue for Hillaldam in recent years, particularly given its appetite for innovation; but reflecting on the companyÔÇÖs biggest challenge brings Dancer back to its ambitions. ÔÇ£Expansion represents our biggest challenge, but we feel that ISO accreditation will bring more control as we start to get bigger. You have to have a five year plan, and our ambition is to be a renowned global competitor,ÔÇØ he concludes.