The cool Highveld breeze snaps the corner of the neon-yellow safety waistcoat as she steps out of the office building into the yard, the white hard-hat sitting comfortably on her head.
Fortunate Mdanda takes confident strides in a traditionally male world of metal and machines. There are other women through the workshop doors, setting off sprays of sparks as they wield welders and grinders. Under Fortunate’s watchful eye as CEO of Smith Capital Equipment, there is an internship programme for women, and the company actively recruits female engineers.
Her background is not in engineering, but her corporate experience in business strategy, process and finance has amply equipped her for the position.
If you have a mind for business, there is no need to feel restricted to more traditionally female pursuits. “I’ve never looked at industries based on gender. I’ve looked at what one can contribute. So it is a consolidated effort of all the right skills within the business that makes it successful,” she says.
When Fortunate and Sipho Mdanda took ownership of Smith Capital Equipment on the 2nd of November 2015, the existing management and workforce were in for a major culture change.
After over two decades of democratic governance in South Africa, the company was still caught up in an apartheid time warp, with separate amenities for the races.
With racial and gender barriers swept aside, there was yet another sweeping change. The company’s 84 employees became shareholders.
“We created a shareholding for both management and staff, across race, across gender, so it’s inclusive, it’s a very exciting space for all of us at Smith Capital,” says Fortunate.
But change always comes with some growing pains. “I must admit at the beginning it is a new concept when people are told they are shareholders. It comes with excitement, but they’re sort of sceptical. What does that bring? Is there money into our pocket immediately? So it took us a while to communicate the upside of being a shareholder and the responsibilities that come with being a shareholder,” she says.
“But now we’re at a space where we all really understand and are excited about being shareholders. People don’t just come in, do their work and walk out. There is transparency, there is excitement in terms of where the business is going, everyone shares in everything, the strategies of the business, the prospects, and we all share in the excitements and the challenges that we face as a business.”
The core business of this 43 year old company is the manufacturing of on-road aerial platforms and drilling rigs used for water well and hard rock surface drilling in the mining industry and pole planting for new infrastructure. Equipment is locally designed and manufactured, with drilling rigs and aerial platforms boasting over 90% local content.
Then there is the import side of the business, with truck mounted cranes brought in from Italy, as well as the ongoing service aspect of the business.
Through a recently introduced rental division, the company encourages local contractors, who experience financial barriers to entry and cannot afford upfront procurement the necessary capital equipment they need to deliver on contracts they obtain.
“This division is actually picking up very well,” Fortunate explains, “and also we are talking to other DFI’s in terms of coming up with a plan how we can support emerging contractors.”
Repairs and maintenance as well as regular load-testing are other important facets of the business.
More black industrialists are emerging with encouragement from the government. The biggest barrier to entry has been funding. “Now with the DFI (development finance institutions) being open to assisting entrepreneurs growing into being industrialists, I see endless opportunities being presented,” she says.
What is important here is that it goes beyond more than purely facilitating funding, but in providing support in skills training, and opening business opportunities and new markets.
“Sometimes you find you have the best product but you can’t put it out there, you can’t export it because you find every process when it comes to structured processes that you need to go through are actually barriers to making one successful.”
The Gauteng Provincial Government and the City of Ekurhuleni, where Smith Capital Equipment is headquartered, have made efforts to make it easier to do business.
Although the company had been exporting for years, it hadn’t been a major strategy. “Now we’re turning that around, we’re sending units into Africa, which is very impressive. We’re getting enquiries, a lot as well, because our products are African products, not South African products. They are designed for the African terrain. It is different to sending a product anywhere in the world. So we understand what Africa is about, we understand the terrain and we understand our neighbouring countries as well, so doing business with them is quite interesting and exciting and there is actually an increase in opportunities that are being presented.”
Smith Capital Equipment falls under the umbrella of Isipho Capital Holdings, which is wholly owned by Fortunate and her husband Sipho Mdanda. Their first acquisition was Kholeka Engineering, a manufacturer of truck bodies and trailers, based in KwaZulu-Natal.
“We funded it from our own savings. All we wanted to do was to have the skin in the game and to ensure that we can prove to ourselves that we can work hard and turn the business around. That happened and then came the Smith Capital deal. A few other deals are in the pipeline, so it’s quite exciting,” Fortunate says.
Because Smith Capital Equipment required considerable investment, the Mdandas secured a loan of R41 million (around $3 million) through the National Empowerment Fund. The company has since been identified as one of the 100 Black Industrialists by the Department of Trade and Industry, has established strong BEE credentials and is ISO 9001 registered.
Looking at the day-to-day operations of Smith Capital and the commitment and enthusiasm of their 84 shareholders, the dreams and plans for an expanding Isipho Capital Holdings seem bright and achievable. The future will tell if this is the birth of a new African business dynasty.
While there is much to do in running the business and creating and building an inclusive culture, there is much industry networking to be done as well.
“Sadly, engineer-run businesses are inward looking, that’s how Smith Capital was. But, with our experiences from corporate, you learn that business doesn’t come to you, you go look for business. You go make your presence felt and you get known what your offering is, which makes a world of difference. There is no platform that doesn’t exist in growing and advancing your business and creating the network that it might not be for the now, but next time around you thought that I met a certain person at dinner, and then you can just pick up with them and you make business,” Fortunate says.
While Fortunate has achieved much in the business arena, she defines as her biggest achievement her and Sipho’s two teenage children – 18-year-old son Luyanda and 15-year-old daughter Noluthando.
No doubt she is a great role model to Noluthando, as she actively supports the development of women in her industry. Her advice for young women wanting to break into any previously male dominated industry is to be positive and prepared to learn. “Open yourself to learning and embrace the opportunities. With anything you do there will be challenges, but if you’re open minded and positive about it and put in the hours in terms of the hard work, it works out well.”