Mention Transman and people’s eyes flicker with recognition. “Oh yes, the company with the Beetles.” Managing director Angela Dick says the highly visible yellow, red and black vehicles were chosen specifically to position the brand strongly in people’s minds. She likes to make a statement. As if placing 10 000 people from previously disadvantaged communities into the workplace daily were not enough, the somewhat eccentric 2006 Business Women’s Association Entrepreneur of the Year has driven her company’s revenue from R85 000 in 1983, to R400 million today. She lets Entrepreneur in on how she waves her wand and brandishes her whip.
Angela Dick trained as a teacher, the only profession other than nursing open at the time to a bright young girl from a conservative Natal background. “I could not see myself working behind a counter as a sales assistant, and bedpans and blood were too horrific a thought, so teaching it was,” she says.
The daughter of renowned portrait photographer Norman Partington, Dick was raised to “marry well”. It was a path she resisted. “I knew that if I trained as a teacher, I would at least have a piece of paper that says I can do something.” She made it though college despite being bored, and was surprised to find that she enjoyed teaching. “The psychological aspects of education drew me, particularly the ability to impart information to young minds and to reap the rewards that come with witnessing their development,” she says.
Dick learnt much from teaching. “It taught me to look at the entirety of work requirements, to set objectives over a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, and minute by minute. That was an invaluable lesson.” She also gained a great deal of experience in dealing with different groups of learners with varying skills. “We had two options: to educate by rote; or to look at the best way of ensuring understanding. I chose the latter, and my teaching was based on establishing comprehension.”
Being a speech and drama teacher taught her the skills of persuasion which today she sees as fundamental to her sales ability. “It’s about getting people to accept what you are saying – that is the essence of sales.”
After six years in teaching, she moved to the Edward College of Education in 1975, where she lectured a range of students, from school leavers to middle-aged men. Here she had to hone her presentation skills even further and she also had to assess student teachers on their abilities in the classroom. Again, it was the perfect sales training arena.
In 1980 she moved to Johannesburg and joined 3M’s audiovisual division, where she went through a sales training course. “I was taught to cold call, but I spent a week at my desk too petrified to pick up the phone. Then I talked to myself, as I always do, and convinced myself that if millions of other people could call on customers every day, I could do it too.” She was very successful and, in addition to earning the same basic she was paid as a teacher, she also had a company car and an excellent commission. There was no going back. Dick says this environment taught her how to sell a tangible product in a defined geographic area.
Subsequently, she moved to a company that sold computer-based training programmes across a wide range of disciplines. “Here I learnt how to sell an intangible service, persuading companies to part with huge amounts of cash upfront for training courses. Also, because I had to understand what I was selling, I completed a number of the courses, teaching myself management, human resources, marketing and a variety of other skills.”
Dick was ready to go into her own business. Four days after her son was born, she and her husband Graham started Transman. The company’s first contract was to write a training manual sponsored by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for drivers of heavy vehicles.
In collecting the information and creating the lesson plans, the two looked at going into driver training. “Graham was conducting the training; I was going out and selling it. During this time I noticed how many people would stand around outside big companies hoping for a job. In 1983, a client asked me to find a driver for his company. I placed an advert in the paper and received 1 200 applications. At the same time, one of our other clients in the dairy industry was experiencing a strike. They turned to us for help, so we screened and recruited a further 300 people from the list of applicants. That was how the business started.”
Dick registered Transman as a labour broker with the Department of Transport and the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight Industry. Soon after, she began to negotiate wages and additional benefits for Transman workers. Today the company places people across almost every industry.
Entrepreneur: When you started Transman, what was your vision for the company? Were you addressing specific gaps in the market?
AD: Business at the time was unable to successfully source and maintain a temporary labour force that was able to add value to their operations. Our role was to screen people and match who we had to the specifications of the job. As a result, our workers were far more productive. We could also provide continuity, which is critical.
On the surface, these were people with less than three years of schooling who had little to offer. We were able to get them trained and, by moving them from place to place on an ongoing basis, to up their skills levels significantly. In some cases they have become valuable permanent team members.
E: How did you finance the company?
AD: I saved every cent I could while I was working, and we also inherited some money from a relative.
E: What were the most difficult obstacles you faced as a start-up?
AD: I was a female in the transport logistics environment in the early 80s. Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge was gaining acceptance. Prospective clients did not expect me to understand their issues, and were surprised when I came back to them with a solution.
The length of the sales cycle was also a challenge. When money started to run low I fed my children on two loaves of bread a day. We went without paying the bond on our house for six months and sold our possessions so we could pay for petrol to come to work. It’s one of the reasons why I truly understand what it is like to have nothing. As a result, no matter what happens, my workers are paid their wages every Thursday without fail. I employ 10 000 breadwinners, all of whom support 10 to 12 family members. The fact that my decisions affect a potential 120 000 every day keeps me very focused, and very motivated.
E: How did you build your client base?
AD: Through hard work and discipline. I focused on geographical areas and walked the streets to find potential clients. I was like a terrier – once I got the scent of a potential sale, I just wouldn’t let go. To this day, I set the highest benchmarks for myself. If I do not close a sale, I have to find out what I did wrong, what I did not do, and learn from that.
E: What have been the key elements of your success over the years?
AD: You have to take your heart to work. You must have passion, commitment, loyalty, integrity and ethics. I believe we all have a contribution to make to advance our society and grow our country.
Transparency is also key; my clients and employees know that my word is good.
I think about the business all the time and about ways to improve it. I am constantly aspiring to be better, cleverer, more efficient. This business is about bringing together workers and companies with job opportunities as efficiently as possible. It’s a tripartite relationship in which we must all win: if I have a happy worker, I have a productive worker; if I have a productive worker, I have a happy client; if I have a happy client, I am happy.
As a white, female CEO in a largely blue collar sector, I’ve had many life threatening experiences that none of my competitors have had. The result is I can be as hard as steel. On the other hand, I write cards to each staff member at the end of the year, taking time to think about that person and what their year has been like.
In my office, I have a wand and a whip given to me by my youngest son – they remind me of the balance required to run a business.
E: What are the major issues around recruitment facing SA business today?
AD: We have a huge number of unemployable people and a massive dearth of skills. Training is the biggest challenge: who do we train, how do we train, who pays? Motivating the workforce is another challenge: they need to understand the role they play in their homes and their country as breadwinners.
The relationship of companies like ours with Cosatu is tenuous as the organisation is critical of our structures and practices, despite the fact that we bring work to so many people.
E: You have resisted several buy-out offers. Why is this?
AD: I am very proud and very independent. What is someone out there going to bring to this company that I do not already have? I’m not interested in big cheques. If they can bring something of value besides cash, I might be curious, but Transman is unique. We have our own culture and we will not easily convert.
E: What are the most important components of a successful recruitment and placement company?
AD: The ability to handle diversity in all senses of the word is vital. From personalities to skills to job categories to legislation, you have to be able to handle it all. You also have to be flexible and creative in your approach.
If you don’t have a strong infrastructure to support the business, you will fail. To develop that infrastructure requires long-term strategic planning and a solid management team. Support from financiers is also vital. Clients take time to pay and sometimes we carry more than R12 million for them. But because we have such a transparent relationship with our bank, we are given the support we need.
E: What distinguishes Transman from other companies in the recruitment sector?
I maintain that workers have a right to choose where they want to work and for how long. We pioneered changes in legislation that have improved conditions for workers. We were the first to implement open and transparent costing in 1989; other agencies followed us eight years later. We were also the first to provide a provident fund for short-term employees. We may not be the biggest, but we are certainly the most courageous.
E: What are the next big goals you have set for Transman?
AD: We will soon be launching a unique franchising concept that will focus on small to medium enterprises and the black economic empowerment sector. We plan to expand the company through this franchise base.
Transman has its own management information system that has been developed over eight years. The software is able to calculate in any language, currency or legislation and is streets ahead of any other solution aimed at our market. We are planning to launch the product internationally.
E: What about succession planning?
AD: I have excellent managers who are skilled in many disciplines and who have the ability to run this company. I don’t expect we will easily find someone with the slightly maverick, unconventional approach I have, but I am aware that change will happen.
E: How big is your management team?
AD: I have 28 managers countrywide and 54% of them are female.
E: How is your management team structured?
AD: The management team comprises national, regional, and key accounts managers. They have a strong sense of responsibility and a work ethic that is close to mine: I am available 24 hours a day, and I expect the same of my management team. That said, this is a well-run business and there are few crises. I manage by exception.
E: How would you describe your management style?
It is fairly relaxed and I am always open to different opinions. Occasionally I will put my foot down when I need to. All the employees have parameters within which they function – as they grow and come to understand the business, so too do the parameters broaden. My staff all know that the buck stops here – I take responsibility for everything that happens in the company.
How have you structured your sales team?
We have recently restructured our sales team. There are two different camps: the hunters, who are out there looking for new business; and the gatherers, who take care of our existing clients.
Hunters and gatherers are motivated by different things, so the rewards and incentives for each are different.
E: Give us an insight into your annual sales strategy planning. When, how, what?
AD: We conduct sales strategy planning all the time. As the market changes, so we change our sales plan. We have a basic skeleton that includes plan outlines from the bottom up, and from the top down. If I get a budget that’s unrealistic, I make sure it’s changed. I know all my areas well, so I know what to expect and when. Also, I continue to deliver sales presentations so that I am always in touch with my clients.
E: What are your primary sales tools?
AD: We use PowerPoint presentations. I don’t believe that anything can improve on talking to the prospect directly.
E: Does your team have any particular sales techniques that set them apart?
AD: They are taught to question and to listen.
E: How do you do your sales training?
AD: I conduct all the sales training myself. I have years of experience in this business, so to outsource our sales training to an external company would just not make sense. I always know exactly what is happening in the market and I keep my managers up to speed.
E: How do you manage your time?
AD: I am a creative person and I keep myself occupied all the time, even when I am not at work. I love what I do, so I never feel the need to shut myself off from the company in any way. Art is a great interest of mine and I am an ardent collector. I also enjoy gardening and I read whatever I can, whenever I can. One of my favourite pursuits is walking in the mountains. I find it calms me and helps me to be in touch with my spirit.