Elegantly-dressed and diminutive at just 4 feet, 8 inches, the last place you’d expect to find Chené Motaung is on a building site. But as founder and MD of Alu-Absoluut, an aluminium products manufacturing and installation company, this is exactly where she’ll be on most days.
It might be tough being a woman in the male-dominated construction industry but one of the first things you notice about Motaung is that she’s nothing if not gutsy. She’s also a risk-taker, launching herself into an unknown industry with little more than the determination to create her own company and be successful at it. Motaung worked in the banking industry for nine years in a division that financed small businesses. “I think it was there that I got bitten by the bug of wanting to start my own business,” she smiles.
After a merger at the bank that left her discouraged about the path her career was taking, she started Alu-Absoluut. For someone who admits she ‘knew absolutely nothing’ about the aluminium or building industry, it might seem like a strange sector to have chosen. But, as Motaung relates, she saw an opportunity and went for it. “We were renovating our house and the guy who was doing the aluminium was very unreliable.
We used to have to come home to check that he was actually doing the job. I realised, though, that he had a good business but that it was just poorly run, so I asked him if he wanted to go into partnership. I would do the marketing and financial side of things and he could do the operational side.”
But the deal was not to be. Her prospective partner lost heart when it took Motaung two long years to raise finance. Eventually, after much back and forth, she received R300 000 from the Umsobomvu Youth Fund which enabled her to purchase stock and machinery. And by that time, she was so far down the road towards setting up an aluminium business that she stuck with it, in spite of her lack of industry expertise. “The nice thing about this business is that there are a lot of aluminium suppliers who are trying to market their products to you.
One of our suppliers, Wispeco, provided free training and I went on that initially with my staff.” She has been equally resourceful about marketing the business. “One of the first things I did was to put together a company profile so I had something to take to sales pitches.
I also developed a website. And whenever we completed a job, I would take photographs and we produced flyers to market the company,” she explains. Constantly on the look-out for marketing opportunities, she applied for and received a subsidised stand at the Eskom Development Foundation Expo in 2006. The business gets leads from Databuild via a paid-for monthly service that emails through updated lists about all the construction work on the go.
Motaung eventually teamed up with a business partner, OJ Molotsi, who has over 30 years experience in the industry. “I brought him on board to do something on a job that we didn’t have capacity for, and we got talking. I explained what I was good at – getting the jobs, marketing, financials. It’s a match made in heaven because he now handles operations and runs the factory,” she explains. Molotsi became a 10% shareholder in the business in exchange for the skills and expertise he provides.
Alu-Absoluut still operates without an overdraft facility and although this presents significant cash flow challenges, Motaung has overcome these by getting credit finance from suppliers and carefully structuring her commercial to domestic client ratio. She explains: “Commercial clients only pay you in instalments or after the job is done, but if we do a domestic job we get paid a deposit upfront. I use this to purchase everything for that job and anything left over can be used for the commercial projects.”
She’s particularly proud of some of the bigger commercial jobs the company has landed, most recently a Tommy Martins Delta dealership and shops. For this project, Motaung managed to secure R1 million worth of project finance from the Umsobomvu Youth Fund on the strength of a signed contract. “When we started I never dreamed we’d be able to do something like this so it’s incredibly rewarding to hand over a big building like this and think, ‘Wow! We did that!’” She has good reason to be proud. If you’re looking for proof that dynamite comes in small packages, look no further.