Turning 53 in June, Wilson Langa can look back and pat himself on the shoulder for taking the decision 14 years ago to start his own business. Now employing 14 full time skilled artisans, Wilson’s Siyaka Metal Works workshop in Auckland Park, Gauteng, is a successful producer of unique metal gates, chairs, gazebos and the like that not only made him independent and provided employment for his brother, but gave an opportunity to several steel workers to become artists and be creative in their daily jobs.
“I was doing standard steel work, the same stuff over and over again, when I thought to myself: “Why don’t you see if you can make it on your own?” Wilson started with the materials and tools that hehad accumulated, and no funding. “Then, after 12 months of not selling a single product, the doubts were getting bigger and bigger and life was tough. I had no employees to pay but needed to sustain myself by doing odd steel work as and where I could find it. But I was going to try until it worked.” Fortunately, the sales started coming. At first just a few chairs, and then, as word spread,we were away and never looked back.”
After eight years, Wilson relocated the business to a building on the corner of a busy street in Auckland Park, displaying sample products on the sidewalk. That was when business really took off. For someone in a self-funded business, who had no experience in traditional marketing either, trial and error would be the only route to success. Wilson found that the unbound creativity of his designs, based on 20 years of experience as a qualified welder, kept bringing the customers back, and led to a network of word-of-mouth referrals that still represents the key factor in Wilson’s ongoing success and growth.
Wilson’s gut feel 14 years ago that there would be a market for creative steelwork designs for everyday products was not only right, but has become that factor which sets him apart from the average producer of safety gates, burglar bars, deck chairs and the like. “I listen to what the customer wants, every product is unique, and I often suggest new ways of doing something,” says Wilson. “You cannot get products like ours anywhere else that I am aware of.” The downside to being so creative and attentive to detail in every design is that Wilson could not possibly oversee all 14 employees at all times, and sometimes things turn out not quite the way he envisaged.
Currently renting the old semi-industrial building that has become the heart of his medium sized business, Wilson’s dream is to own the facility in five years’ time, through hard work, growing his market and saving. Walking through heaps of bed frames, rusted fences and rawsteel, Wilson remarks that as long as his supplier continues to deliver the steel, as long as products are of high quality and unique, he knows the business will grow. His employees are paid well, and he would rather undercharge than overcharge a client. How do you decide what an artwork is worth?
“These are not standard items, and thus their prices differ from job to job,” he says. Finding the right price and being consistent about it is not the only challenge Wilson faces on a daily basis; the other is fluctuating demand. The company’s biggest order to date was for 150 chairs, but, there have been months with only one order for a gate. Private home owners would not drive from as far as Pretoria to pre-order custom products if Wilson did not have the right mix of keenly priced, unique products that fulfill everyday security and other functions, while significantly adding visual appeal to their surrounds.
The next big order, perhaps for office furniture, or to decorate a new government office, cannot be too far away. And even if the business continues to grow by word-of-mouth amongst private home owners only, one thing is certain: the quality of its products and creativity of its designs will see it continuing to grow for many years to come.