17 September 2012

William Duk: 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year

William Duk, The Plantation Shutter Co.
William Duk is managing director of The Plantation Shutter Company and, with credit to his entrepreneurial mettle in turning a failed company around, was recently awarded top honours as the 2012 Sanlam/ Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year®. He took over the running of the failed business in February 2007 with 30 staff and 39 “on hold” projects already lined up. Today the company is a successful and sustainable brand.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I have always been entrepreneurial even though I followed quite a traditional path by becoming a CA. This was always with a view to running my own business.

What were you doing before starting your business?
I had spent six and half years in the UK and arrived back in South Africa at the start of 2006 to “do my own thing”. My passion has always been business but as I had been away for a number of years, I felt that a more logical starting point would be focussing on property investing while building up contacts and keeping an open mind. I had some pounds saved up in the UK and used that to start a small commercial and industrial property portfolio. It was through that focus that I stumbled across my current business – it was a going concern, days away from failing and I purchased the building.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
The due diligence was only a three-day process as there was a small window of opportunity where the business could either have been revived or gone into full liquidation. My cash was all tied up in the buildings so the plan was therefore based around using the cash released from the sale of the building to me to get things moving in the right direction. It was very much a back-to-basics-type approach starting with the existing order book of 49 disillusioned clients. Of the 49, 39 still wanted their orders fulfilled, despite waiting for four to five months at that stage. Those that didn’t want their orders fulfilled were given their 50% deposits back. The rest of the money was used to pay off salaries that weren’t paid from October to December and to put payment plans in place with suppliers that had all gone legal.

What was your start up capital?
There was no start up capital per se – we used the funds released from the sale of the building. Over the next two years though, as I managed to get some of my funds out of my property portfolio, I invested money to fund initial losses and capital expansion programme.

What was your big dream for this venture?
As with anything I do, I wanted this to be the best shutter company in South Africa and through being “exceptional” ensure that the business is sustainable through the various stages of any economic cycle.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
There is no right or wrong way. It is about trying different things, measuring them and then seeing what works and what doesn’t. Word of mouth will however be a key part of any lead-generating exercise. I think statistically on average an unhappy client will tell 10 people and a happy client will refer two or three people with the chance of them converting being extremely high. If you’re not making your clients happy, spending time or money working out how to generate leads will result in a very short-lived business.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
Understanding these differences needs to be core to your approach from the outset. It needs to form part of ones “homework” before you embark on the journey.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
It’s a combination of understanding what it costs to produce and deliver, and what the market is prepared to pay for the product or service.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
We relied on the final production measurements and other information we had on file to deliver the 39 back orders of people that still wanted us to fulfil their order and not just give their deposits back. With a complex, expensive, custom designed product, this turned out to be an expensive and hard lesson. Our first step was all about restoring some credibility in the marketplace, so we had to do it correctly. In hindsight, we should’ve just put each order back through a process as though they were new orders. If this delay meant losing more of the orders and paying deposits back, then so be it.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Getting ahead of themselves and not putting proper fiscal disciplines in place.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Friends are friends through good times and bad, so perhaps choose your friends carefully if this is an issue! Motivation during tough times must always come from the bigger picture. In tough economic times you can also just open up any newspaper and read about yet another round of retrenchments to provide extra motivation, as most of those employees had very little control over their own destiny. No matter how hard it is sometimes, as an entrepreneur you’re at least in control of your own destiny ;)

Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor but I do think this can be very useful. I derived a lot of value (and still do), reading business books by or about people who have earned respect though what they’ve achieved in business, like Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs or Sir Richard Branson. You can achieve a lot of inspiration from others who have been successful and save a lot of time learning from others mistakes.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
No less than 18 months and anywhere up to four years, depending on economic environment.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
Many of these are unique to partnering with the original founding partner prior to buying him out two years ago and then also entering into a recession just when we were gathering momentum:
* Taking over a failed business is in many ways harder than starting something from scratch.
* When someone thinks that something is a certain way, in reality, nine times out of 10, it will always be worse.
* If you’re buying any existing business, ensure you get statements of account on SARS liabilities as an easy way to see how well the business has been run (or not). It can be very time consuming to get a Tax Clearance Certificate but it’s very quick to get statements of account if you’re pushed for time during your due diligence.
* Things will always take longer to rectify than you think. A bit like building a house.
* Make sure you are aligned with whoever you go into business with; otherwise rather employ someone to fulfil that role.

Get in touch with William Duk from The Plantation Shutter Company via their website: http://www.plantation.co.za/, on Facebook and on Twitter: @pshutterco.

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