Slow journey to the top of Kwikot

By Fiona Ingham
Managing director of Kwikot and people person Ryan Rolfe explains that although he might be in the manufacturing business, ultimately it’s all about people.

How did you get started in your career?
I went to school at Pretoria Boys High and finished in 1976. I was a sportsman and played every sport imaginable, like rugby, cricket and water polo. When I reached the end of Grade 11, my dad told me that I was wasting my time at school and said that I should go and get a trade. 

So I went into the air force’s permanent force, where I worked on helicopters for about seven years.

I did short stints in various places, and then joined Kwikot where I’ve been for just over 28 years. I started as a junior representative for what used to be Eastern Transvaal and Northern Transvaal. I was promoted to the rank of senior representative, looking after Pretoria and parts of Johannesburg. After that, I was appointed as sales manager, followed by national sales and marketing director. Sales have always been my passion.

What attracted you to the industry?
I was looking for a job! I responded to an ad in the newspaper.

What gets you up in the morning?
It’s all about people. When you’ve been in the industry for as long as I’ve been, people aren’t just people anymore. Many of them have become friends and we socialise after hours. Unfortunately, many of the older people I knew have passed away. Sadly, the industry is not as much fun as it used to be. The industry has also changed: the volumes have increased substantially. These days it is all about big business.

Please tell Plumbing Africa readers more about your current position.
Recently I became the MD. But remember that I am just a simple guy and I don’t have much in terms of qualifications. I have slowly worked my way up the ranks; all that takes is hard work and common sense. Overall, the industry has been good to me. It’s a good industry and for most of the time, an honest one.

What do you see for the future?
I would like to see Kwikot grow — there are several plans on the horizon to achieve this. Whereas geysers now constitute 100% of the business, we want to take the business to where geysers comprise, say, only 20% of the business. We’ve added on numerous products over the years and we have to continue doing this — and not necessarily in the plumbing industry only. We are looking at becoming a major player in the entire construction industry — not just plumbing — as our opportunities for expansion are limited in this sector. Had it not been for our diversification over time, the growth wouldn’t have been as good. We are also considering other growth areas.

Our existing customers will remain, but we will be adding a new customer base. We are looking at wholesaling different type of products where you have spares and accessories for electrical components and geysers. There might be opportunities to expand into stoves, fridges and so on. We have the knowledge of the spares industry; the idea is to roll that out into other products.

What particular projects have been special to you?
The Kruger National Park has stood out for me. We are nearing the end of the project now, and every dwelling has solar or a heat pump, or new geysers were installed. It was a ‘monster’ project, not only in terms of the numbers and the volumes, but also in terms of being a high-visibility project for Kwikot. Sun City was also a great project for us long ago and now with a major revamp, many of our products are being installed again.

Kwikot has been involved in so many exciting projects that it’s hard to single out particular ones. We’ve been involved in large-scale hospitals and huge housing schemes. We are involved with many of the major players: Murray & Roberts, Group Five, projects of the scale of OR Tambo International Airport, and major hotels across Africa.

What percentage of your business comprises solar?
Solar comprises only about 6%. Solar geysers started in this country about 35 years ago, but we had so many fly-by-nights in the industry that people lost confidence in solar. According to research, about 90% of solar installed in low-cost housing is no longer operational. Now, interest in solar is mounting again. The fly-by-nights are still there, but they are falling away and the decent manufacturers who can supply solar are emerging. Government and the insurance industry have embarked on a major drive to go solar.

Eskom tries to handle big projects on its own, rather than partnering with business. Solar works; there’s no doubt about that. It should be booming in a way that it is not. But we would rather play it safe and continue our business.

Where do you see the future of the industry?
The three big-ticket items are solar, heat pumps and gas. Each household is different; solar might be appropriate if no trees are blocking it, for example. People are not that knowledgeable about gas. However, developers are including piped gas now, thereby increasing the demand, although industry has been using piped gas for some time. The gas geyser industry will grow but I don’t believe the electric geyser will fall away. I think it will still hold a big market share, but the others will undoubtedly grow in their share of the market.

What is the secret to your success?
The secret is building relationships and you have to take the time to do it. You have to sit down and have the beer with the client — that’s the secret.

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