Dedicated and passionate about the industry

Dedicated and passionate about the industry

By LIXIL Africa

Natie van der Westhuizen’s office feels more like the headquarters of a high-performance mechanic’s workshop than the office of a company executive. Located in the heart of Cobra’s Krugersdorp manufacturing plant, the walls are not decorated with lovely artwork. Instead, there are old sections of piping and industrial parts, lovingly mounted and displayed.

Van der Westhuizen starts his day every morning at five and often ends it after ten at night. He oversees every aspect of operations at the Cobra factory in Krugersdorp. Since the acquisition of Grohe-Dawn WaterTech by LIXIL in 2017, his job has expanded to integrating the group’s South African manufacturing operations of Cobra, Apex Valves, Vaal Sanitaryware, and Libra Baths.

Few people have dedicated as much of their lives to a company as Van der Westhuizen has, who is the COO at LIXIL Africa. In his 35 years with the company, he has led it through significant changes without losing his sense of drive and excitement.

Early days

“I’ve always enjoyed a wonderful growth path at Cobra,” he says. “I’ve had 36 different jobs in the business, since I started here in 1983.”

Joining Cobra was a stroke of destiny for Van der Westhuizen. After matric, his parents did not have the resources to send him to university — he could either join the police force, the railway service, or the arms and steel industry.

He chose the latter and joined Armscor, through which he entered a technical college to study drafting and design, eventually qualifying as a mechanical design engineer at Wits Technicon. He also obtained a management diploma at UNISA and later an MBL at RAU, today known as the University of Johannesburg.

“In 1983, during my time at Armscor, I walked to a corner shop in Krugersdorp, where I lived, to buy a newspaper,” he says. “By chance, I saw a notice placed by Cobra (formerly Consolidated Brassware), which was German-owned at the time, advertising a design engineer position.

“I phoned the number and they called me in for an interview. As I walked out, they gave me a test and two hours later, they informed me the job was mine if I wanted it,” he says.

He hit the ground running and immediately identified areas in which he could bring about meaningful change, which led to rapid advancement. His career has taken him from tool and die making, mechanical design engineering, and manufacturing process engineering, to planning and logistics management, general management, and today, COO.

“Having worked as a draftsman and a toolmaker and being one of the first people in South Africa to use computer-aided design (CAD) before coming to Cobra, I realised we could modernise our design capability,” he said.

He drove the introduction of this relatively new technology into Cobra’s manufacturing operation, moving away from labour-intensive drafting tables in the design process.

He also introduced central planning through an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which took the organisation from being a paper-based environment to an electronic one.

LIXIL 2017

He worked through the establishment of Cobra Watertech, which was born from the merger between Cobra Brassware and Castle Brassworks in 1986. The company was acquired by the Dawn Group in 2004, which was in turn acquired by the LIXIL Group in 2017. The combined South African assets were renamed LIXIL Africa.

As Van der Westhuizen seeks to expand this unique manufacturing operation, he pushes his teams to the highest levels of excellence.

“LIXIL has poured a significant amount of capital into our operation, which lacked investment in new technology for a long time,” he says. “Over the past 18 months, the main manufacturing plant has been transformed into a highly specialised, competitive production facility, putting us at the forefront of sanitaryware manufacturing in sub-Sahara Africa.”

As a global leader in sanitaryware manufacturing, the LIXIL Group has introduced a long-term business philosophy that Van der Westhuizen foresees will re-establish the relevance of iconic South African brands such as Cobra, ISCA, Vaal, Libra, Plexicor, and Apex Valves, as well as luxury German sanitary brand Grohe, through effective marketing and customer engagement platforms.

LIXIL Africa aims to become increasingly export-focused, growing jobs by between 25% and 50% through a balance of new technology, automation, and labour.

Export focused

In the mid-term, LIXIL Africa aims to become increasingly export-focused, growing jobs by between 25% and 50% through a balance of new technology, automation, and labour.       

“We are in constant knowledge transfer and communication with our Japan-based experts,” he says. “Unfortunately, critical skills in South Africa are declining and very difficult to retain. We are also investigating how technology can help with process consistency and repeatability, which is vital in reducing wastage and managing costs.”

LIXIL Africa is investigating modern technologies such as zinc die casting, polymer moulding, and various alternative coating processes, as well as adding impetus to marketing its existing brands.

“We’re spreading word about our bundle of power brands made in South Africa, focusing on selling our materials of trade (MOTs) and ensuring that our supply chain adheres to our unwavering after-sales service and On-Time-In-Full (OTIF) objectives,” he adds. “We also need to create awareness about the worrying influx of substandard products into the market, which debase the market and make it very difficult to do business.”

With these elements in place, LIXIL Africa plans to launch new products at a faster rate than ever to lead the market in the latest trends in sanitaryware and technological innovation.

Despite witnessing recent years of constrained economic growth, particularly in manufacturing, he remains optimistic about the country’s future.

“I’m optimistic about the future for LIXIL Africa,” he says. “Manufacturing is a vital sector of the economy and we need to work hard to build up the best skills and cutting-edge technology.”

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