Gerard De Fine — energy and passion

By Warren Robertson

Visiting Gerard De Fine at the Umphakathi Development and Training Centre in Bez Valley, Johannesburg, one immediately senses his energy.

Sprawling over a number of buildings, it is relatively easy to get lost in the twisting corridors and steep staircases that make up the various classrooms, offices, and factory spaces of Umphakathi where students are taken through every aspect of the plumbing industry.

G Photo mainFounding Umphakathi was a bold step, but not a world away from what Gerard had always held close to his heart: teaching others, and raising the standards, not only for the plumbing industry but also for small to medium black-owned plumbing businesses.

Gerard De Fine of Umphakathi Development and Training. Credit: Gerard De Fine

“It’s my belief that at the moment, most of BEE is window dressing. It’s about who you can buy to put in a position and tick the boxes. This is partly because in many instances, when you start dealing with the small to medium black-owned businesses, they don’t actually have the skills necessary to complete the projects they pitch for, or they quote them incorrectly and land up running into trouble,” says De Fine, whose passion for the endeavour is clear.

“So, we are looking at the supplier development programme and also the plumber development programme to ensure that when these small businesses are favoured in terms of getting work and supply contracts, they are actually competent, capable of quoting correctly and managing the finance side, and doing the actual work. We want to make sure they have the backing and are able to grow their businesses. We want real transformation and not just window dressing.”

De Fine started his school days at Rosebank Convent, a school he is quick to note took boys for grade one and two, before moving on to first De La Salle College and then John Orr Tech, where he was determined to pursue a trade.

“For the first two years at John Orr, I did all the different trades, from sheet metal and carpentry to electrical and motor mechanics. After that you had to choose what you wanted to focus on. My first choice was to become a carpenter because that’s what my family told me to do, but I really liked plumbing and in the end, I actually did that for matric,” he explains.

After school, he spent a few years in Simon’s Town at the navy before bouncing between three different companies to complete his plumbing apprenticeship.

“After I completed my apprenticeship, I joined SM Goldstein. In the early years, I did a lot of housing down in the then homelands. After many years of doing housing, I was moved on to commercial buildings and major reticulation projects. I realised I wanted more than to just be a plumber, so I focused on quantity surveying. I did all the measurements and the certificates for the various jobs we worked on,” he says. But he still wasn’t entirely satisfied.

“I then did estimating for a little while, before taking over as the area manager for Goldstein’s plumbing division Plumbgold in the Northern Transvaal. Following that, I came back to Johannesburg. When Goldstein was taken over by Group Five, I became the operations director for Group Five’s plumbing division,” he says.

It was then that his restless energy led De Fine to resign and found his own plumbing company, Glamorgan Plumbing.

“I wanted to grow a little bit, but 18 months later, Group Five bought the company and I was back where I started,” he says.

At the time, a major contractor having a plumbing division with high overheads made them uncompetitive and after much deliberation, it was decided to shut down the plumbing division and use the more competitive plumbing subcontractors.

De Fine spent the next 10 years in England looking after a couple of family businesses. However, he returned in 2007 and joined Independent Plumbing Suppliers where he had purchased some shares before leaving South Africa.

“I was there for 11-odd years; then in February last year, I sold my shares and focused on Umphakathi Development and Training,” he says.

Primarily a development and training company, Umphakathi is focused on skills transfer and the development of black-owned enterprises in the plumbing industry. Trainees are taught every aspect of plumbing, from the basics of hydraulics to more complicated installations for large commercial projects. Each trainee is taken through all the skills required for running a plumbing business, such as isometric drawings, material take-offs for creating a bill of material, pricing and estimating, risk assessments, producing method statements, doing the installation recording and measuring the work, applications for payment, and the completion of QA documentation.

“Training is probably the most important thing in South Africa at the moment — to pass on skills to someone else, people who did not have the opportunities to learn them,” he says. “The difference in earnings between black and white has always been a big issue for me. How do we get people to earn proper money for what they are doing? The only way you can justify increases on the money you earn is by having a skill and that skill has to be needed — so that’s where we focused all of our energy.”

Training is probably the most important thing in South Africa now. Pass on skills to someone else to help people learn, thereby creating an employment opportunity.

To assist in recording progress and to document contractual issues on site, they developed an app called Max-Form. The app allows remote monitoring of the contract progress and the work that the plumbers on site are doing. Max-Form paperless project management facilitates the recording of the installation by means of tailor-made documentation processes with pre-populated, easy-to-use forms that are published to the cloud. It records progress and contractual issues, along with photographs that are date and time stamped with Geotagging. The real benefit is the business intelligence that is gained through the easy-to-use reporting.

User log-in on the net allows clients and principals to follow what is happening on site, highlighting any problems or issues before they are covered or closed, thereby preventing costly delays and reducing latent defects. The documentation and history are recorded and it is accessible years after completion of the contract.

“The students use Max-Form to record their portfolio of evidence and to facilitate the mentoring required as they progress along their learning journey. This is invaluable to any tradesperson that has not done a formal apprenticeship, to document what he has done and use this in his or her portfolio of evidence to take the trade test and achieve formal recognition,” explains De Fine.

Naturally, running a time-consuming endeavour like this means that De Fine’s interests outside of work are limited.

“So, my hobbies are pretty much my work; I really love what I do. I seem to spend a lot of my life looking at the next opportunity. A lot of my energy goes into trying to help people to make a difference — those are really my hobbies,” he says, adding that he doesn’t feel he needs much else.

Such is De Fine’s passion for training that he also wishes there was a lot more of it in the plumbing industry.

“I wish every player within the industry would just develop the person next to them. My biggest regret for all the years I was at Group Five is that we trained thousands and thousands of installers, but we didn’t train any plumbers who had the full set of skills. We never taught them estimating, we didn’t teach them to manage cash, or to run a business or put in a certificate. So, when most of those guys did decide to try it on their own, they would fail because they didn’t have that kind of valuable background knowledge,” he says, quickly adding that he thinks the reason it doesn’t happen is because of fear.

“People are scared that if they share their information, those people they share it with will become competitors, but the irony is they will become competitors anyway, and then they will pull the whole market down because they haven’t been taught to price things properly or abide by codes and standards,” he says. “If there is something you know, why not share it with people? Why let others do things badly? Why keep the information a secret?”

“Construction really is the most rewarding career. Whatever you build today is probably there for the next 40 or 50 years, or longer. All the buildings I have been involved in, from Sun City and hospitals to the Hilton Hotel, are still standing, except for one, which was knocked down to make way for a larger building,” he says. “It’s an incredible feeling to be able to drive past somewhere and say I was involved in that, I put the plumbing in, or I was involved in the design of that. That is something that comes back every day. In a way, it’s the same as creating a skill: Every time there is a guy you have taught something new to, it allows that person to earn a living. It is such an amazing feeling.”

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