Business in Africa based on personal relationships, says scaffolding boss

When South African Hassan Suleman was working at his father’s business Nexor International, which specialises in procurement and logistics in Africa, he noticed a growing number of customer requests for the supply of scaffolding components to Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles and other territories.

Hassan Suleman

Hassan Suleman

Market research showed these products were not readily available in South Africa. So to meet demand, he set up Form Force Scaffolding in 2005 and began importing scaffolding from India to supply the African market.

But within a few years the company diversified to manufacture its own scaffolding products, and now exports, erects and dismantles scaffolding, both for the South African market and the rest of the continent. The business employs around 90 people at any given period, and has offices in both Johannesburg and Durban.

As a finalist in the 2014 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award, How we made it in Africa asked Suleman to share some of his business experiences.

Has being an entrepreneur changed you in any way?

Yes, being an entrepreneur is not limited to a 9am-5pm day in your office. Your life, in a weird way, revolves around your business. Balance is of course important, however when in the early stages of building your business, you are continuously marketing and selling it at every opportunity you get. You mind is continuously working as you constantly replay daily events and plan for days ahead.

Your company extends into the rest of Africa. Describe the potential this market holds.

We see it as a huge future market for us linked to rising infrastructure development across the continent. With the influx of corporate construction companies moving into Africa, there is a need for professional scaffolding services as more focus is being placed on health and safety. Local construction companies are also following the trend and moving away from the conventional wooden scaffolding. Form Force Scaffolding is already providing a service of supply-and-erect solutions to building companies in neighbouring countries, and of course continues to sell scaffold components to the market.

Any advice for companies looking to expand their African footprint?

Doing business in Africa is not for the faint hearted, but once a market is established, it can be very rewarding. From my experience I believe that you cannot do business in Africa via the internet or emails, one has to physically visit potential customers and see first-hand what is happening on the ground, as business in Africa is usually based on personal relationships. As my dad always says: when doing business in Africa, stay focused, and don’t ever get involved in politics.

What is the best way to attract new clients?

The best way is to market yourself and your brand via personal visits to potential customers. Once a contract is awarded, you need to offer good service. A lot of future business comes from word of mouth within the industry, as clients are extremely wary dealing with foreign firms thanks to the many bogus companies and scams. So as soon as you have established a track record of good servicing, it will make your pitch a lot easier to convince clients to use you again.

What’s the best decision you have made to grow your company?

There has been a lot of good decisions, but just as many bad ones. I think every decision you make and how it affects your business must be used as a tool to grow and learn from. I believe one of the best decisions made was to employ competent staff for strategic positions – employing staff who have been in a specific field a long time and have years of experience, and even more importantly, good contacts in the industry.

Is there anything you struggle with as an entrepreneur?

As an entrepreneur every day is a struggle! I face new challenges every day, and being involved in every aspect of the business, you are confronted with challenges you most likely have never dealt with before. The task is to try and understand the challenge, then apply your mind to address it. Some of the biggest will be access to funding. No matter how much funding you have, it will never be enough. You are continually aiming to expand, whether in your current business, or grasping other opportunities.

Please share the most valuable business lesson you have learnt

I have learnt that no matter who you employ and however knowledgeable they are in a specific field, you should always be in control and be aware of the day-to-day activities, as you are ultimately responsible. And should something go wrong, you alone will face the music while those around you move on.