Entrepreneur watch: From bankruptcy to success

William Duk (pronounced Duke) is the co-owner of the Plantation Shutter Co., a business that designs, manufactures and installs adjustable window and door shutters. The company, which was bankrupt before Duk came along and bought out the original owners, has since become a thriving, national business in South Africa. He is also one of the finalists for the 2012 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award.

William Duk

How we made it in Africa’s Kate Douglas asked Duk about running a successful business.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

  • Understanding how to take a product to market and positioning this product in the market place
  • Skill of dealing with people and building relationships – both in terms of an exceptional team internally as well as strategic relationships with suppliers, partners and clients
  • Financial acumen and underpinning this with sound systems and processes

What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?

I am in the fortunate position where it feels like I have not had to make any sacrifices as I absolutely love what I do and can’t imagine having chosen any other path. I have the full support of my wife who is a fellow shareholder and integral in what we do and have achieved today. Being an entrepreneur is first and foremost a state of mind so in that sense one could say it is a 24/7/365 activity and all consuming. This would definitely appear to be a big sacrifice to those that cannot relate or have chosen a different path but for someone living it, it’s merely life itself, so hence not a sacrifice of anything.

Besides money, what are your favourite ways to compensate people?

We try as much as possible to recognise all individuals who have performed exceptionally and have integrated this into our culture and organisation as much as possible. Recognition and acknowledgment from your peers, team or seniors in the business is tremendously powerful and I don’t think anyone can ever get enough of it. It is also amazing how far just a simple “thank you” for a job well done can go.

As we evolve and grow, these reward and recognition programmes can and will evolve into a more elaborate structure besides the ad hoc celebratory team dinners or massages and spa days for the back office team.

What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?

There have been numerous lessons along the way from which we have learnt. We have in turn ploughed these lessons back into the processes and business as we have evolved.

If I had to pinpoint the single biggest lesson, though, it would definitely be around partnering with someone who I did not see eye to eye in terms of life and business philosophies. It wasn’t entirely through choice in the sense that he was the original founding partner who I partnered with 50/50. Dealing with this dynamic was by far the single most challenging aspect of the journey to date and a very expensive lesson in buying him out 18 months ago.

In your opinion, is it more challenging to buy an existing business than to start one from scratch?

It really depends on the circumstances. If capital allows, buying an existing successful business and then adding value to the business, is probably the easiest. Next easiest, is starting a business from scratch as one can grow organically as the market allows and build the necessary team to achieve what one needs to achieve as one evolves.

Taking over an existing business that has failed is definitely the path with the biggest potential pitfalls so it depends. In my case it was:

  • Inheriting such a large cost base from a standing start
  • The cost of making good on all the existing clients and other relationships
  • The level of wasted emotional energy and money (to rectify the situation) of inheriting a business partner with whom one is not aligned

What was the tipping point for The Plantation Shutter Co.?

There was definitely no single clearly identifiable tipping point but more a sustained effort and mindset of continual improvement and doing the right activities over and over again. Running a business is definitely in line with running a marathon (not doing a short sprint) so having a long term view and adopting this mindset of continual improvement best sums up the key ingredients. If something is not working properly, change it.

One of these mini changes along the way, which had a dramatic impact on who we were and the overall mindset, was utilising the large production capacity that we had, to promise a 21 working day turn around in our timber shutters. Historically the shutter industry had always been a long lead time industry, typically anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks or more and the lead time would vary depending on what time of year it was or how busy the supplier was. We turned this concept on its head by committing to a 21 working days (4 weeks and 1 day) lead time, regardless of time of year. Others have tried to follow with similar lead times but no one has or is able to do this consistently throughout the year. Our commitment to this through tailoring all our processes, systems and production environment is core to business and our mindset of being 100% client focused and being regarded as the best in the industry is reflected in this walk that we walk, every single day of the year.

Another perhaps more notable step, or mini-tipping point, goes back to buying the original founding partner out of the business 18 months ago.

The Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year winners will be announced on 6 September 2012. Over the next few weeks How we made it in Africa will feature interviews with many of the finalists.