From R2 000 a month to major South African player

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David and Melanie Swartz from DSES Project Solutions are proof that hard work, dedication, and a people-first focus can take any business to the top

All businesses have to start somewhere. However, it is not always plain sailing. For DSES Project Solutions, getting their foot in the door was not an easy journey. From living on R2,000 a month to securing a major tender, it would be an understatement to call their growth—both as a business and businesspeople, a difficult process. In an exclusive interview with Leadership, the Swartz’s take us along with them as they re-live the challenges they have faced over the years and the successes they are now living.

Please give us a bit of background on your journey to today?

David Swartz (DS): After completing matric, I went straight into the construction industry, starting from the bottom as an unskilled worker. After four years, I became an artisan. I worked for a few years before approaching a local businessman to send me to Varsity College to complete my Higher Diploma in Project Management. In turn, I would work for no wage while we lived on Melanie’s salary of R2,000 per month. It was a sacrifice but we had a plan to educate ourselves, one at a time. Thereafter, I became a Project Manager and studied Quality Management Systems, which qualified me as a Quality Auditor. While working as a Contracts Manager for Mondi, I completed a few more courses in Legal Compliance, Project Planning, Contract Management, and Process Engineering. Melanie then studied Business Management and various Business Administration courses.

DSES Project Solutions was formed in 2008, are you happy with the growth since?

DS: It was a rocky road from 2008 to 2014. We experienced various shortcomings and losses due to a lack of opportunities for start-up businesses. With no proper market share, it was challenging gaining traction. At the end of 2014, we applied for an opportunity at Engen Refinery in Wentworth and were invited to take part in a three to five-year maintenance contract tender. We were then shortlisted alongside roughly 20 companies and subsequently were awarded the contract alongside an established corporate company as our competition on site. The years thereafter were very good and we proved that we had what it takes. As a result, we went from being a small company doing low-risk work, to taking on large-scale projects.

DSES Project Solutions won the SME category at the SAVCA Industry Awards in 2019. What does this award mean to you?

DS and Melanie Swartz (MS): When your head is to the plough and you are pushing through and sacrificing everything for the growth of your small business, you can miss the details of the journey and one day you lift your head and look back at where you come from to where you are now—and almost can’t believe what has happened. We thank God for his favour on us and we have to thank God for our growing staff from Wentworth and Umlazi who we call the ”hidden treasures” that made DSES grow steadily.

Successful 100% black-owned companies are crucial to South Africa, but do you believe more can be done from higher up the food chain to assist SMEs?

DS: Having journeyed from start-up stage to SME stage and thinking on a corporate level, I can honestly say that while we were fortunate to survive the start-up years, many good and talented start-up companies failed in the first two to three years—not because they never gave their all, but purely because 90% of the industry saw them as a risk. Instead of giving them a chance, they played it safe and awarded the work to historical giants.

Job creation and community upliftment is exceptionally important in South Africa—can you tell us a bit more about the jobs created at DSES?

DS: Believing we are successful with the planned projects, we intend using them to kick off our Local Business Association (LBA), whereby we subcontract most of our off-site works to smaller businesses. The Domes Division gives many opportunities to paraplegic employees and amputees. This new Domes Division gives birth to opportunities that are inclusive, which in turn radically affects the small business industry and local communities in a positive way. We also have an initiative called Projects with Purpose (PWP), which is well known in the south of Durban. It simply means that for every project we receive, there is a share that goes towards community projects. In the past four years, we have given opportunity to more than 300 local people and have adopted three schools, a pre-school, three NGOs, and our local post office.

What do you believe sets you apart from competitors?

DS: New technology and innovative methods. For the past three years, I have travelled to Germany and have learned a completely different approach to achieving excellence. I have implemented these fundamentals in our company and have also brought German engineers to SA to teach our local staff the best practice methods. We are the first and only Level 1 BBBEE Geodesic Dome suppliers in SA and it’s worth mentioning that our entire compliment of people are local. We are also on a mission to localise what was deemed specialised.

South Africa is not in the best state in terms of our economy. How have you and DSES managed to deal with the challenges?

MS: It has not been easy to be honest. The lifeblood of a small business is positive cashflow, financial facilities, and owned assets. When we started out, no banks wanted to deal with us, so we had to rent and hire all our vehicles, trucks, and plant for site. These costs caused us to declare a loss in our first few years. It was only when Engen included us in their Supplier Development Program that we were able to qualify for funding through Engen via Edge Growth at a very low interest rate, which assisted us in buying our own fleet and equipment. This enablement is the secret behind our survival from 2015 to date.

We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Could you tell us how it has affected DSES?

DS: We have found our place in the changes to industry and as much as many jobs are being taken over by machines, our industry is one of the first that will manufacture light-weight aluminum structures locally, which gives opportunity to the disabled, thanks to the new machinery that we are importing for our facility.

Please talk to us about the DSES charity wing, The Favour Foundation...

MS: My passion has always been our local people. I told David that while he builds tanks, I will build people with the profits. The Favour Foundation was formed at the start and has grown in its impact on the communities. What started as a food drive every December has now grown into an effective monthly active wing that now collaborates with community leaders.

What are your long and short term goals for 2020?

DS and MS: We have been framing our goals for 2020 from the beginning of 2019 and that is to increase our client base and market share, as well as to localise some products that are currently being imported for the petrochemical industry. We also have goals to set a new benchmark on industry standards by optimising the turnaround time for service delivery when it comes to Bulk Storage Tank Maintenance and New Builds. Our next phase of growth is inclusive.

We have a unique business opportunity whereby we are looking for the right equity partner that will add value to the business and allow us to grow to the corporate level, all while maintaining the small business-style quality service. While 2019 had its own challenges, we are very optimistic about 2020. We will more than double our revenue. We are busy with the plans to establish the Domes Division Facility, which we believe is an answer to the high unemployment rate, because from that business we see many smaller business and employment opportunities. 

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