STRATEGIST AND CHANGE MAKER

Janet Pillai Founder and CEO

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When, years ago, Janet Pillai imagined her future life, she saw herself working “in a museum somewhere”, doing amazing exhibitions, not running a fleet of more than 200 cars.

A museum management specialist by training, Pillai had done wonders at Fort Hare University and worked at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington – and loved every second. “I always saw myself in that kind of space,” the managing director of Multilayer Trade Corporation (MLT Corp) vehicle hire, shuttle and accommodation company said. “I am not even a car fan!”MLT Corp, a BEE Level 1 company which Pillai launched in 2002, has a team of 68 people. Eighteen months ago, Pillai had 12 employees.

MLT Corp is a 100 percent Black women-owned and managed company which serves the public, private corporate, tourist and maritime sectors. Pillai believes her careful position on spending has, been an advantage. “Some of our competitors have cars costing a million rand a pop. We don’t believe in investing like that. I don’t feel the pressure of competing with others in the industry. With my handpicked staff, we keep up with trends, we communicate with potential clients and strive to improve our service all the time, and we manage our costs. ” Despite her background in academia and museum management, it is perhaps not surprising to find Pillai in this competitive corporate terrain.

In an interview at the glamorous 15 On Orange Hotel, where Pillai has a daily meeting, she described herself as a born entrepreneur. Since leaving school, she has always had more than one job at a time and has never stopped studying.Among other clients, her company provides the transport needs for all the Protea Hotels in the Western Cape, including vehicle rentals, shuttles and tours. Always on the lookout for new ideas and trends, they are also closing the gap in offering rental vehicles for tour guides.

MLT Corp is mainly Western Cape-based but does have a “small window” in both KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg. MLT Corp had small beginnings. At the time of its launch, Pillai was trading through the company in a range of commodities with the KZN government. In the first year of trading, her company showed a profit so, in 2003, she decided to buy a car to rent out.

Pillai’s first client was a young English post-doctoral student from the Graduate School of Business. “She rented the car from me for ten months and then told all her friends about me. Then I bought another car.” She then tendered to supply vehicles to the city, and was successful, and has supplied vehicles to the city for the past decade. “This year we also started renting large vehicles, with drivers, to the city. “I am embarrassed to say I didn’t have a game plan. I did most of the work by instinct,” said Pillai. Janet Pillai was born in Chatsworth, near Durban in 1966. Her father Subramonia, a respected community leader, was a high-ranking police officer who became the first ever station commander of the Chatsworth police station and headed up the police training college.

Her mother Mariamma was a housewife who managed the family home of six children with great efficiency. Pillai grew up in a house where the entire garage wall was a chalk board. “It was a house of learning which influenced the course of my own life hugely. Pillai’s formative years as well as the influence of both parents were huge contributors to her future success. “My parents had a savings culture and they managed their money well. I picked all of this up from them. “When my father married my mother, he had not finished matric. He was an orphan and had not had many opportunities.

“They met in KZN when my father was 18 and my mother was 13. My mother encouraged him to study and, by the time he died aged 55, he had two law degrees to his name.” Pillay matriculated from Woodhurst Secondary School, before going to University of Durban Westville where she completed a BA degree cum laude with majors in English French and Art History, followed by a BA Honours, again cum laude.

After graduating, she started “knocking on every gallery and museum door,” to try and get a job as a museum or gallery curator. But there were no opportunities in the early 1990’s in Durban. So she did her Estate Agents’ Board exam, and worked in the property world with her brother for some years, while doing every course she could get her hands on.

A few years later, she applied for a job at the University of Fort Hare. “I walked in to the De Beers gallery where their contemporary collection was housed, saw the beautiful building and the artwork on the walls and said, ‘this is where I want to be.’” Fort Hare, “the most intellectually stimulating time of my life,” was Pillai’s working home from 1994 to 1999, where she excelled in collections and museum management and built relationships with big donors. She organized numerous exhibitions and built catalogues of the art collections from the various liberation archives. Pillai became the youngest member of Fort Hare’s management as director of Development and Public Affairs in 1997, during turbulent times at the campus.

Arising from her work at Fort Hare, Pillai was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Michigan State in 1997 and at the Smithsonian in 1998. Her experience in management at Fort Hare inspired her to apply for a position in government and, in 1999, she was appointed director Culture and Heritage for the Western Cape Provincial Government.

By 2002, she had started consulting to the KZN province on cultural funding and heritage legislation, among other things. She formed MLT in 2002 and tendered to supply goods to the province. It was from here that MLT moved into car rentals - and the rest is history. Pillai’s goal is to develop her company into one which is “totally in touch with our customers” and to have a bigger basket of customers.

She sits on a number of boards, including Women’s Zone and Streetsmart, which she takes very seriously. In terms of her personal goals, she aims to have more time to travel. She loves reading, especially Rushdie, Eco and Kundera.

Her business heroes are those who are willing to engage new talent and to give back. She admires Richard Branson, “a real disruptor who thinks out of the box.” The low points in the business include the inevitable accidents and other unforeseen incidents. “A real low point was in 2010 when we were doing work for a big client with many projects nationally. “They pulled a project prematurely and we were left with a lot of car stock to manage. We had upfleeted by 30 big vehicles for them. We didn’t have space to store the cars and had to store them on a farm. “I am now cautious when I upfleet and try not to have stock standing.”

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