Owning a small business not for the faint of heart

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WINDHOEK – Running a small family business in Namibia is not for the faint of heart. Laurence Theron, born in Swakopmund and living in Walvis Bay, says it’s getting tougher for small and medium (SME)-size businesses to survive.
Theron would know. His family is running both Van’s Supermarket in Walvis Bay’s Narraville suburb and G&D Hydraulics for 10 years now. His wife manages Van’s Supermarket. The shop has not been spared the economic downturn and recent developments have not been friendly to the family business. Since a new mall opened in Walvis Bay the Therons’ former loyal customers buy in cash from the retailers at the mall while buying on credit from them during lean times. Theron says family-owned businesses such as his struggle against competition, most often from large South African-owned retailers.
He says his biggest lesson in business occurred when he approached a mine to propose an idea to them – only to see the mine contract a foreign company to run the very programme he suggested.
“Don’t tell people your plans,” he says.

Since 2000 over 15 000 SMEs have registered with the trade ministry. Although detailed statistics are unavailable, it is widely believed that SMEs employ over a third of the Namibian workforce. Theron employs seven workers in total.
Laurence, a fitter and turner by profession, took over his father’s shop when Theron senior retired. He then also started his own hydraulics business. Asked how he got into hydraulics he says he didn’t have much of a choice.

“I matriculated in 1985. Early in 1986 my father took me to his friend’s workshop to start work there. Back then you did what your parents told you,” he says with a grin. But he has no regrets. He says he’s been making a good living from working as a fitter and turner and then as a hydraulic technician for various mines and companies in the Erongo Region for over 20 years. Theron’s family is centre to everything he does. It’s, therefore, no surprise that the G&D in his company’s name actually refers to his two sons Garven and Dylan.

Hydraulics is defined as the branch of science and technology concerned with the conveyance of liquids through pipes and channels, especially as a source of mechanical force or control.

One piece of advice Theron always repeats to anyone working in hydraulics is, “Make sure your pipes are clean before you start.” He says “the other day I didn’t and I got an oil shower of note. To do hydraulics you have to make sure that every part and work that you do must be 99.9 percent clean.”

His workers now tell him even bosses can be wrong. He agrees. From his very first pay cheque in 1986 to buying cars and acquiring a home loan he’s been banking with Nedbank. Theron says he is quite happy with their service and especially commends their fast, personal banker service.

Theron wanted to expand into marine hydraulics in order to create more job opportunities but the market is tough. To become more nimble he cancelled his rent contract and moved G&D’s operations to his home.
The biggest challenges facing SMEs, Theron says, is big companies and a lack of opportunities for Namibian entrepreneurs. Especially in the hydraulics industry. He faces competition from large South African companies and even some bigger Namibian companies. Nelson Simasiku, the head of SME Business at Nedbank Namibia, says access to finance or funding alone is not sufficient for the growth and development of the SME sector. He shares that Nedbank offers small business owners tools to make their transactions faster and more efficient. “A suite of services and value-added solutions are available with Nedbank to enable SMEs to grow faster, easier and more effectively.” 

Simasiku says that for entrepreneurs running their day-to-day operations and finding their next source of income can consume a considerable amount of time. Therefore, he encourages business owners to do careful research in choosing the right bank for their business and respective industries. 

Theron concurs and advises that choosing the right bank is a critical decision for any business owner.  “A strong relationship with your bank will allow for adequate credit to support your enterprise, offer solutions to challenges and once they understand your operations, it will be easier for them to go the extra mile.” 

“These value-added services provided by Nedbank include practical mentorship, small business seminars, short-term insurance and financial planning,” Simasiku concluded.
Running a small family business in Namibia is tough but Laurence Theron is showing every day that it can be done with a strong support structure.