with Yvonne van Schalkwyk, Founder & Managing Director, C&N Petroleum Equipment
Mrs. van Schalkwyk, you started C&N Petroleum Equipment from scratch as early as 1992. What inspired you to set up the company?
The previous company I worked for was facing financial problems. Following rumors that the staff wanted to open a new company, I was forced to resign. That same month, I arranged all the paperwork as well as the financing and founded C&N Petroleum Equipment, which at that time was first called C&N Hose. Initially I was alone to do all the tasks and came in as early as 4 a.m. in the mornings to cut up hoses myself, strap them, sell them, and so forth. Three months later, in March, my husband had a motor vehicle accident which paralyzed one of his legs. I thus had my husband in the hospital, 2 young children to take care of and a company to run.
How did you stay motivated to keep going?
C&N, the company name, stands for my children’s names: Claudia and Nathalie. Back then, with my husband hospitalized, I realized this company was all we had. I had to be the one that would financially control the destination we would go to in our lives. Every time I would even think of giving up, I would look at the pictures of my children. At first, I had to pretend to have an imaginary boss because South Africa was still in an era where women were not yet accepted in the industry. The industry, especially in petroleum equipment, would not take women seriously.
1994 was a year of transformation for South Africa. Did this impact the market you were operating in?
It did not impact the market until 6 to 10 years later. A mindset change was needed, and this took a lot of time. Today, people know that I am the owner and founder of C&N Petroleum Equipment, but it took a long time to change people’s mindsets. Still today, there is room for improvement in this regard.
This year is C&N’s 20th birthday! Looking back at these 2 decades, what have been the key achievements?
The key achievement for us has been to become able to import our own equipment from throughout the world. Ten years ago, we started bringing in equipment from abroad, which is also why I obtained an additional diploma in import & export.
The industry in South Africa, and companies such as Dunlop for example, used to manufacture products locally. However, these products were generally of inferior quality and the industry did not accept such lower standards. Much of the manufacturing has moved elsewhere over the years. Today, however, things are improving again as more and more international companies are entering South Africa once again.
What can you tell the readers about the products you can offer today and where you still see room for expansion of your portfolio?
The API couplings, a Liquip product, have been a major source of importing that has helped us changed the industry over the past couple of years. Today, 75% to 80% of the connections for the API standards in the country are now liquid couplings.
What we look forward to in terms of growth is the overfilling of depots and loading. In South Africa, the old pneumatic system is still used and together with the first big oil companies we are now moving forward towards using electronic systems. Another part we work on is vapor, which at the moment is only being collected at the big depots. We are in the phase of putting in loading arms to make loading operations easier and safer. Our international distributors also come in and assist us in upgrading various depots. Generally speaking, as a company we are increasingly moving towards safer and more environmental-focused solutions in line with HSSE policies. We now have accreditations from BP, Chevron and Total with regards to health and safety.
How was this learning curve for the company when it comes to understanding safety regulations?
We have a devoted staff member that has been sent for studies in health and safety, with the purpose of implementing her knowledge in the workplace afterwards. Furthermore, we also align with the expectations of the different oil companies and provide our solutions accordingly. We are the sole suppliers of hoses to all of BP’s terminals in South Africa for example, and have to work on their sites according to their strict international standards. Our motto is to be a solution provider for the oil and gas industry. Such accreditations are quite an accomplishment in our 20 years of existence. However, one must realize that they can be taken away as soon as a mistake is being made. This is why all of our staff members are being made aware of the fact that we take safety very seriously.
You mention you are a sole supplier to BP, but what enables you to be such preferred partner?
It is very important to have the right distributorship. Your product needs to be of high quality and in line with the customers’ standards. We ensure that all requirements and standards are being met with the products we offer and we will do anything to make sure that our customers can have safe operations.
South Africa is ideally positioned to serve the rest of Southern Africa. What growth opportunities do you see beyond the company’s borders?
C&N Petroleum Equipment has been supplying various equipment to countries such as Swaziland, Tanzania, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, and so on, for over 10 years. We have been exporting some of our equipment as early as 4 years after the foundation of the company. We look at the bulk transferring of liquid petroleum products and after years of specializing in this niche, numerous suppliers have contacted us to distribute their products. We have roughly 15 to 18 suppliers now which is a number that keeps growing. Increasingly, they have come to known us and are eager to work with us.
How do you want these companies to perceive C&N Petroleum Equipment?
We want to be perceived as an international distributor of quality equipment for petroleum transferring. While we have a wide variety of companies we import from, we also need to become solutions providers. Over the years, we have built up the reputation of the brands of many of our suppliers. Companies such as IVG were unknown in South Africa until they started working with us. The perception that should be out there is that we distribute quality products of high standards that comply with the health, safety and environmental regulations. We look for sole distributorship as there are quite a number of players in South Africa that are not very loyal.
What does one need to do to obtain such exclusivity?
It is important that you prove yourself to your suppliers. We and our staff members need to go out into the industry and promote ourselves. We need to showcase to our suppliers what growth we can offer them before we even start talking about a contract.
Today, we are internationally recognized and enjoy a better awareness in the industry. It has been an achievement for us to not only have a reputation in the international oil industry rather than in South Africa alone. Naturally, we need to keep our standards very high as a reputation can be easily damaged.
As the managing director you have a strong focus on growing the people in your company, but what do you consider as a successful team?
The word team does not have ‘I’ in it as successful teams work together. No one is irreplaceable, which includes myself. I want a legacy in generations to come and want them all to have jobs and a career one day.
Once you pass on the company, what legacy do you want to leave behind then?
I want them to teach people the way I have been teaching the staff. Rather than training them on products, I train our staff on the industry at large as well as how the industry works in Africa. There are many different divisions, such as marine and depots for example, and the staff is being taught how the entire movement of the industry works.
After all these years, is there still learning to be done for yourself too?
I am permanently searching for new information online and my learning is ongoing. The communication between the staff and myself is also a two-way street: whereas I provide them with strategic insights, they will report back to me with their observations from the industry. When I first started, computers and information technology were still used in a very limited manner. This has been one aspect I needed to learn very rapidly. Apart from that, we have various teams within the company that all work together, including a marketing team, a sales team, a workshop team, etc. Apart from that, it remains very important to keep an eye on the competition. However, as a rule of thumb we work based on a team effort.
What do you look for in new people joining the company?
I look at the personality and see whether the person would fit in with our models and standards. Then we look at the education and do various sales tests to get a better grasp of their personalities. We take several hours and many tests to screen our applicants thoroughly. Moreover, it is important to note that we have various sales people selling to various industries. A different position may well require a different sales personality, which is why it is also important to recruit a pool of new people with diverse profiles. Particularly important is finding people that acknowledge their mistakes in order to learn from them accordingly. Indeed, while they can make a sale, it will be even more important to be able to ask ‘why?’ when they lose a contract.
With a growing portfolio of products, will we also see C&N’s pool of talent growing further?
We have been growing every single year and see new staff coming in every year. We currently have 35 staff and also have a sister company, which sells diesel trailers, next door. It is of course a challenge to retain your staff and prevent them from joining the competition. We are a family-owned company and our aim is to build a strong team that is truly committed.
Speaking of competition, have you seen the landscape changing in the past few years?
It was probably tougher a few years back. This is particularly because we have been working very hard on building a strong reputation and becoming a company of reference in the industry.
What do you foresee to have achieved with C&N Petroleum Equipment by its 25th birthday?
We will have increased our range of products in the marine, gas, mining and chemical industries while increasing our share from 10% to 40 %. Rather than just offering equipment, we want to be a solutions provider that changes the industry!