In light of October being Transport Month we chat to 2012 competition entrant Ashley van der Berg, Managing Director of Rail2Rail, about his journey as an entrepreneur in the transport industry.
1. Briefly describe your business and the industry you operate in?
Rail2Rail is a specialised concrete railway sleeper manufacturer, based in Kimberley in the Northern Cape.
2. Where did the business concept originate from and when did you start your business?
I noticed a project initiative being undertaken by Transnet (in respect of their enterprise development programme) and established the business in 2007 after we were commissioned to supply one million concrete sleepers to Transnet Freight Rail, for the maintenance of railway lines through South Africa’s 22 000km network.
3. Have you always aspired to start your own business?
I have always effectively been an entrepreneur from an early age. I am currently an active shareholder in two other businesses namely Levenbach Building & Roofing, a construction company and A & H Salvage, both of which are based in Cape Town.
4. Briefly describe some of the challenges that you have experienced as an entrepreneur?
Making concrete railways sleepers is a lot more complicated than it sounds, especially with the technology that is imported from Germany. The skills required to operate this technology have been in short supply, but as a company we have made huge strides in educating our employees, thus ensuring that our products produced are of the best quality amongst our competitors. Being able to secure a reliable supplier in the Northern Cape remains a challenge, particularly in light of our rapid growth.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never give up! Find your niche, ensure that it is different and use it to your competitive advantage.
6. Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
Being a key player in the in the supply and production of concrete railway sleepers in South Africa and continuing our company growth plan to expand our current client base and increase production capacity, which will aid our company to become more sustainable. Taking advantage of opportunities in the SADC region.
7. What does a day-in-the-life of Ashley van der Berg consist of?
My focus is on ensuring I keep a finger on the pulse of all aspects of the business, including the daily production reports completed by day and night shifts. I oversee and manage all financial aspects of the business, including cash flow updates. I also make a concerted effort to have regular meetings with customers, both existing and prospective.
8. What is your most memorable experience as an entrepreneur?
Witnessing the construction and opening of our factory, followed by experiencing the factory become operational, as well as seeing the business grow to a level which at first I thought was impossible.
9. What benefits has the development of the transport industry had on South African SMEs?
Transnet Freight Rail and the Department of Transport, as the decision makers in the development of the transport industry, have ensured that there are opportunities for SMEs to grow in this sector. Both entities have created realistic, achievable targets and have played an impactful role in the implementation thereof. In addition, transport (in other non rail sectors) play an important role for all SMEs as the sector ensures they receive supplies and deliver their finished goods and end product to their markets.
10. What are some of the key challenges SMEs owners face in transport industry?
The main challenge is a lack of competition. As we operate within a niche market, we are unable to compare our products to that of our competitors. I feel competition is healthy for any business as it ensures that the end product is of the best quality. Another challenge is the availability of financial assistance for entrepreneurs; this is a key barrier which hinders the growth of entrepreneurship within South Africa.
11. Why would you recommend that fellow entrepreneurs get involved with initiatives such as Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year?
As an entrepreneur you have the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs and listen to their success stories and advice. The media exposure you receive is also extremely valuable and lastly, it is an excellent benchmarking exercise.