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 Daunting journey taken one step at a time


 The final straw that pushed Beth Baillie into starting her own business was when her boss cancelled her commission structure after she won a huge contract for the company. She angrily declared that she was better off working for herself. "You'll come back crawling in three months,"; he said.

“No,” she said. “It is you who will be placing orders with me.”

Today, the giant company she walked away from is indeed one of her clients. Over the past twenty years since that conversation, Baillie has built her own niche plastic packaging company in Wadeville, Germiston that employs almost 50 people and occupies three factories with dozens of extruders, slitter, bag makers and printers.

When she looks back on what she has achieved, Baillie is adamant that entrepreneurs have “more guts than brains”. “If you really had to think about all the problems that you’re going to encounter, you’d never do it. It is just too daunting,” says the 56-year-old business owner.

Perhaps, but when Baillie tells her story, it becomes clear that it is her dogged one-step-at-a-time methodology that she has always employed which allowed her to emerge from difficult circumstances and successfully fight for her space in the cut-throat, male dominated plastics industry.

Baillie grew up without much support from her parents, who were both afflicted by mental illness, and the little chance she had for studying after school was thwarted by an early pregnancy. She became a trainee nurse for a year, but that kind of work could not contain the single mother’s driving ambition to make a better life for herself and her baby daughter.

She worked as a bookkeeper for a few years, and then took a dip in pay in order to gain sales experience, first in printing and then in packaging.

“I never worked for the money, but for the experience,” she says. She always worked towards an attainable, short-term goal, and was a voracious learner. She made a point of learning the technical processes of the businesses whose products she sold.

The last of these was a leading plastics company in South Africa. Their cancellation of her commission structure was an intolerable blow for Baillie’s target-driven work ethos, but by that time she knew enough about the plastics industry to be confident that she could make it on her own as an independent broker. Her life partner supported her over the first few months, and later joined her business.

Her sales skills combined with entrepreneurial thinking soon bore fruit. Among other breakthroughs, she landed a major army contract for the supply of training targets by finding a way of printing it on a single sheet instead of two. But it wasn’t easy. In her first meeting with the army commander he asked to speak to her boss because he preferred doing business with a man.

For six years, she worked from home with only one assistant, and then the chance came to acquire manufacturing facilities of her own. One of her suppliers who ran a small plastic extrusion factory got into financial difficulty and threw in the towel.

She bought the small factory at a bargain price, but had to raise expensive risk capital from a Johannesburg finance house because no bank would consider her business plan without full collateral, which she couldn’t provide at that stage.

Over the next fourteen years, Baillie grew her factory incrementally, doing more and more of the manufacturing of her clients’ packaging herself instead of outsourcing it to others. She keeps a constant lookout for good quality second-hand machinery that the big companies no longer need. Her first move from printing on plastic products instead of just making them came when she picked up an excellent machine at a rock-bottom price because the company desperately wanted to get rid of it to make space for a new machine. Baillie’s extensive network in the industry includes technicians who advise her on machines that are available.

Her business also grew stronger by recruiting her closest family members into her management structure. Her daughter Renate and son-in-law Paul Dreyer both work for the company, as does her sister Dawn, whom she describes as her “right hand”. Her life partner has retired from full-time production management because of ill health, and his place was taken by Paul.

Although Beth and Bev Packaging Products CC, as her company is called, has gained a lot of traction for bank finance over the past two decades, the banks are still wary of financing second-hand machines. When Baillie recently found an excellent 6-colour printer which she needed in order to upgrade her printing capacity to equal her manufacturing output, she approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), who agreed to finance the machine.

Today, Baillie finds herself in an ideal position for further growth. Her factory is currently running at about half its full output capacity. If she were highly geared, this would have made her desperate for any work just to keep the machines busy. But because of her sound financial position, she can pick and choose contracts that are sure to be profitable. “I don’t give away my plastic,” she says, estimating that she is about four years away from running at her full current capacity.

Today, Baillie sees just as many opportunities as ever, if not more. A number of plastic products for the flower trade which are ideally suited for a niche manufacturer has recently come into focus, and there are lots of opportunities opening up in countries to the north, she says.

Will she ever grow her company to size of the listed plastics giants for whom she worked in the past?

No, says Baillie. As a niche player, she has been protected from the worst of the head winds buffeting the big plastic companies, including strikes and fast changing technology that is disrupting the mass producers.

But then she adds: “But if I did, I’d certainly do things differently. I’ve been watching them making a lot of mistakes, and I’m learning from them.”




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