Martin grew up in Denmark where he studied commerce and marketing. To satisfy his wanderlust and a yearning to pioneer and develop new projects, he asked Danfoss, the Danish engineering firm where he was working, for a posting elsewhere in the world.
He remembers having to do quite a bit of research when he was told that his destination was Johannesburg, which in 1995 was opening up to the world after apartheid-era sanctions. Danfoss wanted to re-establish its presence in South Africa and for Martin the challenge of helping to build the company’s systems from scratch was the perfect job.
He found South Africans open and friendly, and it didn’t take him long to feel at home. Furthermore, he found South Africa teeming with opportunities to pioneer projects. As soon as he had laid the groundwork for Danfoss’s re-establishment, he moved on to work for one of its clients, a refrigeration company, and later he joined the Automobile Association to help them transform and establish a number of new projects.
Out of the many opportunities that he saw around him, one stood out: South Africa had one of the most progressive constitutions in the world which enshrined public access for people with disabilities as a right, yet Martin was keenly aware of the lack of infrastructure, training and consciousness in South Africa to implement that right.
The more he researched the possibility of using European know-how and technology to make South African public facilities safer and more accessible for people with disabilities, the more it made sense as a business opportunity.
In 2006, both in their early 30's, Martin and his wife Ronel decided to make a go of it. Ronel resigned from her job as a corporate banker and started to test the market with patient-handling and bathroom-safety equipment for people with disabilities.
Her interaction with the local private healthcare and retirement scene was positive, and about a year later Martin resigned from his AA job and joined her full time in the business. Both of them cashed in their pensions to get Jessen Pty Ltd off the ground.
Martin says their start-up experience was very scary. Both were used to a comfortable corporate lifestyle, which they now had to scale down. Martin explains how he had to “snap out of” his corporate thinking when, during his first days after joining Ronel on a full-time basis at their new business, he found that their printer did not work. His first reaction was to dial the IT department to have it fixed, only to realise that there was no IT department. Ronel, having been a year ahead of him in the start-up scene, told him to sort it out himself.
Not only did the Jessens have to start their business entirely from scratch, but in a certain sense they had to create a completely new market. The products that they were selling were seen in Europe as essentials that hospitals, retirement complexes and public restrooms must have. In South Africa they were either unknown or viewed as luxuries.
The Jessens had several things going for them, though. First, they were both fired up by the cause of promoting the rights of people with disabilities. Martin says Ronel threw herself into it with a gusto that surprised him. Today, still as passionate as ever about the cause, she is working on her a Masters Degree in philosophy with a focus on people with disabilities - while still running the finances of the company.
Secondly, Martin’s ability to tap into European networks gave them access not only to a range of appropriate products, but they also gained the support of the Danish development agency Danida, who paid for technical assistance and training.
This helped them to build a strong in-house team of technicians. Martin believes that their unfashionable insistence on employing staff on a full-time basis rather than outsourcing and subcontracting is the basis of their success.
They were able to nurture a culture of respect and excellence in their team, which today comprises of 30 employees. Hospitals, complexes, builders and architects who at first contracted them to install safety and accessibility equipment in bathrooms started asking them for increasingly more elaborate accessibility solutions, and slowly but surely the Jessens expanded their product range to include hoists and small elevators.
Soon they were winning some market share in the field of ordinary lifts, which is dominated locally by four multi-national corporations.
About four years ago, Jessen Pty Ltd achieved a critical mass of track record, expertise and product range so that their elevator business, which today comprises about 80% of their revenue, really started taking off.
Expansion finance, which was always a challenge for Martin and Ronel, became a burning issue. Fortunately, says Martin, they came across “the home of the entrepreneur” in South Africa, Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), who helped them finance equipment and projects. Martin says traditional bank finance is far more difficult to get than it would seem even for a sophisticated business such as theirs. “You virtually have to prove to the banks that you don’t need the finance before they give it to you,” he says.
BUSINESS/PARTNERS, on the other hand, uses different lending criteria so that their products are much more suited to entrepreneurial SMEs. They are planning to approach BUSINESS/PARTNERS for finance to acquire their own warehouse when the current one that they are renting in Strijdom Park, Randburg, grows too small.
Already the Jessens have completed some projects in countries to the north of South Africa, and they plan to replicate the unusual path through which they managed to enter the elevator industry in South Africa - first with bathroom safety and accessibility equipment - in other African states.
In a rapidly urbanising world, and with many African cities at the dawn of major economic development, Jessen Pty Ltd has managed to get in on the ground floor, and is well on its way to the top storey.