Today, after a few years’ experience of running Solomon Coatings together with her father, Tommy Solomon, Leonie can stand her full 1.5 meters tall for the contribution that she has made so far to the thirty-year-old family business. She and Tommy, who is now 70, make a formidable team in the cut-throat powder-coating industry in Cape Town.
Listening to Leonie tell the story of how her father started the business, it becomes clear that Tommy is a hard act for anyone to follow. He grew up as an orphan, trained as a carpenter, and never stopped teaching himself, spotting opportunities and jumping at them with an almost insatiable curiosity.
Growing up on the Cape Flats, Leonie remembers her father selling every conceivable thing - cups and sauces, pens, fudge. She and her three sisters used to distribute leaflets for her dad’s ventures, helping to push-start the family’s old bakkie as they went along.
Her father was running a small team of plasterers one day when her mother complained that the company where she worked as a buyer was struggling to find a local powder-coating business that could do the job in less than two weeks.
Intrigued, as always, Tommy set about finding out as much as he could about the process of spraying metal objects with a special powder, which then gets baked onto the surface as a durable, rust-resistant layer. The more he found out, the more convinced he became that here was a real opportunity, and in 1988, he opened a tiny powder-coating workshop in Blackheath.
He managed to convince an investor, who became a silent partner, to put up some of the capital. For months, Tommy worked so hard at the business that he slept in the workshop, and slowly but surely the operation started growing. It also helped that the Small Business Development Corporation, the forerunner of Business Partners Limited, gave him a loan to expand his business.
Leonie says one of her father’s great strengths is his extraordinary commitment to making a sale, and, at the same time, his commitment to the customer himself. She tells of how her father one day spotted a bakkie with lots of metal items on the back, clearly on its way to some kind of processing. He gave chase in his own clapped-out car, flagged the man down, and convinced him that his next load should come to Solomon Coatings. Today, thirty years later, that man is still one of their customers.
Meanwhile, Leonie finished high school and studied commerce at Stellenbosch University, and spent some time in Germany after her studies. On her return she joined the family business as an administrator. It was never explicitly stated that she would take over the business one day, but she grew into it, moving from administration to operations and later into her role as general manager.
The turning point came in 2010, when Tommy was diagnosed with cancer. Typical of the family, they all prayed together and then went straight back to work, says Leonie.
However, the scare prompted Leonie to secure the family’s control of business. She approached her father’s silent partner, took money out of her bond, and bought out his shares in the business.
Today she owns 51% of the business and Tommy, who is officially managing director, 49%.
Tommy is still active in the business, where he spends most mornings trouble-shooting, advising and interacting with clients.
Leonie and Tommy both break the mould in their style and approach to the business. The stereotype would have Tommy play the role of the hard-nosed business pioneer, and Leonie that of a softer, more compromising type.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. Tommy would easily sacrifice the profitability of a job in return for customer satisfaction, while Leonie had to bring a steely and much-needed financial discipline to the business.
It was not always easy being the “not so nice” one in the business, says Leonie, but the synergy between her and her father’s approach had a major effect on the business. Despite the fact that there are more than 80 powder-coating operations in Cape Town today - there were eight when Tommy started the business - Solomon Coating has grown substantially over the last few years.
The growth allowed them to buy a new 2000 square metre premises in Blackheath, close to their previous premises. Business Partners Limited gave them a 100% loan in return for a minority share in the building.
Times are tough currently, says Leonie. Her biggest challenge is maintaining cash flow while customers struggle to pay, but she is determined to grow the business further on the strong foundation laid by her father.