Article by Enterprise Africa
Author: Eleanor Sarbutt-King
Powerful Player Provides Purposeful Progress
Supplying hydraulic and pneumatic tooling solutions to the African market, Wanawake Industrial Supplies is helping to keep economies moving. A high growth business in a lucrative market, this experienced and innovative organisation is demonstrating what is possible with carefully crafted strategies built around good people. MD Sean Sandham tells Enterprise Africa more about exciting expansion in recent years.
Sean and Saretha Sandham have created a leading import and distribution business for the industrial products sector. Coming out of a challenging set of circumstances, this enterprise has boomed, seeing fantastic growth while others have scaled back, pessimistic about economic outlook.
The pair established Wanawake Industrial Supplies in 2018 when Hi-Force Hydraulic Tools, a UK company – where Sean had served as a regional director for a decade – required a solution to a local problem. Receiving strong business from South Africa, supplying high pressure hydraulic maintenance tools to the mining and energy industries, Hi-Force could not access big contracts because of BBBEE scorecard requirements.
Wanawake – the Swahili word for women – was established to facilitate the need for Hi-Force products in the market while creating economic opportunities for growth where they might have otherwise been missed.
“It was started as a solution to a local challenge,” smiles Sean. “Originally, membership of the company was all women and they became the enterprise development partners locally. Over the next two years, all BBBEE-sensitive deals were pushed through the enterprise development companies, growing to become around 15% of the business.”
Headquartered in Midrand, bringing products into South Africa to service heavy industry in South Africa and across the continent, the structure arranged by Sean and Saretha Sandham has allowed for an easy route to Africa for manufacturers, and a worldclass product portfolio for clients. And the two entrepreneurs achieved this through some of the toughest business conditions in living memory.
“In 2020, through Covid, Hi-Force UK decided to sell off the local SA company as it was an extra level of cost,” remembers Sean. “We bought the company and we took over all assets. From mid-2020, Wanawake became the sole importer and distributor for Hi-Force Hydraulics. Over the next two to three years, we added more distributorships. Initially, we were solely a regional office for Hi-Force but now we are sole importers for Hi-Force, Sygma, Alkitronic, and more, and we have added some local companies to fill niche markets including Metabo, Milwaukee and more.”
Now, a jet service technician at the airport, or a railway worker, or a mining headgear engineer, or an oil and gas technician will use tools provided by Wanawake, allowing them to do their job quickly, efficiently, to a high-quality standard, and most importantly, safely.
Establishing Wanawake was a bold move, but Sean saw the benefit and was keen to multiply this beyond his own office.
“The gap is widening between the have and have nots,” he says of a tough situation in SA that sees 32.7% of the population officially out of work. “It is very important from a socio-economic perspective that we do all we can to allow people to thrive. We hope that in the future, one of our seed companies will grow and create a big network of their own companies – that would be an amazing story.”
As an entrepreneur, Sean has witnessed the power of people and is keen to harness the potential through modern structures.
“One thing that sets Wanawake apart from any other company that I know of is that we are probably the first company to take over an existing operation and retain staff and protect jobs,” he says. “We passed the mantle onto our staff. We went to everyone and said that we would take over the business, but they must benefit from it. All the area managers and sales reps were given the opportunity to start their own businesses. A lot have kept the Wanawake name and we funded those businesses, helping to grow, and carrying the book for them. We got area managers to go into their local provinces and find a suitable BBBEE partner who could be made the owner of the business and could be supported. Now, all of our staff work for themselves and any BBBEE business we get is passed to those companies. That has worked out very well. It is now a long-term business and people have a vested interest in.”
This set-up provides the quadruple win – Wanawake grows, partner businesses receive investment, manufacturers can access harder-to-reach SA markets, and clients gain access to world-class equipment. In the past two years, Wanawake has doubled its staff count and is busy expanding into new geographies to bolster its already strong African presence.
“When Hi-Force have a reseller or distributor, Wanawake becomes part of the equation to add other non-competing products,” explains Sean. “We have a footprint throughout Africa and by the end of the year we hope to have a presence in every country. We have branches in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and we are expanding into West and North Africa at the moment. In SA, we have branches in Cape Town, Durban, North West, Johannesburg, and Mpumalanga.”
YOUR LOCAL PARTNER
It is collaboration and shared success with local partners that fuels this expansion, and the trust placed in relationships is vital. Sean is certain that regional colleagues understand market conditions in a deeper way than he could from head office and so they are given autonomy over activity in their space.
“We are predominantly a support and technical back up company,” he qualifies. “Our model is that we specialise in importation and distribution – that is our speciality, but we use local partners in SA or across the border to get a foot in the door locally.”
When doors are opened, Wanawake brings a unique and powerful product portfolio, and complements with service that is often unparalleled.
“We try as best as we can to offer something that is not currently available. We know what the needs are in the industry and we are proactive in looking for solutions globally,” Sean details. “I spend a lot of time speaking to suppliers around the world, trying to identify what we can bring that will add value to our local economy. We try and get direct contact with factories. Our currency is weak and that makes importing expensive, so we try and fill the gap. We go to OEMs in their native countries and position ourselves as partners for them to access Africa, at the lowest cost. That means we rely on smaller margins but that is our service, getting products from factories and to users in the shortest route possible.”
Turnaround times are constantly in focus for Wanawake, and during a time of supply chain and trade disruption the company has found alternative solutions to ensure customers are delighted.
“I can get an order on a Wednesday afternoon and have it in South Africa for the Monday. We pride ourselves on this, and it is what differentiates us from others. We choose to fly in a lot of products because of the congestion and wait times with sea freight. Customers do not always worry too much about the logistics cost, they want it today and need it today. That is what we deliver,” says Sean.
STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
Because of the commitment and originality that Sean and Saretha Sandham have instilled in Wanawake, the company has shown fantastic expansion to date, and Sean is hungry for further success. South Africa is home to much potential in heavy industry, and with a potential blossoming of the energy exploration and production industry in sub-Saharan Africa only set to further this trend, the company is well-placed to create a significant and valuable offering.
“We have gone from strength to strength. April 2020 was a disaster but since May 2020, we have grown strongly,” smiles Sean. “Our turnover has increased and the business is in a really good place. This is because of the industries we service which must always continue. Companies are spending a lot more time and effort on maintenance of existing assets rather than buying new. That is where we specialise as we provide maintenance tools to the industry. Even during the tough times that we are going through, it has benefitted us as a company.
“Wanawake is in a blessed position as we operate in what is almost a recession-proof industry. We are in mining and power generation and oil and gas – those industries will always be around and they can’t slow down too much otherwise everything comes to a halt.”
The target through the rest of 2023 and beyond is further growth and development. This will come in the form of new partnerships, new brands for the portfolio, new regional markets, and new sectors. All the time, Wanawake will continue to nurture industry.
“We want to grow further this year. We have upped our game in marketing and reach out aggressively on social media, through our website, and other digital platforms,” Sean concludes.
If you need leading brand industrial tool supplies or rental, with training and repair and maintenance, that come with proven aftersales service, and fast turnaround times then look no further than Wanawake Industrial Supplies, and know that you are investing in the people behind the tools.