- Player: Dr Mehran Zarrebini
- Company: PFE International
- What they do: A vertically integrated group of companies, including Van Dyck Carpets and PFE Extrusion that employs more than 500 people in the economically challenged areas of Hammarsdale and Umlazi.
- Visit: vandyckcarpets.com
Academics are required to ask why. Dr Mehran Zarrebini, head of family business PFE International, which owns one of South Africa’s best known carpet manufacturers, Van Dyck Carpets, believes in questioning the status quo for the sake of innovation.
It’s a practice ingrained in every academic researcher. Dr Zarrebini holds a degree in Chemical Engineering, a PhD and an MBA. Now he’s turning his focus to business. We asked him what it was like to make the transition from academia to entrepreneurship and what he’s learnt along the way.
How have you applied analytical skills in business?
In organisations today, we are seeing a massive influx of data and less expensive but more powerful technology. Analytics skills, including the ability to organise, analyse, and communicate data that can be applied to every element of the business is a competitive advantage.
My family has a background in engineering, and we have always valued the study of scientific subjects. Analytics and problem solving skills are particularly important when you’re in a position of leadership and you need to have the ability to listen critically. I don’t believe business people do that often enough. These skills are key when it comes to developing meaningful relationships in the workplace.
What helped you to make the transition from researcher to leader?
I had never worked in any organisation until that point. I had just moved from one university to the next. Nothing in the UK had prepared me for the diversity that you will experience here.
Many people in similar circumstances might seek the assistance of a single mentor; I chose a group of people in the workplace with whom I could consult regularly and obtain advice and feedback. I essentially created my own personal board of directors.
No single mentor could possibly have made a richer and more varied contribution to my own development and career than this interconnected team.
Having such a dependable network of people to refer to is invaluable when running a business. For my part, I committed totally to the consulting process, which helped build the rapport and trust that are the foundations of a mutually productive relationship.
How do you define success today?
I have witnessed many successes but also faced numerous challenges. Many stem from the increasingly complex trading and operating environment and seemingly endless economic headwinds that South Africa has encountered since 2009.
I believe it is the commitment to service and making a difference in your community, and not the access to power and influence, that is an essential ingredient of leadership today.
At our plant in Hammarsdale, we house a black-owned tyre recycling facility that produces rubber crumb, with between 70% and 80% of its output going into the manufacture of acoustic underlays for laminated flooring. This has given us the chance to diversify from textiles into recycling, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and community development.
How has your approach defined your management structure?
As challenging as it was to deal with diversity initially, our business has turned it into an opportunity. We have also used this newfound knowledge of different cultures, education and background to structure the company.
There is little hierarchy; instead we have an open, collaborative atmosphere that seeks to take advantage of many different but complementary competencies. It’s a truly participatory environment.
Evaluate your skills set and how it can be applied to business. Sometimes the most unexpected attributes can make the biggest business impact.