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How PFE International Remains Relevant By Creating Value

No product or service — regardless of how great it may be — will be able to compete effectively for more than a few years. So if you want to grow your business, you need to innovate consistently.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Player: Dr Mehran Zarrebini
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: PFE International Inc.
  • Turnover: R560 million
  • About: PFE International Inc. is a manufacturing-orientated organisation with an emphasis on floor coverings (carpet tiles, broadloom carpet, DIY carpet tiles), polypropylene fibre and yarn, master-batches, recycled rubber flooring, artificial hair and recycled rubber crumb. Companies include Sapy, Easigrass, Van Dyck Carpets, PFE Extrusion and Mathe Group.

PFE International is a vertically-integrated group of companies that include well-known brands such as Easigrass, PFE Extrusions and Van Dyck Carpets. The business focuses on manufacturing, an industry where margins are often tight and competition is fierce and global. Yet, despite this, PFE International has shown impressive growth and currently boasts a turnover of more than R500 million. It also employs more than 500 people in the economically-challenged areas of Hammarsdale and Imlazi.

Entrepreneur spoke to company CEO Mehran Zarrebini (who holds a degree in chemical engineering, a PHD and an MBA) about the approach and mindset needed to compete effectively and grow a business in the modern environment.

Related: How Flick Visual Foundry Found High Rewards By Taking A Narrow View

Every business in its growth journey will hit certain ceilings. Can you think of any, and how you overcame them?

In business, you will always face barriers. For instance, during the life cycle of a product, sales will eventually diminish as competitors release products to market that have similar, or better, characteristics and features than yours. In the manufacturing environment that we operate in, this has the tendency to suppress growth.

Overcoming these types of strategic challenges requires a different kind of thinking. To launch products that are successful, sustainable and can out-compete other incumbents in the industry, one has to do four things.

Firstly, you need to challenge conventional wisdom. Look at alternative industries where complementary products are being utilised, and look at other industries where product innovation plays a pivotal role.

Secondly, research your customers. Understand their pain points and the buyer experience cycle fully. Most companies have an inside-out mentality instead of an outside-in mentality. Customer research is critical in reaffirming that the value drivers in the organisation are actually correct.

Thirdly, when developing a product or service, what are the factors that need to be created and improved, and what are the factors that need to be removed or eliminated. There is no point developing products that do not create value for your clients, or provide them with attributes that they do not need. These just add to cost and creates waste.

Lastly, identify a non-customer opportunity. It is not only existing customers that we must focus on but also non-customers. What can you learn from non-customers about your product? Why aren’t they buying from you? How can you turn them into customers? If you want to grow your business, you can’t just focus on existing customers. The truth is, you can often learn more from the people who aren’t buying from you.

What, do you believe, are some of the biggest barriers to growth that businesses face?


Many of the barriers to growth we often face are internal and not external. As you scale up a business, many businesses are forced to add complexity and bureaucracy. Growth, no doubt, creates complexity, but complexity can easily become something that inhibits companies reaching for or sustaining profitable growth.

It is very difficult to achieve your external goals if your issues internally stifle that growth. You need to take a critical look at the systems and processes of your company. Are they still making sense? They might have made sense at some stage, but are they still helping you to drive growth, or have they become inhibitors? How can you simplify things and make it as easy as possible for everyone to do their jobs?

Insufficient investment in people is another common problem.

It is necessary to continuously invest in human capital. Growth brings new challenges and needs for any business, so ensuring the right human capital is in place is paramount to success.

Organisations also often fail to see the merit of creating partnerships and leveraging from the successes of other organisations. The world is incredibly dynamic and organisations cannot cultivate all they need internally. Companies cannot be innovative and efficient if they do not have alliances and partnerships with other organisations. In other words, you need to deploy knowledge efficiently from one network to another.

Finally, an inability to adapt to changing market conditions is a massive barrier. As companies grow, market dynamics change and organisations are required to adapt their business models accordingly. Many companies fail in this regard as they do not continuously scan the strategic landscape. Failing to adapt and doing things as you’ve always done them is a sure way to fail.

Related: Urban Property Development Brand Blok’s Niche Designs For The Urban Dweller In Mind

What growth advice have you received or used in your own business?

I have received some great feedback in the past. I think the management of family-owned businesses, like mine, has different dynamics to deal with compared to non-family owned businesses.

A piece of advice that will always resonate with me is that it is imperative to focus on building organisations around resilience, and not only performance. Forgo the excess returns during the good times in order to manage the turbulent times.

One may not grow to the extent that a performance-orientated company may grow, but over the long term, I believe that a resilient organisation is far more sustainable. As a family-based organisation, we often invest with a ten-to-twenty year horizon and not necessarily for the short term. Resilience, therefore, becomes incredibly important.

Another great piece of advice that I have received regarding growth is that diversification is often crucial to long-term sustainability.

As the economy becomes more volatile and industries experience more unpredictability, it is important to diversify either organically or through acquisition.

We have to find new ways of protecting our interests so that in the event of one industry suffering a downturn, business in another sector can generate funds that allow us to invest for the future.

How does a business owner embrace a growth mind-set?

easigrass-carpetingI think, in order to achieve a growth mind- set, business owners must believe that their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, being humble and by having the ability to listen. While these requirements seem trivial, they are often a challenge for many business leaders. Power and influence will often inhibit a business leader in developing a growth mind-set.

Continuous learning should form part of our daily business lives and we must never operate with the assumption that we are qualified for the job. There is so much to learn from working with others, especially in a diverse environment like South Africa.

If we can create and provide a collaborative and participative approach to business within the organisations that we work in, then our employees feel empowered and committed, which ultimately drives growth.

Related: Business Partners Limited Explain What It Takes To Have The X (Fundable) Factor

How do you stay motivated and focused on growth, even when you’ve been operating for quite a while?

I think it is important for any business to continuously challenge conventional wisdom. Having spent some time at INSEAD at the Blue Ocean Strategy Institute in Fontainebleau, I realised the importance of being able to tap into latent demand and creating organic growth by learning from non-customers.

There is a lot of insight that one can gain from non-customers, especially when trying to understand why they shun a particular product or service. A better solution to an existing problem is simply not good enough and being able to capture new demand requires focus on the demand side (non-customers). What are their key commonalities, and where can we create a leap in value?

How do you stay at the forefront of innovation in an industry where there are constant technological advancements? How do you keep your offering relevant?

Doing this successfully is dependent on the strategic choices one makes. The traditional view of strategy — to stay at the forefront of innovation — requires organisations to focus on differentiation. In a world of increasing competitiveness, with diminishing barriers to entry and increased complexity, this is no longer good enough.

The difficulty in pursuing a differentiation strategy is that over a period of time it can be easily replicated, forcing individuals and organisations to differentiate yet again.

The result is that the value/cost trade-off both move in the same direction.

End-users will only use innovative products that add some perceived value to their lives. Over and above financial benefits to the user, perceived value can be achieved either by user-centred design (where the design qualities of the technology are matched with the needs of the end-user; i.e. perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, social pressure, etc.) or through persuasive design (where the design qualities of the technology actively encourage adoption). Understanding the market and how human behaviour influences uptake of technologies is critical to success.

Related: From Simple Idea To Sideline Business: How Nkosenhle Hlophe Spotted An Opportunity

Key learnings

  • Challenge conventional wisdom. How can you do things differently?
  • Research customers, competitors and non-customers.
  • Create great partnerships. Don’t try to do everything on your own.
  • Diversification can help you survive tough times.
  • Focus on differentiation.


  • It’s imperative to build organisations around resilience and not only performance.
  • Resilient organisations will not always be the biggest in their industries, but they will be the most sustainable.
  • Diversification is crucial to long-term sustainability. Markets and industries are volatile, so spread your risk.
  • On a leadership level, talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, having the ability to listen and by staying humble.
  • Collaborative businesses that encourage participation create environments where employees feel empowered and committed. This leads to long-term employee loyalty and growth.

Do This

Pay as much attention to non-customers as customers. Why aren’t they buying from you? How can you turn them into customers?

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

Lessons Learnt

Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right

So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.

Louw Barnardt




You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.

On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:


The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.


The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.

Market access

Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.

Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.


It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.


It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.

Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.

Flawless execution

Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.


Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.

The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.

Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!

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Lessons Learnt

That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room

Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.

Gene Marks




When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.

You likely think of, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.

Like that time back in 1995.

That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.

The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.

“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”

The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”

“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.

So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.

It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.

This article was originally posted here on

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Lessons Learnt

How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture

Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.

Nadine Todd




A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.

At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.

We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.

If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.

Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.

Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture

A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.

Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.

We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.

These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.

Culture doesn’t just happen

We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.

A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.

We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.

Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.

Cost Cutting

The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.

Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”

If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.

The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.

Related: Wise Words From wiGroup On Building A “Wow” Company Culture

Uncover inefficiencies in your process

This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.

Refine your process, then automate

If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.

Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.

Rethink your outreach

Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.

For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.

Related: Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Culture To Boost Productivity

Scrutinise your spend history

There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.

The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent

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