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Ukubona Electrical: Alfred Faber

Electrical company wins top contracts after investing in skills development.

Juliet Pitman

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Alfred Faber of Ukubona Electrical

When Alfred Faber started out in business, he operated outof a converted camper van. Today, he runs Ukubona Electrical, a company with aturnover of R200 million and 58 permanent employees – and one that recently wonthe coveted Business Partners National Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2007.From his humble beginnings, Faber moved into premises at the airport where heshared a desk with two other people, then purchased premises in Edenvale beforebuilding Ukubona’s current offices in Longmeadow. “We’ve now purchased thepremises next door as well to enable us to expand,” he says.

Ukubona specialises in medium and high voltage electricalwork, including switchgear, cables and transformers in the 11KV to 400KV range.The business has established international supplier relationships with fouroverseas companies, but is looking forward to embarking on a new growth phaseas a local manufacturer. Looking back on the past twenty years Faber points to onefactor which he believes has played the most critical role in his success: “Along time ago I realised that we needed to ensure the sustainability of theelectrical sector – and that to achieve this, we’d have to invest heavily inskills training and empowerment of our people. I realised people were leavingthe country and that if my business was going to survive I’d have to buildskills internally.”

Faber is a firm believer that when a company shows belief inthe potential of individuals, and is willing to back up that belief with aninvestment in development and training, the entire company culture isstrengthened. “We see the benefits of this approach on a daily basis in ourcompany. When you treat people as individuals and take an interest in theircareer growth path, they tune into your vision and stop seeing themselves asmerely a number or ‘just another employee’. It fosters greater buy-in to yourvision, and if you can achieve that and get all your people behind you with acommon sense of purpose, your company can truly go places,” he says. Back in 1993, after recognising that the country was headingfor substantial infrastructural growth, Faber realised he’d have to expand thebusiness and upskill his workforce if Ukubona was to take advantage of theopportunities that lay ahead. “I appointed two BEE directors to join me in thebusiness and together we started ensuring that our people would have the bestskills in the sector,” he relates.

The company started sending employees toSwitzerland to receive world-class training in its sector. The cost of such training is substantial, but Faber believesit’s given his business a competitive edge in more ways than one. “It’s notjust about being able to offer clients the best skills in the market, which ofcourse makes us a contractor of choice. It’s also about being internally-grown,something of which we’re very proud,” he says, continuing, “One of our keyproject managers today was someone we picked up as a casual labourer on theside of the road. He went for overseas training and today he runs his ownprojects. Another example is our bookkeeper, who came to us asking for a job,but without formal skills. She started in reception answering the phone andtoday is a fully qualified bookkeeper.”

Faber is quick to point out however, that such an approachonly works in a situation where there is equal commitment from both parties.“The company needs to recognise potential and give people a chance to developit, but the individual needs to want to develop themselves as well, and makethe most of the opportunities presented to them. It doesn’t work if you don’thave the right attitude from both sides and we’ve been fortunate in havingself-motivated and determined individuals.” Ukubona lists high profile contracts among its projects,including the stadiums for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, Gautrain, various Eskomprojects and the upgrade of the airports. “This country is at an amazingcross-road and I feel greatly blessed to be part of the solution to thechallenges it faces. It’s good to be in the position we are in right now,” saysFaber. Contact: +27 11 608 4736; www.ukubonaelectrical.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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