Learning Curve | Durable fusion of engineering, art

Steely resolve, good service and quality products prove a recipe for success with Design Iron’s Gavin Seaman

Design Iron owner Gavin Seaman at Baywest Mall’s Ujiva orb sculpture
Design Iron owner Gavin Seaman at Baywest Mall’s Ujiva orb sculpture
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

Over the 27 years he’s spent designing and installing architectural steel products, Design Iron owner Gavin Seaman has learnt that there is no replacement for providing good service and making quality products – values he hopes to pass on to the younger generation.

Can you give me some background on yourself and how and when the business was started?

Design Iron is basically a fusion of engineering and art, which I enjoyed at school.

I gained valuable knowledge in my travels, building oil refineries and working on different engineering projects around SA.

I had visions of being an architect or a photographer for National Geographic before I started the business in 1991.

What is your core service?

The nature of the business is the fabrication of custom-made architectural steel products.

In the 1990s, metal furniture became the “in” thing, so I basically took advantage of the situation to start the business, and then went on to making gates, balustrading and staircases, among other products.

What is an average day in your business?

It consists of designing the product in conjunction with the client after measuring up, and then creating a working drawing for the workshop once the quote has been accepted; then seeing the job through to installation. This also gets me out of the office.

What do you think the secret is to keeping your business successful over 27 years?

One needs to know the business thoroughly in order to adapt to economic, political and fashion trends.

The other factor is location, or being conveniently situated, which is important.

How do you advertise?

Being a small business, we do not advertise as such, but rather rely on word of mouth, which keeps you on your toes.

The branding of vehicles is another way, with my red 1967 Chevy C 10. It attracts a lot of attention and then doubles as the van for the bigger jobs.

If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they start?

Our business model is about quality and service, as I found a lack thereof and once again took advantage of the situation by going the extra mile to satisfy the customer.

I had learnt that in my travels, which is an education on its own and an essential part of an entrepreneur’s knowledge gained.

What makes Port Elizabeth the ideal location for a business like yours?

Port Elizabeth is ideal because of its size and layout, and because it is also known as the Friendly City.

Doing business here is a pleasure, especially dealing with my suppliers. There seems to be a great camaraderie among us, including with my opposition, even during hard times.

You were involved in creating the Ujiva sculpture near the Baywest Mall. Could you tell me more about that project?

Baywest had advertised a competition in 2017 for the best sculpture design, which was won by Louwrens Westraad and Mxolisi “Dolla” Sapeta.

They asked me to get involved by designing the orb mechanically, and fabricating it in the workshop in sections, then galvanising and spraying it white, delivering it to site and erecting the sculpture by scaffold only.

Named Ujiva, the orb is 7m in diameter, with seven dancing figures supporting it structurally and a bird depicting freedom, and a solar panel on top for self-illumination at night.

I had done smaller sculptures in the past, but the scale of Ujiva really piqued my interest.

How many people do you employ?

Originally there were eight people, but because of the economic downturn we are down to four employees, including my wife, Renee, who heads the administration division.

My guys are a tight-knit crew who I cannot do without.

They are all multi-skilled people who work quickly and know what they are doing.

How do you keep yourself and your team motivated?

I have a passion for creativity and am energised by visual forms, ranging from old cars to nature. This energy is in turn absorbed by my crew. Therefore I lead by example.

What is the biggest business lesson you’ve learnt over the past 27 years?

To be flexible in design and consistent in your drive to succeed.

How do you measure success in your business?

Through competitiveness, longevity and the ability to adapt to change.

How did you acquire funding for the business?

Not much funding was needed, as I already had a van from my previous business, Air Supply – which did hydro-static testing on pressure vessels – so all I needed was a welding machine and a hacksaw.

The other requirement was natural energy, which I possessed in abundance from the excitement of the new venture, and so I just bought new machinery as the business progressed and grew.

What was the first step in launching the business after the funding was in place?

The business launched itself automatically as I had found a niche in the market to exploit.

I was fortunate to make furniture for a restaurant in the beginning stages, and so I grew the business by employing more people.

How important is it to be a mentor in your industry?

It is very important, as handcrafted skills need to be handed down to the younger generation, or even fused with the future of technology and not lost.

Far too many young people attend varsity without enough interest, when they could be learning other skills to fill the employment gap and empower themselves.