LEARNING CURVE | Bisho Steel’s Lizette leads the way

Lizette Smith, from family-owned Bisho Steel, which services sectors from health and education to industrial, architectural and agricultural
Lizette Smith, from family-owned Bisho Steel, which services sectors from health and education to industrial, architectural and agricultural
Image: FREDLIN ADRIAAN

The Eastern Cape’s only female-owned structural steel company with a qualified architect leading the team, Bisho Steel, has come a long way from the fabricator of burglar bars and handrails company that was started in Despatch 41 years ago.

Owner, Lizette Smith, counts a number of big NMB building projects among her successes, including her firm’s involvement with the Tramways building, the UDDI Science Museum, and Baakens Valley pedestrian Bridge.

Please share some background on yourself and how the business was started?

The business was started by my late father in 1972 as a fabricator of burglar bars and handrailings, which then led to structural steel in the building industry.

My father immigrated from Holland as a young man where he was an engineer in the Merchant navy.

As the youngest of four children, I remember accompanying my father on trips to various building sites for inspections and steel deliveries.

I had a passion for architecture and an insight into the building industry and hence I studied architecture at UPE, now NMU, and graduated with my B Arch degree in 1990.

Upon completion of my degree, I worked for an architectural firm for five years before joining my father and oldest brother in the business.

What is your core service?

Our core service is providing structural steel to the building industry (commercial, health, and education, industrial, domestic, agriculture and architectural applications).

We are supplied with an engineer’s design, from which we create “shop detail drawings” of all the components for roofs, staircases, building structures – warehousing and office blocks, bridges, platforms, etc.

These drawings are sent to our workshop for manufacture and finishing (galvanising and or painting).

After all the quality checks, the structures are transported to site for installation by our rigging crews.

Where was the idea born?

My father focused mainly on industrial applications, whereas after I joined the company, my architectural background led us to be successfully involved with architecturally sensitive projects such as the Tramways building.

What makes your business unique?

Bisho Steel is the only femaleowned structural steel company in the Eastern Cape with a qualified architect leading the team.

Our family-owned business is underpinned by a strong faith, passion for the built environment, quality, workmanship and the safety of our teams is not negotiable.

How would someone copy your business model?

Their team would need to include an architect or structural engineer, experience in the industry and a great mentor to coach you.

It would make sense to work for and buy into an existing company as infrastructure is costly (specialised machinery, software and IT) and raw material expenses are very high.

The labour costs are also very high because the steel sector is one of the highest paid in terms of general labour, as it requires special skills and training.

Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs?

Research the market that you would like to venture into, learn from those who have already walked the road, and identify a mentor you trust and who will walk the long road with you.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your industry?

Cash-hungry business, the supply of raw materials, non-payment by clients, and this is not an “8 to 5”, Monday to Friday industry.

What is the best advice anyone gave you on success?

Always stay humble, our success is a God-given gift.

How do you measure or define success?

Success is not only based on your bank account, but it is also the inner satisfaction of a job well done, long-standing clients who trust you and the happiness of your team.

The trust of the engineers.

What are some of the best practices that have made your business successful?

Honesty and integrity, quality of work, a stable workforce, dedication to do a job well and working as a team, and determination to get through the economically tough times.

What kind of advertising do you do?

We work closely with engineers, architects and building contractors who see the quality of our work in the province

We have recently launched our website (www.bishosteel. co.za) and Facebook page (@bishosteelconstruction) to attract new business.

What is your target market?

Commercial – shopping centres, housing developments, game lodges, hotels, fuel stations. Health and educational sector – clinics, hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, libraries.

Industrial developments – factories, warehousing, ports.

Architectural applications requiring steel – historical buildings, domestic housing, monuments, churches.

Agriculture – packhouses, cooler rooms, shearing sheds, storage facilities.

Tell us about some of your business highlights.

The development and growth of our team, as it is so rewarding to recruit young people who show potential and the desire to learn.

Seeing them develop into leadership roles is priceless.

All projects are a highlight as you take them from quoting to drawing to fabrication to painting to installing – the thrill to see something from paper to reality is mind-blowing. You are leaving your footprint for the next generation.

The legacy projects like the recent Baakens Valley pedestrian bridge and the Tramways building are “feel good” experience as they are part of uplifting the inner city which instills pride, is good for tourism and gives people hope.

How important is social media and an online presence for your business?

Historically we never focused on this, however, it is crucial for our business because the market place is ever-changing and the next generation is looking for opportunities and they are our new clients for the future!

How many people do you employ?

We have 50 employees.

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