Ninety years on, lessons from a pioneering journey

A corporate anniversary is a significant milestone, especially when the number on that milestone is as high as ninety. As the Beier Group moves into its tenth decade, we see this time as an opportunity to reflect on our rich heritage and the firm foundation it provides for what lies ahead.

At Beier, we believe our greatest strength lies in the skills and pioneering innovation that our people bring to our business.

Our founder, O.T.H. Beier, arrived in Durban as a young German immigrant in 1929, with little money but enough drive and vision to establish a small wool merchant business in just a few short years. Fast forward to the present, and those humble beginnings have shaped one of KwaZulu-Natal’s biggest manufacturing success stories.

Today, our manufacturing mix has grown to include environmental filtration products, technical and industrial textiles, medical devices and advanced wound-care, PVC and PU coated materials, as well as personal protective equipment and occupational health and safety services. Our four member companies – BBF Safety Group, Beier Drawtex Healthcare, Beier Envirotec and Neucoat – have become market leaders in their respective sectors.

The past 90 years have certainly honed the technical expertise that’s underpinned our high standard of manufacturing quality from the start. But they’ve also delivered vital lessons on what truly sustains a pioneering business and drives it into the future.

More than manufacturing

We’ve long made it our mission to challenge the false dilemma that businesses must choose between “doing good and doing well”, to borrow the oft-used phrase. Taking a local lead, we’ve shown it’s possible to build a sustainable business model by connecting social impact and financial return.

As a company, we’re deeply embedded in the communities in which we operate, and our business cannot continue to thrive unless they do.

Our unwavering commitment to local industrialisation and manufacturing is based on the immense potential of this sector to stimulate the kind of economic growth that leads to job creation and shared prosperity, allowing South Africa to meet its development goals.

We see the manufacturing sector as a key driver for economic growth and job creation.

This commitment is reflected not just in our investment in new infrastructure and technological upgrades, but also in our efforts to advance small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs) and assimilate them into our value chain. In fact, we see the latter as one of the most effective ways for big business to “do good”. When small, innovative enterprises are allowed to flourish, they in turn generate economic activity, create jobs and build communities, thus helping to address the twin problems of poverty and unemployment.

Multiple components of the Beier Group’s day-to-day operations are therefore outsourced to black-owned SMMEs around the country. This includes the manufacturing of footwear components and uppers for BBF Safety Group, South Africa’s largest manufacturer of safety footwear and personal protective equipment.

Our partnerships are carefully selected to deliver real collaboration: we seek out enterprises that share our innovative thinking and our desire to pioneer change in the broader community. We then dedicate significant resources and expertise to mentor these partners, who in turn take both their business and ours to new heights.

Silokotho Co-operative, an SMME that uses its profits to benefit its surrounding community, is just one of the partnerships we’ve forged with small and emerging enterprises.

This was our approach when the need arose to localise our wool supply, and it allowed us to completely replace imported wool with local wool supplied by a fully black woman-owned SMME based in the Eastern Cape. This initiative has transformed the lives of hundreds of families in the area, and all stakeholders have realised significant benefits, including job creation, localisation and an improved supply chain.

It’s the pay-it-forward phenomenon in action – a ripple effect that has a positive impact on both business and communities.

Meaningful transformation

Attitude is what has allowed the transformation agenda to take root and flourish at the Beier Group. As a historically forward-looking business, we recognised early on that black economic empowerment would become a crucial policy instrument, and we decided to deal with the subsequent changes proactively and on our own terms. This allowed us to seize upon the vast opportunities inherent in transformation: not to pay lip service to B-BBEE legislation, but to make it an integral part of our business strategy.

We embarked on our transformation journey in 2005, when black shareholders purchased a 26% stake in the Beier Group. Today, following significant growth and transformation, our black shareholding stands at 51.25%.

In a sector where compliance and transformation are often seen as “boxes to be ticked”, we’ve been uncompromising in our commitment to meaningful change – and our growth since 2005 is evidence of how successful and sustainable BBBEE in the manufacturing environment can be. 

Pioneering people

A lot can change in 90 years, but one constant has remained: our core belief that investing in people will grow business. Along with our Pinetown headquarters in KZN, our operations in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg now employ almost 2,000 staff, including a number of employees with disabilities.

In the past and right up to the present, we’ve counted on those employees for the technical expertise and pioneering innovation that’s so essential in the manufacturing sector. And we believe the future, too, will belong to organisations that understand the importance of developing people.

The Beier Group now employs nearly 2,000 people across its four member companies, including a number of employees with disabilities.

These efforts, however, must extend beyond our own front door to benefit our country’s vast pool of young talent. This is why our four member companies have collectively invested almost R10 million since 2017 in various bursary, youth mentorship and skills development programmes. Our initiatives in this area are geared towards empowering South Africa’s young people and removing the obstacles they face when seeking employment – but they’re also highly strategic. The investment we make is about developing a talent pipeline into our companies, as well as elsewhere in the South African economy.

Our Corporate Social Investment (CSI) initiatives are likewise focused on education and youth development. Beier’s long-running programmes at Sithokozile Secondary School in KwaDabeka, west of Durban, are designed not only to develop academic excellence at the school but also to empower learners with the life skills necessary to cope with daily challenges and recognise future opportunities. Sithokozile’s vastly improved matric results last year are testament to the effectiveness of our initiatives.

As we chart our course towards our centennial, our biggest lesson is clear: the great legacy of past generations is proven only in the success of future ones. That’s why we’re contributing holistically to building South Africa’s emerging pioneers – both at the Beier Group and in the communities in which we operate.