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Pratley stands tall as a family-owned and managed business

The main advantage of being a family business is that it secures management’s direct and hands-on involvement. That and much more is what made Pratley so successful over the past 72 years.  

The Pratley manufacturing facility in Krugersdorp, Johannesburg.

The fact that Pratley celebrates its 72 anniversary this year is largely due to it being a successful family-owned and managed business, according to its CEO, Kim Pratley. “This has had a lot to do with our success, due to the fact that we have been able to retain so much knowledge and experience with the company.” It also forms the basis for the company’s ethos, which had a strong R&D focus since its inception, thereby inculcating innovation and technical excellence as well as quality as key values.

The main advantage of being a family business is that it secures management’s direct and hands-on involvement, not just from a business point of view, but as a personal commitment to ensure the continued success of the company. “The way a family business views itself is totally different to the way that a corporate perceives itself as an organisation. Now that can sometimes be a hindrance, as you don’t want to make business decisions based on whimsical factors. You must guard against that. But a family business is 100% committed to its viability,” Kim adds.

Being closer to the day-to-day running of a family business also allows the management to be far more flexible in taking new thinking and ideas on-board. Good ideas that emanate from staff can be communicated quickly and effectively to the decision-makers, which is a major difference between family businesses and corporates.

In terms of unique challenges, Kim points to succession planning as a major issue, especially in terms of multi-generational family businesses. “The main thing is to recognise this as a potential issue, so it can be managed accordingly. Some family businesses fail to confront the topic, which can become a major problem in the future.”

Kim has been fortunate in the fact that both sons Andrew and Charles have expressed an interest in being involved with the family business from an early age. “They grew up almost knowing they would go into the business. I have never pushed them towards it. It was almost a foregone conclusion that they would though.”

Both sons also have complementary yet divergent interests, which adds to the overall strength of the company. Charles is a driving force on the engineering side due to his technically proficiency, while Andrew’s focus is more on marketing, strategic thinking, and new business development. “Although they operate in different spheres of the business, they get on well, which is very fortunate,” Kim acknowledges.

Commenting on the values that the original founder established as the cornerstone of the company, Kim explains that George ‘Monty’ Pratley had a ‘can do’ attitude that did not tolerate ‘no’ as an acceptable answer to any problem. This was critical for the success of the business from a product point of view. “If we make a product, we know it will work. We have absolutely no doubt about that.” Indeed, Kim has a plaque on his office wall that reads: ‘Impossible is what nobody can do until somebody does it’. 

As to tips for success, Kim’s advice is simple: Do not make decisions based on anything other than objectivity. This is especially critical in a family business, where emotions play a strong role. “One tends to be emotional about the way things are done because you are so close to the business, but you have to guard against that.”

Another tip for success is quite an unexpected one: “Do take calculated risks,” Kim urges. “Here I am referring to risks that, if they do not pan out, will not necessarily bring about the demise of the company. Being completely risk-averse will impact on your decision-making when it comes to R&D in particular, which is both costly and risky. Yes, it is entirely possible that some avenues will be blind alleys. On the other hand, you can stand to reap rich rewards.”

While Kim acknowledges that he himself ‘s not getting any younger, I plan to be around for a while yet’. He cites his lasting legacy as having kept a highly competent group of people together over the years who have remained with the company for a very long time, and essentially identifying with the business as its own extended family.

Part of that legacy has been a penchant for developing world-class products, such as Pratley Putty. This product not only put Pratley on the map, but in outer space, as it was used by NASA as an adhesive on the Ranger Moon Module Project in 1967. Pratley Putty has since become a household name, used to repair and secure everything from swimming pools to the hulls of sunken ships.

Looking to the future, Kim acknowledges that any business has to move with the times. “While the essence of business has not changed since the pyramids were built, the tools of business have, and obviously so has materials science. We must keep abreast of all of those changes. If one seeks to be entrepreneurial, you have to be at the leading edge. We spend a lot of time and energy on that.”

This has meant that many Pratley products have, indeed, been ahead of the curve at the time they were developed. For example, one of the minerals we process, which is called Zeolite, has found a modern niche as a pollution clean-up and water filtration material, while another mineral called Perlite has thermally-insulating properties that makes it ideal as an energy-saving building material. “This is very much in line with the modern trend towards increased environmental stewardship, and awareness of our responsibility to future generations,” Kim stresses.

Never one to rest on his laurels, either as an individual or as a company, Kim says definite plans are in place to Pratley in exciting new directions in the near future. “We are looking at some totally new businesses that will be even more diverse, ensuring our continued relevance, expansion, and growth in a volatile and complex business environment,” he concludes.

Plant-based person. Digital Producer at New Media, a division of Media24.


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