In a world where people change jobs with the same impunity as they change their clothes… it is rare to find long standing and faithful staff members. Yet, when Gearhouse Group’s set building company Sets Drapes Screens (SDS) turned 10 this year… it was surprisingly easy to find people who have been working at the company since its inception and who were happy to elaborate on what sets the company apart. 

A recurrent comment was that the company operates as a family, complete with its up and downs but where people treat each other with respect and support each other. It is a place where education and empowerment is sacrosanct and is comprised of a diverse mix of hard-working people who share a philosophy of empowerment, discipline, integrity and commitment with Managing Director, Pieter Joubert. Many of the staff are also friends outside of work and choose to spend their weekends together as well. No surprise then that there are so many people who have been with the company for the full 10 years and are happy to stay on for the rest of the journey.

Faiz Adams from the Cape Town branch was already working with the Gearhouse Group when Sets Drapes Screens was formed and joined them in the Workshops from the outset. Faiz retired a little over a year back but keeps coming to work. “My lifelong commitment is to this company so I continue to work with them as a freelance consultant and to provide a maintenance service” he says.

A true peoples’ person, Faiz assumed a mentorship role early on. “In our industry we often spend more time at work than at home, so you have to be able to listen to and solve problems and motivate each other whilst empowering the youngsters with the gift of knowledge. SDS’ main aim has always been to please the client … in fact, the motto I introduced years ago is still written on the board ‘Miracles we can do - the impossible just takes a little longer’”. He is adamant that he will keep contributing as long as he can… “They will have to CARRY me out of here” he says emphatically. A similar sentiment is voiced by JHB Workshop Manager, Keith Phigeland, who after 10 years at the company says, “I want to be around to see where the company will be in the next 20 years if my age allows.”

The passion for the work and pride in what the company has achieved is almost palpable. Senior Carpenter, Davis Mokalapa’s family had a long-standing relationship with the Joubert family, so as soon as Davis heard about SDS he approached Pieter to offer his carpentry skills to the fledgling company in Johannesburg. “I started as Carpenter and am now Senior Carpenter… although I maintain my journey to Senior Carpenter began at the very moment I walked through the door in June 2008. I was the first to work on some of the more complex CNC machines together with colleague, Khulekani and things have just continued to grow from there” he says proudly. “It was a big learning curve for me, especially adapting to the quality of finish required for this application. The growth was slow at first but things went well and there is no drama in our work relationships to slow us down. A personal milestone was what we achieved for the Kick Off Concert at the Soccer World Cup in 2010. We pulled off an amazing set build and that is one that still stands out for me.”

The ride hasn’t always been a smooth one according to CTN Branch Manager, Burger Smith who was involved in driving the scenic service at Gearhouse long before it grew enough to warrant a standalone company. “It didn’t just happen,” he says, “the journey was bumpy and full of challenges, both personal and professional. Luckily, I had great support from the directors of SDS and whenever I felt like giving up, I drew inspiration from their commitment, work ethic and general conduct. There have been so many achievements for me over the past years, some small, some big. I am proud of the various production systems we put in place and it gives me tremendous satisfaction to see how well these systems are working for us now.” 

“The cliché is that when you enjoy what you do, you don’t have to work another day in your life and I can honestly say that I enjoy what I do. I love the interaction with our clients, the staff of Gearhouse and the day to day challenges that get thrown at us. As a set building company, we are in essence problem-solvers and I am truly in my element. For me, discipline is important and repetition bores me. Here, variety is the norm, so I am thriving in this environment.” Keith agrees. “Even after 10 years as Workshop Manager, I have never got bored because of the variety of the work. Every day is difficult, and we have to be creative in overcoming the challenges, it keeps your mind busy.”

Khulekani Phakathi has also travelled the long road with SDS, from stage hand to freelance carpenter crew, freelance Project Manager and now permanent Project Manager. “The Company had faith in me as l took on all the skills necessary from carpentry to planning and management. It has been interesting, challenging and educational. My personal highlight was when we managed to deliver a high-quality set to Headies in Nigeria despite the many challenges that were working against us. We have learnt and grown so much that we have never yet been in a position where we delivered a set we were not happy with. As difficult as it gets, we have the experience now to overcome these problems.”

Khulekani explains how the influence of veteran set builder and freelance consultant, Steve Collins was also instrumental in the company’s growth. Together with Joubert, Steve oversaw SDS’ development into a company that is distinguished by its quality and capacity. 

General Manager, Lauri-Ann Rodda agrees. “Steve had a wealth of experience that we had come to rely on to keep workflow running optimally and when he passed away unexpectedly in 2015, we were shaken as a company for quite a while, but, as always, we stood together and never missed a beat. The addition of Branch Manager, David Smith’s in-depth industry experience and calm demeanour to our team has also added a new dimension to the mix of late.”

Lauri-Ann started with the Gearhouse Group in 1996, mostly in the Structures division and alongside Joubert is the longest serving Gearhouse Group member. She is known within the Group for her ability to cope with the most demanding of situations and the most difficult of people. “My role is very diverse and my strong organisational skills help me keep things running in the office. I have always been fortunate enough to enjoy my job so it’s been a pretty smooth progression. I don’t take things personally … it’s always just about what’s good for the business. We have grown to a work force of close to 80 people over 3 cities, when only a few years back, we were running a company of 8. It’s quite an accomplishment, especially in the current economic climate.”

Lauri-Ann believes that one of SDS’ strengths is that the team has never failed to deliver to the exacting standards they uphold, despite sometimes taking on more than they believe they are capable of. 

“We must continue to deliver to, and above, the quality levels we have set for the company. On my wish list is further investment in even more advanced ‘toys’ to continue delivering top quality sets. A wrapping machine maybe?” 

For MD, Joubert, the aim from the outset has been to build a ‘company of opportunity for people’ where they can grow professionally and which affords them a means of changing their lives. “I try to treat people fairly and with respect from the sawdust sweeper to the branch manager and still say thank you to each one because without our people we would not exist. For us, job satisfaction and quality product is more important than profit and I believe that producing to those standards will ensure longevity. We have a group of loyal clientele and suppliers and for that I am immensely grateful.”

Story Robyn D’Alessandro, Photo Leigh-ann Bullen

Feb 19, 2018

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