Entrepreneur proves potential of SA manufacturing by fulfilling his dream

Some entrepreneurs start early and never work for anyone else, while others take a lifetime to emerge from the strictures of employment to become employers themselves, such as Rob Goldblatt of Runrite Electronics in Durban.

However varied his career and business path, there was always one constant, says Goldblatt – he wanted to run his own business.

He spent many years in a colourful, eclectic career working for others, picking up skills and connections that were useful in building up an equally varied business in Durban which today manufactures and imports anti-static bags, battery chargers, an array of electronic equipment, instrumentation and chemicals for the electronics industry.

However varied his career and business path, there was always one constant, says Goldblatt – he wanted to run his own business. Ever since his school days in Kimberley when he worked for a radio technician he was determined to own his own electronics factory one day.

It is perhaps because he had always been discouraged to pursue this dream by his parents and teachers who declared him incapable of being an entrepreneur, that Goldblatt embarked on such a varied career, which included two years of studying physics and chemistry at university, training as a electronics technician at Telkom, working at a succession of companies manufacturing, installing and repairing radio masts, battery chargers, uninterruptable power supplies and instruments, among other things. This was followed by years of teaching electronics, first at a college, and later at high schools, and included a stint at a manufacturer of military radios.

No job lasted more than a few years. He was always restless, and had numerous run-ins with the bureaucrats in the organisations he worked in. He says Business Partners’ recent “Square Peg” campaign to celebrate the idiosyncratic, creative nature of entrepreneurs really spoke to him. “I was always that square peg in a round hole,” he says.

In his last years of teaching he started a number of sideline businesses, including a nursery and some flea-market based trading projects. None were raging successes, but they gave him valuable business lessons. Finally, in his early forties, he decided to leave teaching “to see if I could survive on my own”.

If his employment career seems varied, his business career was even more so. He fixed washing machines and forklifts, got into deep-cycle battery chargers, and started trading in cleaning chemicals for the electronics industry. While many entrepreneurs prefer to develop a single focus, Goldblatt’s style was to diversify and to pursue multiple opportunities .

This probably stemmed partly from his restless personality, but it also had to do with building a business with no capital to speak of. With only his wife’s teacher salary to sustain the family, the Goldblatts went through some rough cash-flow patches, especially when interest rates climbed to more than 20% at the turn of the century.

Goldblatt never gave up on his dream of running his own electronics factory, but just when he got a break-through order to produce battery chargers for the Zambian railways, he was taken up in hospital for a bypass operation. His wife Carilyn and son Justin, then in Grade 11, stepped in and manufactured the devices themselves. Goldblatt joined them later and recalls that he still had his stitches when the order was completed.

For many years, Goldblatt’s businesses were essentially a “one-man show” run from his home. In a major step that propelled the Runrite Electronics from a one-man show to the 21-worker company it is today, Justin joined him. They had no choice but to find proper business premises. They considered renting, but decided on buying a property in Pinetown. None of the banks were willing to provide a 100% loan, but Business Partners agreed to finance the property as co-owners with Goldblatt.

Subsequently, Goldblatt took a proposal for the purchase of a local electronics business to Business Partners for financing. The financier declined, but gave invaluable advice – to buy the assets of the business instead of the company itself. It proved to be a valuable addition to Runrite’s operations.

At 60, Goldblatt sees lots of growth ahead for Runrite, and believes that there are major unexploited opportunities in local manufacturing. “Everyone is scared of Chinese manufacturing, but I’ve taken a careful look at it,” he says. He has calculated that scores of electronic products can be produced profitably in South Africa at 20% less than they can be imported from China. South Africa’s manufacturing sector, says Goldblatt, needs to believe in itself and keep at it, just like he did when everyone told him that it could not be done.