Almost thirty years ago Durban-based Michelene Locke gave up her four-year career as a teacher to enter the world of manufacturing. Today she is the head of marketing and sales at ITB Plastics, and she doesn’t regret a thing.
This is the view of Michelene Locke, who today is the head of marketing and sales of ITB Plastics, a formidable South African company specialising in flexible packaging. It has grown from humble beginnings in 1984 as a family-run business to a major industry player with a staff complement of over 600 and a client base of over 400.
“My father, who headed up a business in plastics manufacturing, often took me and my brother to work with him. When I was a child I was fascinated by the huge machines and the various shaped products that the equipment could produce,” explains Michelene.
Despite her fascination with the manufacturing process, she started a career in teaching, because “this was the expected thing to do for a woman at the time.” But, when her father and brother started the family business ITB Plastics and had endless dinner table conversations about the venture, Michelene expressed her desire to be part of the team.
“My father was resistant at first. He didn’t believe that a woman would survive in a male-dominated plastics company. But, he came around eventually,” says Michelene, who successfully set up the plastic bag carrier division at the company before moving into sales and marketing. “He soon realised that my presence brought a different element to the business, and my strengths in cultivating and nurturing relationships were well suited to the marketing side of ITB,” says Michelene, adding that personal relationships are key to growing a family-run business.
ITB Plastics’ customer satisfaction rating shows the emphasis that the business places on client relationships. Since 2014, ITB Plastics’ overall customer satisfaction for sales service, product quality and response time to queries has been over 90%, with the company rated at 96% by its customers in 2017.
“The biggest challenge in this role has been to not take things personally. When you have worked long to make a client relationship work, and it simply doesn’t, it can be soul-destroying to have to walk away. As hard as it is to not take things personally, I try to focus on what lies ahead rather than look back.”
And how complicated is it to work with family?
“My brother, who was the MD of ITB Plastics until recently, and I have worked together for nearly 30 years. While we have had ‘robust’ debates, we are very fortunate that we are united by a common goal; and that is, the success of the business, which has resulted in us never needing to resort to arguing. Our relationship is based on mutual respect,” says Michelene.
She adds that the business has family values at its core. “Everyone is treated like family, and as we have grown this sense of family has continued. We nurture our employees and are passionate about each others’ wellbeing,” she says, adding that they employ for attitude, not aptitude.
“Attitude is inherent, aptitude can be taught. This philosophy has resulted in a very low staff turnover rate. As much as we like to invest in cutting edge equipment, I believe that our most important asset is our people. We still have valued members of staff who have been with the business since inception.”
This is why her teaching experience has been crucial to the ITB community. In 2006, she helped establish a crèche in the rural iSithebe area of the Ilembe District Municipality.
“There was no pre-school in the area and we wanted to create a safe space for the children of our community to learn in,” says Michelene. “We started with seven children in one pre-fabricated classroom, and today we have three classrooms of over 70 kids, as well as a waiting list.” The crèche, named Isithebe Day Care Centre, caters for two year olds right up to Grade R. Plans are in the pipeline to expand and move to a bigger premises.
“This is what I love about what I do, and why my role as sales and marketing director has more in common with being a teacher than what one would think. It is about the journey and relationship you have with people, whether they are our customers, our employees, or even the children at the crèche, being emphatic to their situation, and then figuring out how you can help,” concludes Michelene.