It’s never too late to start over

Flip du Plessis. Image: Supplied.

Flip du Plessis. Image: Supplied.

Published Jun 27, 2024


Nicola Mawson

Flip du Plessis was in his late fifties when his life was upended and he lost his job, having to start over as an entrepreneur in 2019 – just as Covid-19 was about to hit and shutting the doors on everything that wasn’t considered essential.

Du Plessis, whose business is called F&F Steel and Aluminium, has spent 50 years in the steel fabrication and boilermaking industry, having started his apprenticeship at Fochville Engineering, out past Carltonville on the Potch road as you head into North West from Gauteng.

HIs entry into the steel fabrication industry was not planned as he had to leave school to start work in 1974 when his father died.

“I didn’t have much choice but to leave school and start working to support my family.”

After his apprenticeship and time in the military, he ensured that he had varied experience in the industry, seeking out roles that would allow him to work on aspects as diverse as tanks, pressure vessels and structural steel.

After being left without a job in 2019 because his employer closed their doors, he opened his company in October that year, locating it in Vanderbijlpark as that was, he determined, a central location to areas within a 100km radius.

“It’s very central for me to be able to provide services to Johannesburg, Pretoria, the Free State, as well as parts of the North West Province.”

Du Plessis employs 10 people at the workshop, 70% of whom are historically disadvantaged.

“How many people we employ always depends on how busy we are, but I always try support those less fortunate than I am.”

F&F Steel and Aluminium produces items that includes boat houses, burglar bars, carports, gates, jetties for boats, shop front, spiral staircases, as well as many other steel and aluminium items, including those that are custom made.

“We fabricate items according to tight specifications, which involves interpreting drawings and then manufacturing the product,” said Du Plessis.

He explained that the tools required for the sort of work his company undertook included a stand drill, compressors, a cutoff machine, grinders and a self-built punch machine.

His most challenging, and probably enjoyable, project was a boathouse as the drawings required approval from Rand Water. In addition, said Du Plessis, he had to build a float and plant poles while surrounded by running water. All in all, that took four weeks, including sinking and reinforcing poles.

Du Plessis made light of the qualifications needed, noting that his line of work only required proficiency in boilermaking and steel erection. However, becoming a boilermaker required three to four years of apprenticeship, during which a Certificate III in Engineering in Fabrication Trade was completed. Only after that could he move into steel fabrication.

“I am grateful for the apprenticeship I had during the start of my career; it gave me a solid foundation. Although that sort of programme isn’t really formalised anymore, I try act as a mentor to my staff and help them learn how to best work with steel to get the best possible outcome,” he said.

One of the issues those in steel fabrication are battling are high input costs due to the rising price of steel. The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa’s “State of the Metals and Engineering Sector Report 2024”, released on February 20, notes that the sector has seen “considerable margin compression”.

Du Plessis said the economic situation translated to final product increases of about double when compared to prices pre-Covid-19 because of rising input costs.

“That's why the people say they can't afford it anymore.”

Despite battling the economic downturn, with gross domestic product growth expected to be around only 1% this year, Du Plessis has hope.

“I believe that South Africa’s economy will turn around and I’ll be able to create more jobs.”

For those who wish to go into the same sort of business, Du Plessis said “vas byt” (hold on tight/be stoical) and have faith.