Netstar

Winner of the Minister’s Award for Overall Excellence for 2018, category for large enterprises

Big can be swift and agile

Conventional wisdom has it that large companies lack agility. Well, Netstar obviously didn’t receive that particular memo.

Adept at adapting, the company has embraced the Internet of Things (IoT) with an alacrity that would give even some start-ups a run for their money. Starting from scratch, it took Netstar less than 36 months – from incubation and testing to full production – to commercially launch its InsureTech platform, making it one of the first vehicle-tracking companies to do so.

This shift necessitated some major changes, including Netstar’s decision to base its InsureTech platform on open source technology. Since open source is to the internet what water is to fish, this has opened up a vast new vista of new business and market possibilities, including horse saddle and bicycle recovery, not to mention collision avoidance in the mining industry. As the Netstar website puts it: “No IoT solution is out of our reach.”

While the company manages to make adapting to change look easy, a massive amount of research and development goes on behind the scenes to smooth the way. Netstar’s annual turnover is about ZAR 1,2 billion and its R&D budget is 3.6% of that, representing a money-where-its-mouth-is investment that few other South African companies match.

That R&D investment goes hand in hand with a generous training budget and bursary scheme, ensuring that Netstar has the skills to oil the wheels of change. This includes a growing focus on developing skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), including artificial intelligence and robotics.

“The world of work is changing and we, as a partner of the automotive industry, must be at the forefront,” says Pamela Xaba, Head of Human Capital. “We are also focusing strongly on developing future leaders who can think out of the box and have a global mindset because we don’t just operate in a South African context.”

This is a reference to Netstar’s operations in Australia and its recent expansion into India, which is on track to become the world’s third-largest passenger vehicle market by 2021, presenting massive opportunities for service providers that think big and strike while the iron is hot. Big business can be swift and agile.

Accsys

Winner of the Minister’s Award for Overall Excellence for 2018, category for medium enterprises

Excellence does not necessarily mean perfection

While a thesaurus might throw up synonyms such as “perfection” and “flawlessness” for the word “excellence”, they don’t mean the same thing at all in the book of Teryl Schroenn, CEO of Accsys. The payroll and HR software company won no fewer than six awards in the 2018 tt100 competition, more than any other winner.

“Excellence is not doing everything perfectly; it means being on the right path – for now,” she says, adding that this particular path does not have an end destination. “The biggest mistake, in business or life, is thinking you’ve gotten somewhere.”

In other words, complacency, resting on one’s laurels or taking success for granted are sure-fire ways to lose momentum and become stuck, whether as a person or a business. “You’ve got to keep on asking what’s next and continue re-examining and questioning yourself.”

Teryl and her fellow senior executives at Accsys do this regularly by looking at the company through the eyes of a stranger. “When we walk in the door, we ask ourselves what a stranger would see if they came into our offices.”

This is a useful exercise because a familiar eye, accustomed to the way things are done, tends to overlook things that a stranger might instantly spot.

Another valuable tool for keeping forward momentum in the business is to constantly ask Accsys’s people for feedback and to act upon it. This is something many companies say they do but relatively few embed in their culture, let alone act on – which is why they might see the same issues keep cropping up again and again.

At Accsys, formal and informal feedback mechanisms tend to bring new topics to light, some of them surprising. One of the latest to raise its head is the company’s dress code. “We’ve just done a confidential employee survey and found there are people who are not happy with the dress code; they think it’s too formal,” Teryl says.

While no one felt adamantly enough about the issue to say they strongly disagreed with the dress code, the fact that almost 30% of staff raised it in the survey meant it was important enough for the top management team to take another look at. Teryl says they are looking at ways to “soften” the dress code somewhat without going too far. The company dress code might seem like a fairly minor business problem but that’s actually the point: when you deal with the small issues as and when they arise, they won’t escalate into big, intractable crises. Incremental progress, step by step, is the path of excellence.

Air Blow Fans

Winner of the 2018 Director-General award for Overall Excellence, category for small enterprises

Good, solid engineering and no hot air

A good, solid engineering company with a good, solid name that says exactly what it does, Air Blow Fans might not have the bells and whistles associated with more flamboyant enterprises but then it’s not in the business of producing hot air.

Actually, that’s the last thing its clients would want. Quietly, competently and without fuss or fanfare, Air Blow Fans gets on with the job of repairing, supplying and upgrading the industrial and mining ventilation fans that keep the wheels of industry/and mining turning smoothly and efficiently.

It’s a competitive field, with some major international players targeting Sub-Saharan Africa, yet Air Blow Fans is holding its own on the strength of good, solid, all-round engineering excellence – as the tt100 adjudicators signalled by presenting it with no fewer than five awards in 2018, including the Department of Science and Technology Director-General Award for Overall Excellence.

What this strong showing tells you is that consistency is what has brought Air Blow Fans to this point in its 15-year journey and that consistency is what will continue to drive it for the next 15 years.

“Nothing happens in isolation and there is no one component of business you can focus on to the exclusion of all the other elements. Everything has to tie up. It’s all those interconnected activities that feed into each other so that we can act fast and respond to clients’ unforeseen needs,” says Gavin Ratner, managing Director of Air Blow Fans.

Air blow fans continually put its money where its mouth is by consistently solving problems for clients at risk. This builds confidence in our engineering capabilities and develops a client relationship built on trust and creates loyal clients.

In managing technology and systems, for instance, the company is continually improving its skills and solutions, having invested intensively in engineering software for analysis, design and systems monitoring. It is one of a handful of small South African companies with ISO 9001: 2015 accreditation.

In people management, Air Blow Fans uses professional personality profilers to help it build coherent teams that can capitalise on and complement members’ diverse strengths.

As for sustainability, the company has a history of energy efficiency, a refurbish able product range and a culture of reducing wastage wherever possible.

A lot of effort is placed on engineering new and improved designs to existing product ranges – but more importantly – using technology development to create solutions to problems experienced in our chosen market place.

It all adds up to a good, solid engineering company with no loose ends and a keen appreciation of the close relationship between excellence and consistency.

SVA Innovate

Winner of the Director-General Award for Overall Excellence for 2018, category for emerging enterprises

Get that idea off the drawing board and into action

Some people have brilliant ideas that sadly never come to anything. Others manage to get their ideas off the drawing board but take so long or spend so much to implement them that the market moves on in the meantime. A relatively rare few can translate a great idea into commercially viable reality, and to do so swiftly and inexpensively too.

It’s clear to which category SVA Innovate belongs. Having been instrumental in incubating various patented – and profitable – risk management and asset protection solutions for parent company SVA Holdings, moving ideas off the drawing board and into clients’ businesses is where it excels.

“Our job is to take the ideas and make them happen,” says Lee McFadyen, Group Technology Executive at SVA Innovate, adding that this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.

“It’s not always easy to interpret the business requirements and come up with a spec. You’ve got to have a very good understanding of the client’s business and technology, and then convert the spec into the kind of technology jargon that young people (the developers) can understand.”

Moving from idea to spec to solution involves much brainstorming and consultation, using a whiteboard approach that explores the problem and its proposed solution from all conceivable angles, from finance to design and testing.

Once a workable specification has emerged, it has handed over to the “whizz kids” whom SVA Innovate handpicked for their technical ingenuity and “out-of-the-box” thinking.

This is how the company has managed to come up with market-disrupting risk management and governance solutions like a retail stocktaking solution that is 99% accurate in predicting stores’ stock levels 24 months in advance.

What’s more, the idea-spec-solution process is constantly in progress, with a steady stream of innovation projects at different stages of incubation and realisation at any given time.

“You won’t find us sitting on our laurels and expecting what we did yesterday to be good enough for today,” says Lee. “We always have at least five products in the pipeline, all with the same ambition: How can we disrupt the market?”

It’s a hard act to follow – just ask the competition

Netstar

Winner of the 2018 award for Innovation Concept, category for large enterprises

Netstar in the driving seat of the Internet of Things when related to GSM connectivity

So you thought Netstar was just a vehicle-tracking company? That’s only half the story. Quietly and without blowing its own horn, the company has reinvented itself as an Internet of Things (IoT) business built for the future when related to GSM connectivity.

Netstar’s IoT platform has opened up a host of new business possibilities that the company is wasting no time in exploring, says Francois Stols, Chief Technology Officer.

Based on open source technology – a departure from Netstar’s traditional closed-source model – the IoT platform is highly scalable, highly redundant and capable of ingesting “massive” amounts of data for Netstar’s customers, according to Francois.

When he says massive amounts of data, he means massive amounts. Between 250 million and 300 million messages a day are streamed via the platform to insurance companies and brokers, as well as Netstar’s own emergency control centre.

These millions of messages originate from over 700 000 Netstar subscribers with devices installed in cars and trucks on South Africa’s roads (and some assets too; horse saddle recovery is another new market where Netstar is leaving its tracks).

All this data has immense value for insurers and companies with large vehicle fleets. “The better they understand driver behaviour, the better they can manage their business costs and risk,” says Francois. “Some of our insurance clients base their entire insurance model on the data we provide.”

The beauty of Netstar’s IoT platform is the flexibility and scalability that Francois mentioned earlier. Insurance players of all sizes use its data-streaming capabilities, from small and advanced brokerages through to large and major insurers.

While the platform is the same for all, the communication medium and technology service is not. Small brokers are serviced through a web portal, mobile app and insurance dashboard, while advanced brokers have additional integration. Large insurers receive their data via the IoT platform from the devices installed in vehicles.

Not content with being one of the first vehicle trackers to make headway with InsureTech, Netstar is lengthening its lead through paperless device fitment, automated capturing for workforce management and the like. It’s also exploring new market possibilities like collision avoidance systems in the mining industry, not to mention the vast potential of India, which has about 400 million vehicles on its roads.

As the saying goes: Success is not a path you find but a trail you blaze.

iPulse Systems

Winner of the Innovation Concept award for 2018, category for small enterprises

Biometrics that’s user-friendly yet a state of the art

Picture the scene: You’re at the airport waiting to board an overseas flight when a frantic call comes in from the office. The server you run for your biggest and most important client needs urgent attention but the only people who have access to the server room, yourself included, are out of the office. Your customer service team is panicking.

You whip out your laptop and, right there in the airport coffee shop, grant your trouble-shooters one-time, time-limited access to the server room. Emergency defused, you head for the boarding gate.

“As long as you have an internet connection, you can manage your access control from an airport coffee shop, a hotel room, your home – from anywhere in the world,” says Francois van Loggerenberg, Lead Developer and Project Manager at iPulse Systems, designers and makers of biometrics systems.  

“Our systems give clients the most granular level of control,” he says. “You can decide exactly who, when, where, for how long and for what reason a person should have access to a particular space. If someone who does not have authority attempts to enter that area, the system will deny them access and report the attempt.”

While protecting clients from intrusions, the systems also protect the privacy of the people whose fingerprints it records. “People rightly want the assurance that their fingerprint is protected and won’t be shared with someone else,” says Francois. “So we do not store the image of the fingerprint and only extract the identifying data.”

iPulse’s systems are of course smart enough to verify that the fingerprint matches the person’s identity, using an encrypted connection and application programming interfaces (APIs) to request validation from either their own product, BIOVAULT, or from Home Affairs for high level security requirements.

State of the art all this certainly is, but it’s also extremely user-friendly, Francois says. “Users are mostly receptionists and security officers with little software experience, so we have cut down on the processes that can cause complications and taken the user experience to the simplest level.”

For example, the fingerprint imaging device automatically interacts with the user to get the best possible image, guarding against blurry images and smudged fingerprints.

It’s clear as day why this small South African enterprise has succeeded in stamping its name so firmly on the fiercely competitive biometrics market. It’s going places where others can’t.

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