There’s more to Spark’s ATM machines than meets the eye

Spark ATM Systems, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the large enterprise category 

It’s well known that repeat customers are more profitable than new customers, and that the costs of retaining an existing customer are significantly lower – up to five times, some studies say – than the costs of acquiring a new customer.  

Which means that Spark ATM Systems is on to a very good thing. 

Its business is to deploy, install, support and maintain ATM machines on behalf of banks, for which purpose it signs five-year contracts with host merchants such as retail outlets and petrol stations.  

After five years, the host merchants can decide whether or they want to stick with Spark. By far the majority of them do, according to Russell Berman, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer. 

“We’ve got something like a 92% renewal rate, which is a statistic that we’re very proud of,” he says. “I always say to my team that it’s free business because you’ve got them to come back for a second and in some cases a third term.” 

Russell says this enviable renewal rate is driven by dedicated customer service and the top-notch systems in place at Spark, the wholly owned South African subsidiary of US-based Cardtronics, the world’s largest ATM operator.  

So what does Spark, which has over 4 500 ATMs across South Africa, do so well when it comes to managing technology?  

“We’ve always had a policy of developing our systems in-house rather than buying software off the shelf,” he says. This includes the operating platform on the ATM, which Spark developed in conjunction with its South Korean machine manufacturers, the data monitoring platforms and its own switch.  

“Ordinarily in the payment space, the switch is an off-the-shelf package that comes with significant costs and transaction fees. We’ve run and maintained our own switch since 2013.” 

The benefits of in-house development are substantial. “It allows us to operate at a lower cost per machine and a lower breakeven number of cash withdrawals per month per device,” says Russell. 

While Spark develops its own software, it sources the hardware, the ATM machines, from a South Korean company. Designed to Spark’s specifications, these ATMs have up to now arrived in South Africa fully assembled.  

But change is in the air, says Russell. 

“Importantly, what’s coming up this year is we’re actually going to be assembling our own ATMs in South Africa for the first time. The components are going to arrive from various parts of the world and we’re going to put it together and do a lot of the engineering ourselves at our labs in Paarden Island in Cape Town.” 

Local assembly of ATMs has not been done in South Africa before, Russell says, and will reduce the cost of ownership. Known as the Touchline, the new machine has a 22-inch touch screen, much faster transaction times and a Linux operating system, further reducing costs. “It will be the state-of-the-art device and very quickly become the gold standard in the country.” 

What drives technology is time – specifically, not wasting it

Accsys, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the medium enterprise category 

Meet Teryl Schroenn, Director of payroll and people management software company Accsys and lover of poetry. One of her favourite poems is TS Eliot’s The love song of Alfred Prufrock, he of the immortal line, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled …” 

While Prufrock agonises over the passing of time and whether he will have enough of it to finally profess his passion to the subject of his admiration, Teryl and her team at Accsys know how to make the most of time.  

After all, this is what technology is all about: “The concept of not wasting time has driven technology. The human race is an impatient group and our expectations are just exponential,” says Teryl, pointing out that if something takes 10 minutes today, we want it to be five minutes tomorrow and then are extremely unhappy if it takes six. “The constant demand that we humans are not wasting our time has driven technology intensely in the last 12 months.” 

Being in the payroll business, time has always mattered to Accsys. Clients’ employees must receive their salaries on time and to the cent, and there is no tolerance for delays and mistakes. “If you can’t pay your people, you can’t do business,” Teryl says. 

So when the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Africa and the hard lockdown was announced, the pressure was on to ensure clients could continue to pay their people without skipping a beat.  

Accsys sprang into action.  

“In three days, we were able to move from an on-premises businesses to an at-home business in March 2020,” Teryl says. “Fortunately, a lot of our stuff was already in the cloud, so that enabled us to run everything from home, including our outsourcing department, services, sales, training – everything.” 

Even before the hard lockdown started at midnight on 27 March 2020, every one of Accsys’s 100-strong staff was working from home, equipped with computers, connectivity and SIM cards to ensure that clients could pay their people without skipping a beat. 

Then government introduced COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits and the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS), followed by a quick succession of changes in regulations to adapt to the unfolding pandemic. “At that point, there was a lot going on and, along with managing the technology, we had to become experts very quickly in the statutory requirements because that’s what our clients expected.” 

Not content with that, Accsys started looking at what else it could do to assist its clients in coping with the fallout from the pandemic from a people management perspective.  

“What we saw immediately was that businesses were going to have to go back to work and their first challenge would be to keep their people healthy.” Realising that its biometric readers for access control could come in handy with this, Accsys worked with one of its partners, ZKTeco, to introduce thermal detector readers to the market.  

“These readers can detect whether someone is wearing a mask and their temperature, and is actually more accurate than those handheld temperature devices,” says Teryl.  

Accsys wrote the code to align with the hardware, and within six weeks, by mid-May 2020, the first installations were done. 

Hand in hand with this, Accsys and ZK hosted weekly webinars to demonstrate live how the software and hardware worked together. Hundreds of people attended. 

“What this experience showed us is how quickly we were able to come to market with a solution as well as advise companies in making people’s workplaces safer.” 

It also shows just how much can be achieved when time is of the essence and it is wisely used. Dream on, Mr Prufrock. 

‘Beautiful’ technological process underpins Cura’s success

Cura Risk Management Software, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the small enterprise category

‘Beautiful’ technological process underpins Cura’s success

Steve Jobs’ aversion to focus groups and surveys was well known but he was probably uniquely gifted in knowing what solutions would work for customers. For the rest of us, the more open we can be to quality input when designing our products, the better.

This doesn’t mean listening to whoever talks the loudest or longest, and of course you need to be able to “filter out the noise” and home in on the things that really matter. The important thing is having the right sounding board and a good roadmap – or three – to take you to where you need to go.

Cura Risk Management Software, winners of five tt100 awards for 2020, including Management of Technology, attributes its success – in the tt100 awards and its business performance – to its three-in-one roadmap and Product Advisory Board.

“We have three individual roadmaps that integrate into an overarching technology roadmap that includes a wide variety of inputs and data gathering, this would be the main differentiator for winning the Management of Technology award,” says Jessica Knight, Head of Strategy at Cura.

Cura, a software company focusing on governance, risk, compliance and risk-based audit solutions, manages technology across two fronts: as a technology solutions provider and as a business that itself consumes technology. “Our roadmap enables us to deliver technology and software platforms to the quality we would like and to align the business with best technology practice,” she says.

The overarching roadmap is an integration of the following three individual roadmaps:

  • Product suite roadmap – focusing on the user experience and guided by global best practice, regulatory requirements and advisory partners;
  • Functionality and platform roadmap – derived from the company’s Product Advisory Board, with input from customers, industry experts, thought leaders, internal innovators and subject matter experts; and
  • Technological roadmap – determined by global technology trends with the objective of maintaining Cura as a technological leader.

“Our solutions are the end result of the three roadmaps, all linked together and informed by the Product Advisory Board and external sources,” says Jessica, adding that Cura is continually making room for new solutions, improving existing solutions and retiring products that are no longer relevant.

“Cura’s model for managing technology is complex, detailed and fully functional,” she concludes. “It’s a beautiful technological process that we get excited about. It’s amazing.”

Cash and paper are a thing of the past for this technology-wise stokvel

BMP Properties, winner of the Management of Technology Award in the emerging enterprise category

Cash and paper are a thing of the past for this technology-wise stokvel

The stokvel industry in South Africa turns over R10 billion a year and almost all of this is paid in cash and recorded on paper, exposing stokvels and their members to all manner of risks. One that has broken the mould is Soweto-based Buhla Mahlo Properties (BMP), which has gone completely cashless and paperless.

“Yes, we are trailblazers in the use of technology in our industry, and introducing a cashless, paperless environment has solved a lot of problems for us,” says Archie Rantao, chairman of BMP Properties (which, as its name suggests, it more than a burial society – but more about that later).

Archie says the standard stokvel model is for members to pay their contributions in cash, often on a Sunday when the banks are closed. “The treasurer has to keep all that money until he can go to the bank on Monday, putting his life at risk.”

But safety is not the only challenge that cash transactions pose for stokvels.

“There also used to be a lot of conflict about members’ payments,” Archie says, explaining that proving who has paid how much and when is crucial for a stokvel.

“We are underwritten by a major insurer. If a member passes and their contributions are more than three months in arrears, the cover will not be paid. Before, members were always suspicious about the record keeping; now we can prove who paid and who didn’t, and there is no more conflict.”

Archie explains how this came about. “Cash puts your life at risk; you can lose it or be robbed. To mitigate the risk, we stopped accepting cash and asked members to deposit their contributions into the bank.

“We then downloaded the banking app to see who has paid and created a computerised spreadsheet to record the transactions. Once a month, the spreadsheet is circulated to all members on WhatsApp for everyone to see.”

Initially, there was some resistance to the new way of doing things. “In the townships, cash is still king,” Archie says. “It took some time to convert our members to cashless and paperless processes, but people see the benefit. It’s more transparent. Trust is key in everything we do in life. Without trust, there is no institution.”

Other benefits are greater efficiency and better client service. “Using technology, you can track and reconcile your earnings and you always know how many clients you have,” he says. “And why put your life at risk or expose people to temptation by working with cash?”

Having successfully introduced cashless, paperless business, BMP Properties is also expanding its scope of activities. It has purchased a stand at Protea Glen in Soweto and is seeking corporate partners either to establish a private school or build student accommodation.

“We decided we wanted to be more than a burial society and also contribute to access to quality education in the townships so that our kids don’t need to travel to the suburbs,” Archie says. “Kids have to wake up as early as 4.30am to get transport and they come home at 6.30pm or 7pm, tired. It’s too much for them. We want to bring services to the townships so that our kids can have a better life.”

Cura Risk Management

Winner of the award for Excellence in the Management of Technology for 2019, category for small enterprises

Empathy and future thinking are the secrets to remaining relevant

Longstanding business models have been smashed to smithereens by the brutal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that have gone with it. But amid the tragedy of jobs lost and businesses bankrupted are reports of hope and resilience – of enterprises and entrepreneurs whose underlying technologies and business models were supple enough to prepare them for the unexpected.

Cura Risk Management is one such company and so are a number of its clients.

“Companies that have had proper business continuity and risk strategies will come out of this quite well because they were prepared for the unexpected,” says Alex Roberts, Cura’s Regional Director: Sales and Operations. “We didn’t know the unexpected would be a pandemic specifically, but we did know that business interruption is South Africa’s top business risk and already had the necessary response plans in place.”

Quite a few of Cura’s clients have let the company know that they are weathering the pandemic better than expected because they use its tools. “Governance, compliance and risk services tend to be seen as a grudge purchase but when businesses experience the benefits of being compliant, acting ethically and taking responsibility for their impact and employees, hopefully the thinking will start to shift,” he says.

Apart from the ability to exercise future thinking, the single biggest asset a business can have in the quest to remain relevant, regardless of pandemics and other systemic shocks, is probably empathy.

“New product development needs to be embedded in empathy so that we understand what the end user is struggling with, get to know their pain points and walk a little bit in their shoes,” says Jess Knight, Strategic Manager at Cura. “Then we can define the problem, ideate, prototype, test and implement. It all starts with empathy.”

A pandemic-related pain point for almost every business is adjusting to the new normal and the complex and complicated lockdown regulations that go with it, she says. Empathising with those struggles, Cura is launching a solution to enable companies to function effectively and compliantly amid the uncertainty.

“We have very agile tools and a very agile approach to rolling out solutions, and can do it very cheaply because we don’t change our software, we change the solution,” says Alex. “The market guides us and therefore we can take advantage of being the best mover – not necessarily the first mover, but the best mover.”

IoT.nxt

Winner of the award for Excellence in the Management of Technology for 2019, category for medium enterprises

How to benefit from the Internet of Things without rip-and-replace tactics

If there’s one thing everybody agrees on, it’s that the Internet of Things (IoT) is where every business needs to be – and sooner rather than later. The thing is that achieving this is neither easy nor cheap, especially for companies sitting with lots of legacy devices that can’t connect to the IoT.

Typically, companies with legacy equipment have had just one option if they wanted to benefit from the IoT: rip out all the old systems and equipment and replace them with new, IoT-compatible devices.

Then along came a South African technology IoT.nxt and made everything simple and so much more affordable.

Its strength is the ability to connect legacy and new devices, sensors, machines and “all things”, creating interoperability between them all, says André Jacobs, Director: Product Engineering at IoT.nxt. Once the old and the new are talking to each other, in real time, the IoT comes to life, churning out data that can be turned into really useful trends and insights.

Here’s an example:

Mobile communication operators have thousands of base stations that use large amounts of energy for air conditioning because the equipment inside must be kept at just the right temperature, meaning neither too warm nor too cool, says André.

Keeping those air conditioners (two at each base station) working properly is critical to the optimal functioning of the station and its energy usage, but is a hugely challenging task given the vast number of base stations on the ground and all over the country.

IoT.nxt and its smart technology have not only made this task manageable for a particular mobile operator, but financially viable, too.

Using its trademarked Raptor edge gateway and IoT platform called Commander, the company is “IoT-ising” its client’s base stations, given it unprecedented real-time insight into the performance of its air conditioners.

“On a cool day, when less cooling is needed, our technology can switch off one or both of the air cons and switch on a DC fan to blow in cooler air from outside,” says André. “If an air conditioner is broken and the temperature rises, the system alerts the cellphone operator, who can then send someone out to repair it.”

What is special about IoT.nxt’s solution is that it can integrate with many different devices through a single USB port, using their patented SDDI technology.

In other words, instead of the (expensive) one-to-one ratio that would be necessary through a point-to-point configuration, this technology can reach one to many, saving plenty of time and money.

The technology has numerous other advantages, including a no-code interface, meaning that clients do not need to have in-house developers to operate it.

Small wonder, then, that this medium-sized South African company attracted the attention of Vodacom, which now owns 51% of the business, and has won or been nominated for a host of top awards, including the IoT World Awards USA 2020 and Microsoft Best Independent Partner 2019 – not to mention the tt100 award for Excellence in the Management of Technology, 2019.

Osprey Technologies

Winner of the award for Excellence in the Management of Technology for 2019, category for emerging enterprises

Our adjudicator Mrs Janet du Preez shares with us their experience of Osprey Technologies.

Like an orchestra, IT support all fits together

Sssshhhh! Do you hear that sound? It’s the harmony of an orchestra where every instrument is playing at exactly the moment it should, at precisely the right pitch and pace. Well, Osprey Technologies is not in the music business but the orchestra analogy is a good one for describing what this IT support company does so well in the management of technology.

“I think our biggest strength is that we know where and when each piece of the service fits in,” says Nuren Govender, director of Osprey. “We coordinate all the different service providers and technologies, and we put it all together in a way that works.”

And because Osprey is the one coordinating all the different parts, its staff know almost instinctively how to locate any piece that is out of sync.

Nuren explains. “If you as a small or medium-sized company do your own IT and you have a problem such as slow connection speed, you would phone the internet service provider. They would probably say, ‘No, it’s not us.’ Then you would phone the network service provider, and they would say, ‘No, it’s not us either’. And so on and so on. We know where the problem is and go straight to the right place without this constant bouncing around between service providers.”

Part of this trouble-shooting skill comes from long experience: Osprey has been in the infrastructure support business for 12 years. The second part of it is having really good systems in place to monitor and respond to client problems, including a central helpdesk to log, track and trace. Third, the company has excellent client relationships. “Our ethos is to build relationships with clients and we get to know their businesses extremely well,” says Nuren.

Last but not least, the Osprey team is small but highly committed, motivated and hard-working. “Eight years ago, it was just me in the company,” he says. “Now there are six of us and between us, we service 30 to 40 clients.”

This was the first time the company had entered the tt100 awards programme, he says, and the announcement that Osprey had won Management of Technology in the category for emerging enterprises caught him off guard. “I had taken out my phone because I wanted to take a picture of the winner, and then they called out our name! It was awesome.”

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.

Enter Now