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Bringing nature back down to earth


Bringing nature back down to earth Editorial: Christian Jordan Production: Janis Billington

SME Lightning Protection and Earthing is one of the country’s industry leaders when it comes to protecting physical structures and expensive equipment from the devastating power of a lightning strike. Businesses without protection can lose time, money and people as a result of a lightning strike so the question is, are you willing to take the risk?

Have you ever considered what the result would be if a lightning bolt was to strike your office or the ground around your building? It’s safe to say the consequences would be detrimental to your business and potentially fatal to your employees. A glance at a science text book will tell you that a lightning strike is essentially a large scale electrical discharge between clouds high up in the atmosphere and objects on the ground. However, there is still a lot that is unknown about lightning strikes but we do know that the ‘bolts’ can often be just one inch in diameter even though they appear much larger to the eye thanks to their power. The most common form of lightning strike in South Africa is an indirect strike, meaning instead of striking a building or mast (direct strike), the bolt will hit the ground or an external object such as a tree or building and find the easiest path down to earth


via buried cables or water pipes. This sort of strike can be very disruptive for businesses, potentially putting a stop to activity for weeks but if you are prepared you can avoid this commotion and all of the financial drama that comes with it. SME Lightning Protection and Earthing is one of South Africa’s premier operators in the lightning protection industry and with their assistance you could potentially save a lot of time, money, hassle and maybe even an employee’s life. The company has a long list of successful projects and happy clients and is currently planning for major jobs with high-profile customers in 2014. The history of the company however, shows that the focus was not always on lightning protection. In fact, in its early days, SME was all about supplying equipment to miners as Managing Members, Julie Kohler and Marius Janse Van Rensburg explain. “The name SME comes from Steam and Mining Equipment which was a Johannesburg based company owned by a Jewish

SME Lightning Protection and Earthing

Lightning storm over Cape Town city center

doctor,” Julie says. “Our predecessors, whom Marius and I purchased the shares from, were mainly supplying equipment to the mining industry and eventually they began supplying lightning protection installations to the mines. They then opened in KZN and started SME Lightning Protection as a result of the lightning protection work that was done in the mines in Gauteng. So, it all stemmed from the mines and in South Africa mining forms a large percentage of our GDP.” While the company now operates in many industries, servicing companies from a range of backgrounds, their success stems originally from the mining industry and Julie explains that a recent resurgence in mining activities has seen SME finding more recent opportunities with mining companies.

HEALTH AND SAFETY A lightning bolt can contain millions of volts of electricity and,

of course, when dealing with such a powerful natural force, you need to have hefty industrial equipment and well thought out designs to ensure that the strikes are dealt with safely. When installing equipment of this nature, health and safety has to be the first consideration, just as it should be on any industrial construction site. But safety is not just a concern during the installation, every year lightning protection equipment has to be serviced to ensure that nothing has been compromised through use. “Safety is becoming crucial in all aspects of a construction project and lightning protection and earthing is a big part of that,” says Marius. “Any mine that is using explosives needs auditing every 12 months as per the code of practice. This is why our expertise is becoming more of a necessity. In the past, lightning protection was a luxury, now it is a requirement to comply with codes of practice.”




SME Lightning Protection and Earthing Even the government is weighing in to ensure that health and safety standards are not violated. “The Department of Labour is visiting all construction sites and they are shutting down sites that don’t comply. There is a big drive towards health and safety in the industry and the country as a whole,” Julie says. Fortunately, SME is committed to its mission statement “to strive for perfection in everything we do” and that encompasses health and safety targets set out the company and adhered to by everyone. “A lot of our work stems from having ISO certification. We are still the only lightning protection company with ISO certification in South Africa. It does secure a lot of work for us as companies insist on compliance to international codes and standards,” explains Julie.

COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT ISO certification is just one of the ways in which SME separates itself from the competition. In addition to this there is obviously the many years of experience, the vast amount of technical expertise and the extensive list of products and services that the company offers. Because of this, some of the country’s biggest businesses call SME their partner. “We work a lot in the mining industry but we also work extensively in the sugar industry, in the power industry on Eskom sites, we work on solar farms, at water purification plants, pump stations, and also a lot with Multi Choice, Vodacom and MTN on their installations,” explains Marius. “There are three big players in our industry in South Africa of which we are one. Over the years people who work for these companies will break away and start their own business which consists of one bakkie and a crew. They will work on all the small projects whereas we focus on the bigger projects as we can sustain these financially and we have proven technical expertise which sometimes the smaller companies do not have,” he says. “We deliver a complete product. For example, we start with the technical design and drawings, from there the installation takes place and we then close out with SABS certification. A lot of the smaller companies can only do the installation and cannot do design and AutoCAD drawings or maybe they can do everything but they don’t have certification which is a problem for the client. From start to finish, the delivery of a complete service is one our biggest selling points. The client gets a one stop shop; consultancy, design and installation, they come for the complete product,” Julie says. SME’s list of services goes way beyond just design, installation and maintenance. The company offers services to the general construction and electrical industry, making full use of its skills portfolio and maximising the potential of investments that have been made into equipment.

“The nature of our business sees us installing electrodes into the ground and these can be anywhere from 1.8-30 meters deep,” says Marius. “Wherever we go we are finding challenges with underground services so we invested in an underground services scanner to determine where all the services are. We then took this one step further and offered the service to other companies, outside our core scope of work. “We also do a lot of drilling and excavation where we are working on substations. We can sometimes do up to 4000 meters of trenching per site so we purchased an excavation machine to help us complete projects quicker. This quick turnaround time is invaluable to the client.”

LIGHTNING SEASON The amount of lightning strikes and the strength of these strikes is amongst the highest in the world in South Africa. A large proportion of these strikes occur between September and March – lightning season – a time when the number of insurance claims rise and when the number of enquiries for SME’s services increase. “We used to be less busy in July, August and September because there was no lighting during these times but since the focus on health and safety has increased, we are now constantly busy. In September, October and November we get more enquiries as there is more lightning related damage,” explains Marius. “In South Africa, indirect lightning strikes are the most common. The current will dissipate through the earth and enter the building through cables, water pipes or any conductor present,” he says. “This will lead to IT equipment being damaged, electrical surges which can cause extensive damage and this affects both the domestic market and the industrial market,” adds Julie.

“In South Africa, indirect lightning strikes are the most common. The current will dissipate through the ground and enter the building through cables or water pipes” Insurance claims as a result of lightning damage have risen to around R6 billion per year, mainly because of the expensive equipment that is damaged in a strike but Marius suggests that the company works closely with the insurance companies to



SME employee at the Moses Mabhida Stadium during construction ensure the correct coverage is supplied. “Whenever there is a lightning related claim the relevant insurance companies contact us so that we can go out to the sites, assess the damage and submit a proposal,” he says. “Our certificate is accepted by most of the insurers so if there is another claim the client will be covered.”

CHALLENGES Although business is good for SME, with multiple contracts on the horizon and successfully completed projects on the record, the company invariably faces challenges. While the first challenge you may think of might be winning new contracts or the price of equipment, it is in fact a longer standing issue that fuels challenges for the company and that issue is people. First of all, there is the challenge of finding the correct people and getting them up to the required skill level and secondly, there is the challenge of BEE legislation. “Training is a challenge for us,” says Julie. “Mostly, you cannot just find the perfect field installers - basic literacy and maths skills are quite poor so we invest in every employee and try and make their situation the best it can be, financially and in terms of lifestyle, so that they are not constantly solicited by our competition. When I say competition, it’s not just lightning protection people. “When we are working on a construction site, some of our


The completed stadium good workers get noticed and other firms will make offers so it’s quite challenging to get their skills up to the appropriate level and then everyone else wants them so retaining staff is very hard. “One of the big challenges that most South African companies face, and one that is particularly challenging for SME, is BEE legislation. The legislation requires that all government tenders, regardless of price and service delivery, have three quotes and the company with the highest BEE scorecard tends to get that work. To get your scorecard to the highest level, Level one, you need to have black ownership. “We are finding that more and more of our work is coming from the private sector rather than government because we don’t have that black ownership. It is something that we have looked at it in the past but obviously there can’t be fronting; it has to be absolutely legitimate ownership. “A lot of the government work is awarded to companies with black ownership who don’t necessarily have the degree of skill that the three big players have. This is a big challenge for us and is prompting the rise of competition that was not there before,” explains Julie. Away from the people and BEE challenges, there is another more tangible problem that is always a cause for concern, not just for SME but the entire construction industry. “Copper is one of the products that is used in many of our

SME Lightning Protection and Earthing installations because of its properties. It holds huge value with scrap dealers so after an installation, people will come and rip it up and sell it for scrap and the cost of replacing it is huge. This is a major challenge in South Africa. There is a product that has been developed to prevent this theft but again, it is expensive,” says Julie. “That product is called Kwena cable,” explains Marius. “The strands are woven in such a way it makes it impossible to take the copper from the other metal and it’s useless as scrap so dealers will not take it. It is beneficial but it can be up to four times the price of a regular cable and sometimes people will steal it anyway.”

AFRICAN EXPANSION Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, SME has grown exceptionally and because of its unique, first-class service offering, the enquiries keep coming in and not just from South African companies. SME has worked all over southern Africa and is looking to do so on a larger scale in the future. This growth has been in line with some of its longstanding customers who are also growing into Africa. “We operate in all corners of South Africa. We are also operate in our neighbouring countries, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana, Madagascar, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Ghana and Kenya. There are huge opportunities in other African nations,” says Marius. “Those opportunities are being driven by one particular company which does TV satellite services and cell phone services and they are expanding throughout Africa and they have partnered with SME along with Ilovo Sugar. These two partnerships enable us to spread throughout Africa,” Julie explains. “We are aware that service is vital. If our service is poor we are not going to maintain these relationships,” states Marius. Examples of SME’s work and fantastic service offering can be seen in flagship construction projects around the country. Two of the most notable projects include the Moses Mabhida stadium and the King Shaka International Airport. “The World Cup coming to South Africa was a huge deal for us with soccer being the number one sport in the country and our work on the Moses Mabhida stadium was a significant contract for SME. This is a very high profile building in KZN and sits right on the beach front,” says Julie. “The King Shaka airport was a quite high profile installation and again this was a government deal, outsourced to contractors,” she adds. “At the airport, SME has done the design and installation for each and every building there; substations, terminal buildings to name a few. This is not always the case for a project of this size,” says Marius. Of course, lightning is not a one off occurrence. Within one

year of the initial installation, SME is kept busy at these sites with maintenance, ensuring safety standards are met. “All of the earth points are numbered and we have to do annual maintenance tests on each point. If there are damages or new buildings or roads put down, everything has to be taken into account when we do the maintenance,” he says. However, even though these projects are flagship in terms of their popularity, it is the on-going contracts with longstanding customers that generate real value for SME, as Julie explains.

THE FUTURE As the company grows into 2014, it is certain to see a growth in the workforce, a growth in the amount of work and a growth in the amount of satisfied customers. Marius explains more about two notable projects in the pipeline saying: “We are busy with two major projects; one is Musab Uranium in Namibia where we are currently submitting all of the final designs for the substations and the mine. The other is a solar farm in the Northern Cape where the client approached us for the design and current injection tests.” As long as lightning continues to threaten safety and operational ability, businesses will always need to be prepared for lightning eventualities and insurance claims aside, if you don’t have protection you are running a big risk. Marius concludes by telling us that SME can offer everything a business would require when it comes to lightning protection and earthing saying: “We have the expertise, technically and commercially, and we always deliver on time.”


“We invest in every employee and try and make their situation the best it can be, financially and in terms of lifestyle, so that they are not constantly solicited by our competition” Phone: +27 31 701 7582


+27 31 701 7582

(0)1603 618 000 East Coast Promotions Ltd, Ferndale Business Centre, 1 Exeter Street. Norwich, Norfolk NR2 4QB