‘IF GUYS WANT ME TO START MAKING PARTS FOR AIRPLANES, I’LL DO IT’ – Robbie Bevan, MD
Robbie Bevan stops dead in the middle of his factory floor and stares at my left foot. He has just seen something unbelievable – my one slipslop disintegrating right under his nose; the rubber thong detaching and looping through the air in a pathetic death spiral.
I had hoped to make a better impression, this being my second visit to Bevan’s factory to report on a home-grown success story of impressive proportions. When I first visited three years ago I was so overwhelmed by the variety and volume of factory-produced gizmos I had been rendered largely speechless, unable to ask any meaningful questions. Now here I was again, barefoot in the middle of his factory and battling to find words to describe my footwear malfunction.
Fortunately Robbie has a sense of humour, which no doubt has helped him weather the manufacturing storms across a career spanning more than half a century. This year BG Boat Parts celebrates 45 years in Knysna, during which time the company has grown into one of the most impressive factories in the southern Cape. It produces high-tech components, both plastic and metal, for a range of industries, with boating and outdoor leisure its two key market segments. A big part of that success is thanks to Bevan and his predecessor, his father, who founded the business in Johannesburg about 55 years ago. It’s a story founded on dedication, vision, expertise, patience, and the kind of pioneering spirit that remains a hallmark of this Garden Route town.
“He got into the business because of his knowledge and experience in the plastic industry where he had worked for many years before starting this company,” says Robbie of his father (Bernie). “He had worked for a big plastics company in Joburg,”
A knack for mechanical tinkering and a love of sailing on Florida Lake led Bevan Senior to branch out into tools and plastic parts and set up a new company, Bevan Engineering. Says Robbie: “He and his sailing buddies couldn’t get spares so he decided he could make them.”
The DIY attitude is a common thread linking father and son, with Robbie picking up where his father left off. He joined the family business in 1974 after an apprenticeship as an instrument technician, and was intimately involved in the firm’s relocation to Knysna just a few years later – a move largely catalysed by the erstwhile government’s industrial decentralisation policy. “In those days they were trying to get industry to smaller parts of the country, and they assisted us to get here,” explains Robbie. “It was a big incentive and my father just took a chance.”
It was a chance that paid off, no matter the unfamiliar surroundings. Father and son literally practised what they preached by installing two caravans on the factory site in the Knysna industrial area, and then slowly built up their factory from the inside out. “This building used to be single story and we pulled both our caravans in here,” explains Robbie, adding that his mother worked there too in an admin capacity. “That is how we lived for six months. We made our whole house out of boxes and things — box walls.”
Fortunately camping is no problem for Robbie, who is fond of the outdoors and makes a point of taking time out from his work schedule. A greater challenge, particularly in the early days of the move, was convincing his wife to join him. “That is another whole story,” he smiles. “She is a hairdresser — they love people. When we came down here there was nobody. She had to give up her whole life because her parents were up in Joburg. It was a rough patch for a few years. Knysna was also very Afrikaans and she couldn’t speak a word, well, other than a few swear words.
“I had to send her back (to Joburg) four times. The last time I said, ‘If you go home again then don’t come back’. But she came back, and now she wouldn’t leave this place for anything.”
The move had other lifestyle benefits, with Robbie determined to balance his work and personal life in family-friendly setting. There was also the ‘transitional’ phase, common to so many family businesses, when it came time for Bevan Senior to make way for his son. “He and I clashed big time,” recalls Robbie of that tricky period. “It was a situation where either he retire, or I go somewhere else.”
“Then one day I came to work on Monday morning and asked my mother: where is the Old Man? Why is he not here – I need work to be done? She said he is at home and you should go and talk to him there.
“So I went home and my Old Man said, it’s all yours. The business. It’s as simple as that.”
Handover achieved, Robbie set about consolidating the business as it continued to expand. To this end he benefited from a steadily growing market and continued support from a core of loyal Joburg clients. Robbie also adopted a ‘Client is King’ approach to manufacturing, with no job too small or too difficult for his team. As a result the firm grew a reputation of service excellence. “Clients will give us drawings or samples and we manufacture for them. Sometimes I will do the design myself, draw the moulds up, and that to me is the part that I enjoy the most. I’ll get word from everybody that this is what they want and this is how I must change a particular part, and then I make it.”
Big or small, simple or complex – there are more components churning through Robbie’s factory than you’d find on a jumbo jet. That much is immediately clear on a tour of the facility where parts are prominently displayed outside the main reception area. Robbie also takes pride in explaining the various functions of his moulding and cutting machines, both old and new. He handles a freshly cut component in much the same way as a baker might caress a freshly baked pastry, gazing at it with a kind of filial pride.
“To me the best is designing something and improving on something that is already out there. I get a real kick when I travel around the country and stop at places and see my product there,” he says.
What type of products are his favourite? Impossible to say, laughs Robbie, who nevertheless is quick to mention a new pole clamp he is busy with. “We just have so many parts –1000 different things we make.”
Currently boat parts make up just over half of production volume, with outdoor leisure and miscellaneous other bits and pieces making up the rest. In this Robbie is guided by market dynamics, which dictate the direction of the factory floor.
The business has also benefited from loyal staff, enabling the firm to weather economic downturns. “In 2009 (during the global financial crisis) we had to work a lot of short-time, but we fought our way through it. The staff we’ve had have been good to us and we’ve been good to them,” says Robbie.
By contrast the past decade has seen relatively good times, notwithstanding the Covid pandemic which, after the initial hard lockdown, resulted in an unexpected boom-time for outdoor leisure. Robbie and his team have now run out of space at the current facility and are looking to expand. He sees the market continuing to grow, and the firm growing with it: “We are a growing country, regardless of what the guys at the top do. Everybody has to live and have fun, which is why we just push along.”
Robbie has a tendency to sound Buddhist, if not downright Zen, when talking about the future. He does not like to complicate things more than necessary: “I’m not going to say we are going to go in any one direction in the future,” he muses, with an air of camping calm. “We go where we go, we do what we do.”
“And if guys want me to start making parts for airplanes I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter.”
With that, I pick up the remains of my slip-slop and head barefoot into whatever is coming next.