In conversation with ACDC Dynamics MD Mario Maio

March 14th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Vector


by Mark Botha, editor

Mario Maio, founder and owner of ACDC Dynamics, speaks to Vector about the company’s history and achievements, and shares his views on skills development, the state of the SETA system and e-Tolls, among others.

Mario Maio

Mario Maio

Mario Maio founded ACDC Dynamics with a partner 30 years ago and is today MD and sole owner of the electrical component manufacturer and distributor. Over the years, the company expanded to include five branches housed in six buildings nationwide while employing almost 600 people.

Maio, who is of Portuguese descent, was born in South Africa and matriculated at Jan de Klerk Technical High School. He completed an apprenticeship at Vaal Electrical and passed his N4 in heavy and light current simultaneously, preparing him for a career in both the electrical field and in electronics.

Vaal Electrical’s products at the time included timers and electronic goods which it developed and manufactured and in which Maio took a special interest. It wasn’t long before he and a partner started Trans Electron which, in the early days, built transformers and timers from a garage. The company later moved to premises in Germiston where it also built panels, battery chargers and transformers up to 100 kVA. The PC boards and electronics for the timers were designed by Maio at the time and are used in all ACDC’s timers to this day.

Trans Electron became ACDC Dynamics when the partners parted ways after ten years as associates.

The company effectively became a manufacturer as well as a distributor when a key client started making its own product and turnover plummeted as a consequence. Maio stresses that the idea was – and still is – to be a component distributor, not a wholesaler. ACDC took on a number of local agencies for mechanical timers and switchgear and soon became sole distributor for some of these. Its brands steadily grew in number to now include Gewiss, C&S, Datalogic, Teraski and Weicon.

Branches

The company’s five branches are located in Cape Town, Durban (at Pinetown and Riverhorse), Germiston and at Longmeadow, Johannesburg, where a second building was completed recently. The new building, with its 17 000 m2 footprint, is connected to the original building by a service tunnel and houses the company’s franchise department, its new renewables Green Team, as well as the workshop formerly located at the Germiston branch. The building, which took a year to complete, also provides warehousing for some 4500 pallettes.

Milestones

Topping Maio’s list of business milestones is marketing the company through the now well-known ACDC catalogue, the last edition of which contained 476 pages. He says this year’s catalogue currently stands at over 570 pages and he expects it to reach 800 pages by the time of publication in mid-2014. Maio ascribes this success to cataloguing the latest quality technology only.

In 2007, ACDC purchased industrial instrumentation manufacturer Rhomberg Instruments. It now exports locally-made timers and branded Rhomberg modules to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Greece, Kenya and Spain. These products are also available in South Africa.

In that same year, Maio franchised the company – another milestone – and the first ACDC Express retail/industrial outlet was opened. An additional 14 franchises have since been established and Maio expects another three or four to follow this year.

These outlets have separate retail and industrial counters. The former stock electronic products only while clients receive technical advice at the industrial counters.

The franchises, which are based on a unique business model developed by the company, cater for the individual needs of their geographic markets. The Nelspruit outlet in mining-rich Mpumalanga, for instance, focuses on the industrial market.

SETAs

The company launched an apprenticeship programme in 2012 and employed 20 apprentices. They received inhouse as well as trade-test training at external service providers, as well as sponsorship for their trade test exams, and most of them will be offered permanent employment at ACDC upon passing their courses.

The programme will continue this year with a new intake of trainees but, to Maio, the co-operation and support received from the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority (MERSETA) is a matter of serious concern.

“The SETAs are meant to facilitate the upskilling and development of our workforce but we find that these people have no interest in their work.”

Apart from one grant for the training of just one individual at the inception of the apprenticeship programme, ACDC has received no support from the MERSETA whatsoever.

“It is very difficult to get any form of co-operation from them. We’ve had these apprentices on board for over two years now. They receive full salaries and we sponsor their entire course and trade test exams but, to date, haven’t received any support at all. We submit the required documentation on time but it is invariably returned to us with requests for more information. This we duly supply, only to be informed that the grants had been declined. No explanations are ever given.”

Social development

ACDC’s social development policy is to support companies in the electrical industry to benefit the sector as a whole. This support takes the form of financial aid, skills development, business guidance and training. These companies are also encouraged to employ unskilled people and to attend ACDC’s training sessions on its own product ranges free of charge.

Skills crisis

Maio says the skills shortage in the electrical industry is felt hardest in the higher-level automation sector where companies have not been investing in training. Finding skilled workers to employ is very difficult and, to aggravate the situation, skilled people tend to be self-employed.

He says the country’s current skills crisis is rooted in the primary and secondary schooling systems which have dropped the education standards too low.

“How can learners who know only 35% of the curriculum be allowed to pass? The pass mark and standards are much higher at university and these students cannot adapt. Will the Department of Higher Education and Training drop the standards at our universities next?”

He says it is not uncommon to find personnel with insufficient skills working behind distributors’ service counters. Clients approach these people for advice but are given incorrect specifications or advice which is not in line with their requirements. To combat this, his company trains its staff constantly, on an ongoing basis, with courses presented regularly, throughout the year.

Technical hotline

It also employs five experts to bring customers a dedicated technical hotline providing advice and guidance on products and solutions only – the hotline has no sales function at all. Maio says the hotline, possibly the only of its kind in the country, is extremely well-received by his clients.

“These experts’ sole purpose is to establish customers’ needs and to provide them with advice and recommendations on technical matters, eight hours a day, every work day. They would, for instance, provide step-by-step ‘talk-throughs’ on wiring diagrams or on connecting products such as motors or relays.”

New plugs, filament lamps

Maio views the introduction of the new SANS 614 domestic plug (see Vector, Feruary 2014) as “a good idea”: the traditional three-pin plug used in this country, he says, is “cumbersome and outdated”, but he warns of resistance to the new configuration among electrical contractors who, he says, would be reluctant to introduce the sockets at new installations.

“In the absence of volumes, these plugs and sockets will be more expensive at first and most contractors will only install them when their installation becomes law.”

He doesn’t, however, agree with South Africa’s stance on the filament lamp which, to him, should have been banned long ago.

“We are faced with serious power generation challenges in this country but filament lamps are still manufactured and imported in their millions. Most European countries have banned these as well as halogen lamps completely. It’s a ‘no-brainer’, really: replace 100 A lamps with 5 W lamps at practically a once-off outlay.”

He concedes that the end-user would bear this cost, but points out that the strain on the entire grid would be alleviated.

E-Toll

Maio says Gauteng’s new e-toll system will preserve the region’s road infrastructure, an amenity essential to the economy. The country’s road network is deteriorating rapidly and he says “nothing is being done to maintain it”.

Government has made this decision and it is up to business to support it. While the system could have been introduced in a different way (through better consultation with road users, for example) and while the funds for maintaining the roads could have been generated differently, the roads must be maintained and “somebody must foot the bill.”

On the negative side, the e-Toll system has an adverse effect on the prices of almost all goods and services and the economy must now absorb higher transport and fuel costs, all to the detriment of the end-user.

“Our labour force is most affected by this. The e-Toll system adds to their bill of expenses while their salaries are not increased in line with the inflation rate. The exchange rate alone has increased by five points between January and December last year. This means that the rand has devaluated by almost50% while the cost of living has soared by some 25%. Our middle income group is shrinking.”

Secret of success

Maio says success in business depends largely on people and that successful companies do not revolve around just one person.

“Look after your people and they will look after the company. Also remember that nothing comes your way in business without hard work.”

Maio, a lover of fast cars, lives in Bedfordview with his wife, Guida, who assisted in the early years of ACDC, wiring transformers in her kitchen. Their son, Ricardo, runs the company’s Express franchise programme and their daughter Natasha is an interior designer.

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