Spotlight on… PPE Technologies

February 14th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: Vector


Mitch McAllistar is the managing director of Nelspruit-based Power Plant Electrical (PPE) Technologies, an integrated electrical engineering organisation, supplying systems and solutions to mining operations, utilities and industry.

Analysts predict an annual growth of 5,5% by 2020 for the global motor control centre market. Will this be the case locally?

Mitch McAllistar

I have a lot of hope for South Africa and am very positive about the future. We do, however, have many challenges that inhibit growth in the industrial and mining sectors. With economic growth trending precariously toward zero, a political landscape seemingly oblivious to the damage caused by some political leaders, mining developments all but gone and most industries under pressure, one wonders how we will ever achieve any growth at all.

Legislation continually stacks against our industries with high expectations and strong appetite for industrial action. I feel that the greater part of South Africa is stacking the cards against investment and growth. Without radical change in attitude from our leaders, how can we expect any better results than seen in the recent past?

My view is that BBBEE policies are more destructive than constructive and seem to have little regard for a minority that could contribute so much to economic development and the development of everyone in this country, if engaged constructively. Yes, there are some clear successes, but all the failures are swept under the rug.

Right now, 5,5% growth by 2020 seems like a pipe dream but, given constructive leadership and commitment to a functional government, we could far exceed this growth mark.

Will this growth be felt in the switch and distribution board, PLC and instrumentation sectors?

Industry and mining are the main users of rotating machines, followed by water utilities and then smaller food and beverage and chemical factories. No growth in these sectors means no growth in the motor and motor control market. Growth will, however, be stimulated by the need to attend to our national utility shortfalls. Investment into these sectors will lead to growth stimulation.

Our businesses also have so much to offer to the rest of Africa, and specifically to sub-Saharan and West Africa. International plans for investment into this region should be targeted, enabling South African businesses to leverage growth locally.

Also, bear in mind that even growth poses some dangers. Indian and Asian companies are targeting our market and continent as they see the potential for growth here. We should watch out for this and do all we can to protect ourselves from a quiet yet aggressive takeover of future prosperity.

What are the key factors driving the global motor control market?

There is a continued migration from electromechanical to microprocessor-based control systems and requires a different type of technical support infrastructure. I expect more emphasis on the internet of things, the ability to monitor, setup and configure equipment from remote locations. We see a worldwide decline in core engineering skills, specifically in South Africa. These factors have caused most global manufacturers in our market to seek local partners worldwide.

What market trends are impacting growth in your sector?

The international commodity price collapse has hit us hard. This can lead to a serious recession. With mining and industry cutting back, electrical equipment suppliers must find new markets to survive.

What do you expect in terms of international commodity demand?

I expect no great recovery in 2017, but we’ll probably see small signs of recovery, some of which are already apparent. We hope for to see further positive recovery in 2018 and, by 2019, we should see normalisation, although not at the peaks of a few years ago. Geopolitical influences are the wild card here and you never know what curved balls will come at us from the Middle East, South East Asia and Europe in the next few years.

Does MCA serve on technical working groups?

I have worked on technical work groups in the past, but the opportunities to contribute are limited, being based in Nelspruit. I am, however, pushing for local government to establish a renewable energy work group to combine government initiatives with local technical know-how to develop a sustainable strategy.

How many people do you employ?

With a serious down-turn in the market since September 2015, we have resolved to retain skills and to continue to commit to personnel training and development. We are determined not to retrench, we are implementing a revised marketing strategy. To this end, we brought a number of contracted employees onto the permanent staff compliment in 2016. At present, our contingent is just under 150.

What will be your biggest challenge in 2017?

Finding new routes to market, breaking traditional ways of thinking and instilling customer awareness to every level in the organisation is an important goal for 2017 and probably sums up our biggest challenge.

Is the education system producing enough skilled people?

That the education system produces good qualifications but with little understanding, aptitude and feel for the industry. There seems to be very little exposure to the real-world application of the subjects they learn, and, often, no ability to apply what they have learnt.

The previous, effective apprenticeship, technician and pupil engineer schemes have been watered down and the emphasis seems to be on providing qualifications on paper, rather than real, applied skills.

Who is your business mentor/idol?

This is a tough question, but I have to single out Cecil John Rhodes, Dr. Ian McRae and, yes, President Donald Trump.

Although Rhodes is a controversial character today, he has been a prominent figure most of my life. Having attended colonial-style schools in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I believe I personally benefited from the vision he had for Africa, all be it under the British Empire. He rose from humble and sickly beginnings to probably the most influential man in the development, of southern Africa in near-modern times. He founded the De Beers diamond mines; was the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the founder of the British South Africa Company among so many others.

The Rhodes Scholarship was the first scholarship of its kind and has benefited an untold number of students for over a century. He is held in ill regard by liberal movements today, and perhaps rightly so, yet he was a visionary and an achiever who impacted every life in southern Africa today.

With 50 years of service to Eskom, Dr. McRae, its first CEO, set out to make it the world’s lowest-cost electricity producer. He was at the helm when Eskom developed the power stations and infrastructure that set South Africa up for mining and industrial success.

Although President Trump is controversial and hated by the media and liberalists alike, he is already a high achiever in his own right. I respect his direct and bold approach; he says what he thinks despite the media’s and I believe he will do what he says. He will work for the good of his nation. It is high time the Western world changed from an apologetic, reverse-gear and started to do what is right, not what is politically correct.

What abilities are most important when starting a business?

Timing, opportunities, good fortune and a whole lot of luck, together with a mix of clear vision, realistic goals, technical competence, financial astuteness, all tempered with a spot of humility, and a big dash of entrepreneurial flair. Those, plus a full dose of tenacity and, in my case, the unwavering support of my wife.

How did you get started in this industry?

I emigrated to South Africa from the then Rhodesia at the age of 17, having grown up in the years of the bush war and the transition to Zimbabwe in 1980. At the time, Robert Mugabe was already showing the first signs of things to come.

I started as an instrumentation apprentice at the former South African Pulp and Paper (Sappi) in 1984. Upon qualifying as an instrumentation mechanician, I enrolled in the Sappi Pupil Engineer Training Scheme, which led to my Government Certificate of Competency in Electrical Engineering in 1989. I worked as a project, section and Senior Engineer at Sappi’s Ngodwana Mill.

In 1998, I resigned to start Power Plant Electrical Technologies. The past 18 years has seen the company develop from a small consultancy to an integrated electrical engineering organisation.

What was your worst job ever?

I truly believe that it is a privilege to have a job and to earn an honest wage. So many people do not have the opportunity to enter the job market and we lose so much potential in this way. There is no bad job if you are unemployed and your family is hungry. So, regardless of what job you have, be thankful, be positive, work hard, set goals for your life and take your destiny into your own hands.

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