Electric dreams

The South African electrical specialist Penbro Kelnick has worked on some of the continents largest construction projects and is showing its big-name clients that quality remains king in times of financial hardship.

Penbro Kelnick is one of South Africa’s energy systems and power distribution installation industry’s leading lights, and is showing its competitors how putting focus on product quality and employee satisfaction can pay off handsomely.

The firm, whose interesting name derives from an amalgamation of the names of its two founders Penchard and Hutton-Brown, began life building short-wave converters for AM radio receivers.

When Penchard resigned from Penbro to start his own radio production company, Hutton-Brown transformed the company into a manufacturer of transformers, wire-wound resistors and coils for contractors.

Originally named Penbro Convertors when the company was founded in 1949, it was renamed in 1980 due to its partnership with Kelnick Development.

With its broad and versatile range of products, which includes transformers and resistors, the company has grown to become one of the region’s leading electronics specialists.

We started with only five people and now we have 120, says Penbro Kelnick Managing Director Herman van Aarde. The market has changed quite a bit. We try and manufacture all the old stuff. We’re one of the very few companies that still manufacture the stuff we did 30 years ago.

Throughout its long history Penbro has embraced change and through its vast experience has manufactured a diverse array of products such as electro-mechanical phase-sequence relays. Penbro has also built a winding machine for the manufacturing of edge-wind resistors in railway locomotives.

The company is committed to staying true to an original formula that has worked for it for many years, and through the quality craftsmanship of its products has ensured a large degree of repeat custom.

Born in Germany, Van Aarde moved to South Africa in 1948 and joined Penbro in 1964, and has since played a big role in the growth and performance of the company.

Van Aarde won the approval of the local community by creating a large number of jobs through his decision to employ people rather than utilising man-made machinery.

Product quality assured

Penbro has provided its services to construction projects and power systems upgrades including railways, hospitals, stadiums including some of the stadia at last year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the telecoms sector.

The South African company also has a metal fabricating department that is able to construct distributor cabinets.

But it prides itself on the quality of the design and manufacture of each of its products. Quality is of the highest significance to Penbro and when it designs a product it makes sure to implement reliable components.

It is committed to an intense programme of research and development in each of its products, often working with its customers in the design and implementation of its products to ensure efficiency and reliability.

Its most popular products include power resistors, which are used in applications such as heaters, crane control systems, dynamic braking of AC variable frequency drives, electric motors, load testing of energy sources, neutral grounding of AC transformers/generators and harmonic filters.

Penbro manufactures three main resistors, including wire-wound resistors, oval and round edge wound resistors, and continuous ribbon resistors, and is the sole distributor of back-up power systems for two French companies.

The electrical specialist also manufactures standard load banks, used for applications such as battery integrity testing and equalisation, dynamic braking of AC variable frequency drives, crane and elevator control systems, electric motors and load testing of AC and DC energy sources.

The company services equipment throughout Africa and provides training for local communities.

We service equipment in Malawi and Tanzania and provide service on a contract basis. We do training for local people and are a support basis for them, says van Aarde.

Penbro is looking to expand throughout the wider African continent and has aims of establishing another branch outside of the continent in order to spread its products and farther afield.

Structurally sound, philosophically pure

Penbro consists of seven different departments, all of which are interconnected. Employees are given access to the managing director and many employees have been at the firm for an average of 15 years, thereby demonstrating Penbro’s commitment to its employees and the close working relationship it has with its workers.

One of the reasons why Penbro stands out from its competitors is that everything we sell is manufactured in house, remarks van Aarde. We have a strong design and we are one of the only companies that make certain products, so we are one of the only companies who make some products in South Africa.

The company prides itself on its reliable workmanship and product, even when faced with recession or a downturn in the economy. Despite the effects of the global economic crisis the company has avoided making major layoffs while ensuring that the quality of its products remains at the highest possible level.

Other companies try to cut down on cost; we avoid that by doing more service. What will happen is that we’ll take over complete service contracts, says van Aarde.

Penbro has undergone a lot of transformations since its formation many years ago, but the company’s commitment to excellent customer service and quality-assured products has remained intact.

The company is committed to quality craftsmanship and hiring ethically, and many of its employees are also co-owners of Penbro. In many cases the company has even lent a hand to the lives of its workers by assisting them in building their own houses.

This type of commitment to its employees has led the company to receive a level four BEE (Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Certificate) contributors score.

Having worked as a supplier and installer to a number of large projects, including Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium and Port Elizabeth Stadium, and having been commissioned by a large number of big-name clients such as the Bank of Tanzania, Penbro is emerging from the recession with its strong reputation in South Africa and abroad intact, and is no doubt looking forward to an electric future.