YOUNG, BOLD AND am­bi­tious

Ri­asha Pil­lay started out in the fam­ily busi­ness, now she’s run­ning it and push­ing ink to the limit, writes Nicki Gules

CityPress - - Business -

Ri­asha Pil­lay started work­ing at Unistar Inks seven years ago as her fa­ther’s per­sonal as­sis­tant. To­day, her dad works for her.

The 28-year-old now owns a 51% stake in the fam­ily busi­ness and her fa­ther, Das­son, de­lights in call­ing her “boss” – es­pe­cially when her grand­par­ents are in earshot.

It was a R22 mil­lion loan from the In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (IDC) – which she ap­plied for as part of the Gro-e Youth Scheme for young busi­ness own­ers – that cat­a­pulted Pil­lay’s com­pany from be­ing a small en­ter­prise to be­com­ing a big busi­ness. From 20-some­thing em­ploy­ees two years ago, the com­pany now has more than 50 – and its turnover has dou­bled.

Pil­lay’s busi­ness was founded by her fa­ther in 2004 af­ter he spot­ted a gap in the print­ing ink mar­ket, which was dom­i­nated by Euro­pean im­ports. Unistar be­gan man­u­fac­tur­ing print­ing inks for food pack­ag­ing and it now prints pack­ages for house­hold names

– bread bags for Al­bany and chip pack­ets for Simba.

Pil­lay had not planned to join the fam­ily busi­ness. Armed with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in busi­ness science from the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town in 2011, she’d been ac­cepted into the grad­u­ate re­cruit­ment pro­gramme at SA Brew­eries. But she went home to Dur­ban and started help­ing her dad out dur­ing her hol­i­day be­cause she “can­not sit still”.

“I started im­ple­ment­ing new poli­cies and I re­alised what a change I’d made and how much he needed me. I was more his PA than any­thing else when I first started. But the busi­ness grew and I saw gaps,” she says.

How­ever, it wasn’t all plain sail­ing.

“It’s not the fact that I came in as a young woman that ruf­fled so many feath­ers, it’s be­cause I im­ple­mented so many changes,” she says.

“The busi­ness had been run­ning for eight years be­fore I started, and some thought: ‘You know, we were prof­itable be­fore she came in, what is she try­ing to do? What is she try­ing to achieve? Is she just show­ing off?’”

Pil­lay in­sists that she was no dif­fer­ent from any other em­ployee, grow­ing from the fa­ther’s PA to as­sis­tant lab tech­ni­cian, to a gen­eral man­ager and then to the pro­duc­tion man­ager of the com­pany’s en­tire Dur­ban plant.

But gain­ing recog­ni­tion and re­spect was far more dif­fi­cult out­side of the busi­ness than within. As the first young black woman busi­ness owner in ink man­u­fac­tur­ing in the coun­try, it was hard to make her mark in an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by older white men.

“I was con­stantly un­der­mined and left out of in­dus­try gath­er­ings be­cause they didn’t take me se­ri­ously,” she says, adding that this drove her to com­plete her mas­ter’s de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Also, join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness, there was a stigma, like I was a ben­e­fi­ciary of nepo­tism. It was like: ‘She got to where she is to­day be­cause of her dad.’

“No. My dad got to where he is to­day be­cause of me. This busi­ness got to where it is to­day be­cause of the sac­ri­fices that we both made.”

But she won in the end.

“All those men re­spect me to­day – af­ter they got to know me and got to lis­ten to me, they re­alised I’m not an air­head.”

Go­ing green

It is per­haps be­cause she had such a tough time as a young busi­ness owner that Pil­lay is now giv­ing young peo­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties in her busi­ness, and em­ploy­ing their skills and cre­ativ­ity to drive it for­ward.

In 2014, Unistar Inks em­barked on a mas­sive sus­tain­abil­ity drive and launched its wa­ter-based inks in 2015. It worked with the likes of Val­pré on the com­pany’s green bot­tle and with Kim­berly-Clark to make its pack­ag­ing more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

“We soon re­alised we needed more money. We were self-funded all along, and that’s when we ap­proached the IDC,” she says.

Peo­ple who are 35 or younger at the time of ap­pli­ca­tion can qual­ify for pref­er­en­tial in­ter­est rates through the IDC’s Gro-e Youth Scheme, and they need to have a ma­jor­ity stake in a com­pany.

Pil­lay took over the com­mer­cial and pro­duc­tion side of the busi­ness, which gave her fa­ther more time to fol­low his pas­sion for tech­nol­ogy and re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

She ap­plied for the loan two years ago.

“It was daunt­ing for me, like any fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tion, but it also taught me about my own busi­ness, which was great. You re­ally get into the fine print, and you don’t re­alise a lot of the lo­gis­tics un­til you have to re­peat it to some­body else,” she says.

The IDC fund­ing was used to ex­pand Unistar’s prod­uct line, and to pro­duce a new green print­ing tech­nol­ogy called ul­tra­vi­o­let cur­able inks. They also used the money to ex­pand, open­ing a new op­er­a­tion in Jo­han­nes­burg. The plan is to ex­pand to Cape Town next year to give the com­pany a truly na­tional foot­print. Go­ing green was an ob­vi­ous step for Pil­lay. “Green tech­nol­ogy is slightly more ex­pen­sive, but if you look at the way things are go­ing and you look at the new taxes be­ing im­posed through­out the world, es­pe­cially for in­dus­tries in terms of car­bon emis­sions, be­ing an in­dus­tri­al­ist means you have to look at the big­ger pic­ture,” she says.

No green inks are man­u­fac­tured in South Africa – most of the lo­cal inks are sol­vent-based – and the green tech­nol­ogy is Unistar’s “com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage”.

Young peo­ple driv­ing so­lu­tions

The en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly inks aren’t Unistar’s only in­no­va­tion. The com­pany is look­ing to com­mer­cialise new con­duc­tive inks in the next year. These inks, which are able to con­duct elec­tric­ity, can – in the­ory for now

– be ap­plied to any­thing, from solv­ing re­tail stock man­age­ment prob­lems to mea­sur­ing the tem­per­a­ture of food when the ink is used for print­ing on con­tain­ers.

Print­ing cir­cuitry for use in elec­tronic de­vices such as cell­phones is also some­thing the com­pany is work­ing on.

“The ink is made out of sil­ver ni­trate and has con­ductible prop­er­ties – that’s one of my fa­ther’s proud in­ven­tions. He worked with over­seas ex­perts, in­clud­ing from Toronto in Canada and a pro­fes­sor from a uni­ver­sity in Lon­don,” she says.

“You have mas­ter­minds who cre­ate these tech­nolo­gies, but they don’t have ex­pe­ri­ence in the print­ing side of it, which we have, and we also have ex­pe­ri­ence in the ink side of things.

“We are tak­ing ink to the limit and break­ing bar­ri­ers in terms of what inks can be used for.”

To help de­velop the new tech­nol­ogy, Pil­lay has hired seven in­terns – mostly young black woman chem­i­cal and elec­tri­cal engi­neers who have re­cently grad­u­ated and come from dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties.

“They are ac­tu­ally our jew­els and are tak­ing the busi­ness to the next level be­cause they are in­no­vat­ing with my fa­ther,” she says.

“We are look­ing at com­mer­cial­is­ing the con­duc­tive inks in the next year, and we are work­ing with com­pa­nies such as LG and it’s ex­cit­ing. Although we have our bread and but­ter – like our Tas­tic rice brand bags – this is how we are dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing our­selves. This is where the busi­ness is go­ing. We are go­ing to be the first peo­ple who can print us­ing con­duc­tive inks in the world.

“We are also look­ing at smart pack­ag­ing and how we can use con­duc­tive ink to re­veal the tem­per­a­ture of your milk, and to help prevent food waste.”

The re­cent out­cry over coun­ter­feit foods sold in spaza shops in Gaut­eng prompted Pil­lay to re­search how wide­spread the prob­lem was.

“I started read­ing about how bad things are in the rest of Africa and the num­ber of peo­ple it is af­fect­ing is scary,” she says.

“So I am go­ing to Tiger Brands, a com­pany we al­ready work with, to look at print­ing translu­cent ink on pack­ag­ing so a cus­tomer can tell whether the goods are coun­ter­feit,” she says, adding that the translu­cent ink would prove au­then­tic­ity in a sim­i­lar way that wa­ter­marks prove bank notes are real.

Pil­lay’s youth drive is hav­ing a tremen­dous ef­fect on the com­pany, she says.

“The tal­ent that they have is in­cred­i­ble. They have this pas­sion to cre­ate new tech­nolo­gies and make some­thing of them­selves.

“It is some­thing that has changed the way I op­er­ate and changed the way I run this busi­ness be­cause I am able to see how much pas­sion they have.”

With the new tech­nol­ogy Unistar Inks has launched with the help of the IDC loan, Pil­lay has en­sured that the young engi­neers in­volved in its de­vel­op­ment get to see the process through to the end.

“They have trav­elled to Lon­don with my dad, and he’s taken them to visit all the stake­hold­ers. I have taken them to cus­tomers and they are part of the pro­duc­tion of this prod­uct. For them, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily about the com­mer­cial gain, but the re­al­i­sa­tion that they have cre­ated some­thing; that they’ve done it,” she says.

While hir­ing the tal­ent is one thing, get­ting a shy en­gi­neer to speak up at a meet­ing is an­other, so the com­pany has in­vested in train­ing pro­grammes for staff in ev­ery­thing from fi­nance to pro­duc­tion man­age­ment.

“We make them know that they are valu­able and that we are go­ing to grow them. We aren’t here just to ex­tract their ideas and cre­ate ro­bots out of our em­ploy­ees,” she says.

“We re­alise we are noth­ing with­out our staff and our stake­hold­ers, and the IDC is one of them. We wouldn’t be where we are to­day with­out them.”

We are also look­ing at smart pack­ag­ing and how we can use con­duc­tive ink to re­veal the tem­per­a­ture of your milk, and to help prevent food waste

PHOTO: ELIZ­A­BETH SEJAKE

CHANG­ING THE WORLD Ri­asha Pil­lay is driv­ing the pack­age print­ing in­dus­try in SA one gi­ant leap at a time

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