By Benjamin Brits
Anton Jansen recently took the decision to step down and take on a well deserved retirement at 81 years young. RACA Journal had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk to him about his career and business progress over his time in the industry.
The path of this gentleman was anything but easy and despite all of the complications, challenges, uphill battles and nay-sayers, he still managed to break through the clouds to stand tall atop the mountains and reach success he never thought possible – to the point where at time of publishing Luft Fans have expanded even further to occupy new and bigger premises of over 4 000m² to meet demand for their products and services.
Jansen started his story where his career began in 1976 – rightly pointing out that this was before I was even born. Having been working for a company that sold cable glands, he was offered the opportunity to open a branch in Durban for a Cape Town-based fan company. His boss at the time was a friend of a director of that company called Luftspares.
Jansen recalled that it was at his first meeting with the new fan company that he was given the best compliment of his life when one of the directors said ‘“Anton, what you don’t know about fans I can teach you, but the qualities that you have, the way you handle yourself, your honesty and enthusiasm means I can trust you.’ I didn’t understand the value of those words until years later when I had to employ my own people and then I knew exactly what those words signified,” Jansen said.
He and his wife naturally had to work through several changes on top of the fact that he was then selling a product that happened to be up against very big competitors in the ventilation industry.
“I knew nothing about fans and my first reaction was ‘I don’t think so’. My understanding of a fan was something you put on your desk that blows air into your face,” Jansen said. “I had no idea, but with some pictures and with some explanations I went out to go and sell (or try to sell) fans to the industry. I’m not talking about HVAC, I’m talking about industrial uses like workshops and factories – whoever would need one. That was a cold canvassing exercise – which I don’t think anyone enjoys actually – but it had to be done! The orders started to come in and as our product range grew, our fans were selling and the company was hitting new records.”
Learning for Jansen was not easy in those days as he mentioned things like a “telex machine” that he and his new boss used to transfer training and product knowledge over. In his day-to-day he further recalled going into people’s offices with a tape measure where he would measure dimensions and then work out using formulas for what the clients would need and then the costs and scope of work and so on. He admitted comically that when the the fax machine came out it definitely made things a little easier because one could see pictures and visualise plans and fan placements. The arrival of computers was nothing short of “revolutionary”.
Jansen never stopped putting his head down and working through all of his challenges which included some tough clients, tough engineers, challenging the status quo and supplying to some large projects – which were nerve-wracking to say the least. Small jobs turned into medium jobs and those in turn turned into several million rand orders – all while building good client relationships which Jansen continually reinforced.
The next miletone in this journey came when their factory was not able to meet the order demand because of larger volumes required with quick turnaround. His boss basically said outright that they could not meet the client’s request. Being persistent, Jansen thought to himself that perhaps he could fulfil the order by building the required fans in Durban after hours. He then engaged an engineering company to cut the cases and flanges and he went out to a local retailer and bought himself a simple cheap welding machine, got a couple of chunks of steel, some welding rods and taught himself how to weld. “My welding was obviously not the best when I started, but it improved with practice and I got that order out in time. My boss then agreed to let me do some of the overflow manufacturing and complete other similar orders. That turned into supplying several clients and soon the realisation of expanding the business. After that I was appointed to the board and offered shares sometime in the early 80s.”
Fastforwarding to the early 90s, Luft Industries underwent a name change and that was to their detriment as the company was well established in South Africa and Namibia and was speculatively the largest fans and ventilation supplier in several regions. The company subsequently changed ownership twice and their sub divisions were sold too. The Cape Town and Johannesburg branches were shut down but Durban remained.
Just as things started to look as though they were smoothing out, Jansen was yet again faced with more potholes in the journey as he was taken down a road where he had to give up his shares and directorship which in hindsight he noted was “somewhat of a blessing in disguise”.
During the next four years he started to experience his first trials of business and was subjected to several failed business transactions, payment issues, merger deals, takeovers and questionable management dealings and ethically poor decisions – both locally and via certain international partners. It was unfortunate that those trials at the end of the day almost landed him without employment.
Jansen’s offers of further employment then took several other turns but he landed up buying out the Durban branch and re-establishing it under Luft Industries Natal (to continue the well known name of the brand in the region) and he was afforded a six month period to pay off the loan that basically included vehicles and computers and the office contents, and so on. Again, as if things had not been rough enough to date, he was faced with further turmoil after settling the loan with more technicalities around distribution agreements and legalities following. Nevertheless, the commitment never ceased in turning Luft Fans into what it is today.
“It was no doubt a rocky road, but it was also a good journey. From when I started over on this business, with my partner Albert Caetano, and we were working, welding and grinding on the floors to building up stock, to my son joining the business to finding a new premises and subsequently expanding to take over the entire industrial park, and yet another move – the endless growth has just been unbelievable. We have had big contracts and made good friends, and the competition in the fan market has been good too. Our product range has always expanded to meet industry needs and broken down all the barriers when others were laughing their heads off with our strategies. Today, however, we are selling products from around the globe and we can comfortably state that Luft Fans is one of the largest fan suppliers in the region with over 80 staff members,” he added.
Jansen was also witness, over the years, to all of the technology changes and methodology of fans in all forms, including the developments in airflow, silencers and even what he considers the greatest fan-technology advancement – the adoption of electronically commutated (EC) fans that has changed the dynamics of the fan sector greatly.
In short, Jansen sums up his career simply, stating that success really comes from being honest, having the right staff and support, staying committed to your clients and also a little bit of luck.
Looking forward, Luft Fans has invested in multiple sets of new equipment and have now moved to new premises as their business has grown and will continue to service all aspects of the built environment that require the application of fans – from large industrial applications to the smallest extraction systems. Anton’s son Dean formally took over the business some years back, while Anton has continued to fulfil an advisory and support role and now has finally decided to heed the call of moving into retirement.