In many ways the culture of an organisation finds its roots from its founder and his unique perspectives and business beliefs. Wouter Engelbrecht, founder and CEO of NWE Consulting Engineers has a wealth of experience and is an entrepreneur at heart. He shares advice for young entrepreneurs, various challenges he has faced as a CEO and future plans for NWE.
1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Answer: I’d say an inventor. I was a born dreamer, ever since I could remember. I was always taking my toys and implements apart to see how they worked. I liked to dream of new inventions that I wanted to create. Growing up on a farm, there was always something that needed some mending or upgrading.
2. When did you know that you had the entrepreneur gene?
Answer: I was very business oriented when I started working as an engineer. I’d received a bursary at the South African Railways and within my first three months of working for the State I recognized that it was not where I was meant to be. I knew that I was an entrepreneur and wanted to be involved with various aspects of business. I was very interested in Property Development and I saw the beneficial relationship between the two fields. I was also dissatisfied with the low income for Engineers in those days.
Engineering design was exciting at first, but became uninteresting after the third or fourth time of doing a similar design. I needed more of a challenge and even considered changing my career entirely, but I spent some time further investigating my options and eventually concluded that it would be more gratifying to combine my engineering expertise with entrepreneurship. I decided to focus on gaining as much experience in my field and I was fortunate to gain a wealth of knowledge at the Railways. I then proceeded to make the gradual shift to a Consulting firm, and in the right time, to take the leap and start my own Consulting Engineering Practice.
3. How were you able to set your start-up business apart, in those very early days?
Answer: In those days the industry was very different. There was no such thing as a small consulting engineering practice. The market was dominated by the old, big practices that were, used to being on top. In 1989, I was 33 years old, and decided to start my own consulting engineering firm. I knew that it was a big risk I was taking. All my former classmates and colleagues who I invited to partner with, all gave me the same responses: “you’re crazy”, “you’re just never going to make it”, “the risk is just too big”!
I felt a great deal of pressure and was aware of my very limited budget. I remember having to tell my wife that if I didn’t get in enough business by the fourth month, I knew I’d have to close the business down. In those very early stages, I worked non-stop – from early hours of the morning until very late in the evenings. I did all the designs myself and in between the engineering work, I contacted potential clients and focussed on introducing myself and building relationships. The hard work paid off when I was simultaneously appointed on three different projects. I needed some help and from then on, the company grew and within just seven years, there were roughly 80 employees.
I think what made me stand out, was the immense effort I put into marketing my business and building close relationships with Clients. Most of my competitors were accustomed to being appointed to new projects through a letter in the mail, and I kind of messed up their whole system by going about my business differently.
4. What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Answer: Learn to focus, have faith and do your business plan very diligently. When the pressure is on, you can get easily confused and overwhelmed. You’ll need to go back to your initial concept and take it step by step. That said, you will also have to continuously re-evaluate your plan and make adjustments if necessary.
5. What surprised you most about the CEO role?
Answer: Initially the amount of pressure that you face daily was something to get used to. I had to change my mind-set and learn how to handle the stress and keep a level head.
6. What do you struggle with as a CEO?
Answer: Being an engineer and entrepreneur, taught me how to be innovative and customer-focused. I struggle to deal with the different mind-sets in the industry. I find it very challenging to understand that some Engineers are only focused on Engineering and that it is not clear to them that they also have to always work at generating new business opportunities.
7. What has changed about your management approach since you first became a CEO?
Answer: I had to learn how to delegate and trust others, but I realized early on that there are others who can perform a task just as well as yourself, if not better.
8. Did you have any career influences?
Answer: I didn’t really know any entrepreneurs, my Dad was a farmer and I spent many of my days growing up working on the farm and seeing first-hand how he managed the farm as a business. The farming industry also has multiple risks and I learned from my Dad’s example of managing that risk. I have worked very hard on the farm from early childhood, my father taught me what hard work and perseverance is. I highly respected him as a man of integrity.
9. What do you think your clients appreciate about your business style?
Answer: It is very important to me that your relationship with your clients should be absolutely sincere. Your client should see you as a partner and his trust in you must reach to the extent that he knows whatever you are doing for his project, you are doing as if you were handling your own project.
10. What makes you excited about the future of NWE
Answer: I think that the current market has many challenges and that has forced us years ago already to make the necessary adjustments and to venture into the African market. With all these long-term changes and ground work that we had to do, I feel like we have reached a place where those projects are being implemented and we have greater control and the essential resources to manage our future.
I can also see all the hard work coming together now. Since my first dreams of being a Developer and Entrepreneur, as the extent of our work is reaching a higher level and that again gives me the opportunity to get involved in new opportunities in other industries.
The way that technology has also dramatically evolved in our industry, where it allows us to use the same principles as we did in the old days, but to apply them with more accurately and cost-effectively, and has made the world a smaller place that we now can easily operate as a global player. That kind of thinking opens up major opportunities and should encourage us not to feel negative about challenges we face in South Africa. We as Engineers are the ones who are capable of fixing many of those issues. One must simply adjust your business plan to enable you freedom to live wherever you choose, without affecting the success of your business. And I still choose to stay here.
Takeaway #1: Hard-work, perseverance and having faith pays off when you keep your focus.
Takeaway #2: Put the same kind of care and effort into your clients’ projects as you would your own.
Takeaway #3: Make your business plan flexible, so you have the freedom of a global player.
If you have any questions for Wouter, please feel free to comment below.