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RLS - African Lighting Solutions Provider.

Published by Asset Magazine   |   Interview by Tony Korsten   |   Written by Claire Cole   |   Randal photographed by Tony Korsten

RLS a Leading Innovator in the Lighting Industry on the African Continent.

Times of industry disruption can make or break companies. For Regent Lighting Solutions, disruption was seen as an opportunity to evolve and grow that had to be embraced. According to MD Randal Wahl, committing to a long-term vision which included changing with the times has enabled the company to carve out a strong position for itself in what is often a competitive market.

Regent Lighting Solutions has been in operation since 1989, so the company already has a long track record in the industry. The introduction of LED lights over the course of the past decade is something that he highlights as a significant disruptive force. “It completely changed the industry. Barriers to entry were removed, and many of the companies that didn’t embrace the change are no longer around,” he tells Asset.

For those who were willing to look at what they could do with this new technology, it actually opened up new markets and opportunities. “We decided about five years ago to invest heavily in good industrial designers and industrial design software, and from that we have been able to design new and innovative products,” he says. “We were able to enter markets that we hadn’t previously operated in, specifically interior lighting.” By staying on top of lighting trends both locally and overseas, and continually investing in the appropriate people and technologies, Regent Lighting Solutions has grown both its range of products and its business to the point where it is now one of the strongest competitors in the local market.

 

Investing for the long term

In a difficult and even risky business environment, it is sometimes difficult to know what course of action is best. Randal maintains that the company’s long term focus is what has made all the difference to where it is today. “Although one sometimes has to take a leap of faith, we are happy to make investment decisions for the long term,” he says. This investment has run contrary to market trends in recent years, but he believes that it has paid dividends already. Substantial upgrades have been made to the company’s facilities in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the team in KZN has now grown to the point where it needs bigger premises.

Another investment which – as it turns out – was very wisely made at the time, is that of Regent Lighting’s alternative power generation system. This includes a combination of a backup generator – which was purchased some 12 years ago, and which Randal says has saved the company countless lost hours of productivity. It also includes a newer 300kW solar photovoltaic power generation system, which was installed about four and a half years ago. He says that within 14 months from now, this system will have paid itself off. Between this and the backup generator, the business can continue running for days even if the municipal power supply fails.

Regent Lighting Solutions has also not shied away from recruiting both the right people for the job, and the best people it can find. “Our people are the key to our success,” he says. Modern lighting systems – especially those that need to integrate with building management systems – have far more electronic components today than they did ten years ago, and as a result, Regent Lighting has increasingly employed more electronics experts. “We have made sure that we recruit people with the right knowledge in this field, we work closely with our suppliers to understand how technology is evolving, and we build strong relationships which enable us to stay on top of changing industry trends and standards,” he says. This is critical for a company which wants to be at the forefront of technology, which Randal says is particularly important for Regent Lighting Solutions.

Technology has advanced so rapidly and offers so many exciting new options, that investing in it is both a necessity and a source of excitement. Regent has maintained a strong focus on staying equipped with design software that allows it to innovate in ways that competitors cannot always match. This ranges from 3D rendering software to sophisticated CAD software like Revit, as well as 3D printers which allow the design teams to model their designs extremely accurately, thereby boosting the R&D process substantially.

It’s all about good business

All of this comes back to good business strategy – not just in creating a competitive company, but in building barriers to entry which assure Regent Lighting Solutions of a strong position in the marketplace.

As much as innovation, new product development and exciting designs are an important part of growing the business, products need to be backed up by good service. In this respect, Randal says that the company has ensured there are backup and service teams in all the major offices, with experts who can address problems with products that have been installed for customers. Furthermore, regular work – or what he calls annuity income – is just as important as the big new contracts when it comes to keeping cash flow steady. “Retailers need to do regular upgrades or need their products to be serviced, for example, and that regular work is just as important to us as securing a contract for a major new shopping mall,” he notes.

With the market in South Africa having been somewhat depressed of late, and with certain African countries still showing signs of growth, Randal is clear that Regent Lighting Solutions wants to be in the rest of Africa, too. “Our biggest orders this year have come from outside SA – from projects we have done in countries like Rwanda, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia,” he says. These range from new corporate offices for multinational companies, to shopping malls.

Locally, some excellent opportunities have come out of the South African government’s investment into educational facilities. The Sol Plaatjie University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga are two of the largest in the past couple of years.

Keep learning and evolving

It is one thing to grow a business to the point where it is a leader in the market – and it is no insignificant thing, to be certain. Staying there, however, is another matter – especially in a market which is susceptible to big disruptions. Randal believes that there are a couple of keys to maintaining a leading position. “We take on a lot of specialised and custom work, which is wonderful for challenging us, for stimulating our designers to think creatively, and for letting us learn as a company. It can’t all be about chasing the bottom line,” he explains.

“Some of our new product development is done for specific projects, but we then take what we have learned in the process and turn that into new products.” Even lights that are designed as completely bespoke, once-off products can still be used effectively for marketing purposes – to show other customers what the company is capable of.

Returning to the importance of the company’s people, Randal points out that in addition to knowing what critical skills are needed, and recruiting appropriately, it is also important to have a good balance of experienced people and young people in the business. The older and more experienced staff can share their knowledge and expertise and mentor the youngsters. The younger people can bring their energy, enthusiasm and new ideas into an environment in which they are able to see them developed into something meaningful, with the right guidance. “They can also teach us a few things – it’s the youngsters in the office who have taught us all about what we need for our social media strategy,” he adds.

 

For creativity to flourish, making sure that people have the opportunities to learn and fail in an environment where failure is just a part of the longer road to success is important. But so is straightforward training, which Randal says is also done regularly. This is for everyone from sales staff to security guards – because, as he rightly points out, it isn’t just the training for the job at hand that is important, but it is what people can do with their knowledge of the company and its systems and processes that can be of real benefit. For example, one of the senior manager in the foundry started her career with Regent Lighting as a security guard, and has slowly grown into a more responsible role.

As for the future, Randal is clear about the vision for Regent Lighting Solutions. “We want to be an African lighting solutions company,” he says, with the focus mainly on the commercial market, and with the ability to service customers across the continent. All the investment in staff and facilities to date has been to lay the foundations to make that possible, and he believes that with an approach which balances innovation with good business, it is just a matter of perseverance.