In the decade 1996–2006, Whittaker took his then-business, KwaZulu Natal Piling, from being a wannabe newcomer to one of the leading piling and geotechnical local businesses, to the point, he says, of being the company of choice by consultants and developers. Having been trained initially as a cost accountant, Whittaker joined his father’s construction business and — like his own business later on — worked his way from the bottom to the top, dirtying his hands every inch of the way.
The construction sector at that time was booming in the lead-up to the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup and the launch of the Gautrain, which was boosting the entire sector in its wake. He built the business to more than 200 employees, by which time it came to the notice of the larger players, where mergers among construction firms were all the rage ahead of a strong trend to list on the high-flying construction sector of the JSE’s Main Board.
The new owner, Sanyati Holdings, had an aggregate annual turnover of R2-billion, and Whittaker hit the big time. However, he wasn’t made for the corporate life. “I missed the interaction with staff and clients and in 2009 left the business, and for the next two-and-a-half years, I was involved in property development in Durban and Johannesburg. This enabled me to spend time at home with my kids, but my passion was always in geotechnical engineering and I missed it. I decided to start anew,” he says.
Yet, the piling sector is a specialised and highly collusive business, which Whittaker initially found tough to break into in the Johannesburg market. “I was an outsider in this region — even though I was born in Johannesburg — and it took a great deal of determination and hard work. Then in May 2012, Sanyati collapsed and went into liquidation, and I was able to buy back the plant and equipment and to employ the specialist staff I’d left in Durban and Johannesburg.”
He entered into a partnership with a friend and relocated the head office back to Durban, where the business soon recovered to its former glory. A year later, the partnership was dissolved and Whittaker, tired of the weekly commute between Johannesburg and Durban, decided to establish the business in Gauteng, named Mega Pile Inland. The culture was returned to the owner-managed family business he had been used to since working for his dad.
He is always pulled back to piling, he says, because once he had been blooded in this specialist field as opposed to building, he was smitten with the “incredibly technical and innovative nature of piling and lateral support”. One of the major challenges associated with piling is that “a lot of geotechnical investigations are not accurate”. There may be a suspicion of underground conditions, but it is only proven once works actually start. Works quotes, in consequence, are almost invariably qualified. “Ground conditions are extremely variable, particularly in Gauteng. Over the years, we have had to develop many of our own systems, installation techniques, and machines as our own IP. Today, we buy a lot of the equipment — only imported top of the range equipment manufactured by OEMs such as Bauer, Casagrande, Commaccio, Putzmeister, and Furukawa. This is a highly capital-intensive business.” This is a considerable barrier to entry, and Whittaker points out that in Cape Town, for instance, there are only two piling companies, “so future opportunities are open”.
“It is a profession not without challenges, primarily because mistakes on site carry severe financial penalties.”
Greg Whittaker, Mega Pile Inland
Skills are paramount in this business, and Whittaker considers himself fortunate to have been able to re-recruit the bulk of his skilled team following the demise of Sanyati. He also acquired scarce and skilled staff in October 2017 when a competitor, Duro Soletanche-Bachy, retrenched its staff upon its closure after 55 years. “It is not easy to acquire these skills. The big firms can afford to offer bursaries, but we concentrate on on-the-job training as far as possible. In fact, that is the best way to learn piling. We have in the past hired qualified engineers who have disappointed in practice, whereas others who have learnt on-the-job succeeded. I have mentored many employees into geotechnical engineers, and empower people based on performance rather than colour, creed, or theoretical qualifications,” says Whittaker. His own preference is to be on site as much as possible and to be hands-on with the firm’s marketing and client liaison.
It is a profession not without challenges, primarily because mistakes on site carry severe financial penalties. At Deloitte’s new office site in Waterfall City, such a mistake by the bulk earthworks contractor resulted in a portion of one of Mega Pile’s lateral support walls being literally blasted to smithereens. “It was a potential disaster, but I am proud of our response. We redesigned a remedial solution to reinstate the wall. We met the deadline by putting in immensely long hours and coming up with a highly innovative design.” This type of response he attributes to the firm having a sustainable structure resultant from flat management and a motivated team. “I am proud to say we have the best quality skills of any of our competitors — based on endorsements by many of our clients. We aim to innovate to dominate.”
The geotechnical sector in South Africa faces a tough future, explains Whittaker. There’s a pyramid of contractors, with the “rats and mice” at the bottom, a mid-sized tier, and the few mega companies occupying the tip. The big firms construct stadiums and big marine jobs like harbours. “These projects only come along once every eight years or more, so how do these firms carry their expensive cost base consisting of plant, equipment, and skills in the interim? I would never want to play in that space. In the mid category, you can either go down to smaller jobs or up to compete for the big projects. It creates much more flexibility for us.” He sees his firm growing in the future to re-establish its Durban office and open a new one in Cape Town — to take on those two local operators.