Operations director at EIE Group, Chantell Malherbe, explores women’s advancement, her journey in the largely male-dominated industry of heavy industrial equipment and how the COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed how the business operates.

Malherbe, who has worked in the heavy industrial equipment industry for 11 years, believes women need to be consistent and remain true to themselves when operating in the business world, whether male-dominated or not.

Operations director at EIE Group Chantell Malherbe

“While the business world can be daunting at times, women should not lose themselves by trying to be someone they think others expect them to be. They are where they are because they have earned their place at the table and deserve to be there. All they need to do is continue learning and challenging themselves,” she says.

Malherbe first discovered she had passion for diverse and challenging work when she worked in the large format printing business 10 years ago. “The company won the hospitality contract for the 2010 World Cup, which resulted in the entire business shifting its focus to hospitality and the manufacturing of assembled furniture - similar to Ikea.”

She quickly progressed from design into project management, tasked with putting together an implementation team to address the needs of the various stadiums. The five-year project, which commenced with the Confederation Cup as a trial run, was exhilarating for Malherbe. 

“I’d found my niche, working in the industrial space and liaising with blue collar workers, corporate directors and the Match hospitality team in Germany. I liked the diversity and the change in the pace, as well as the pressure. To be honest, I get a bit bored when things get too normal,” she says.

When the project ended, Malherbe was approached by Barloworld, where she was faced with entirely new set of challenges.

Not daunted, she realised that if she was capable of managing a five-year project in furniture, a field she had no experience in, then she was sure she could operate just as effectively in the industrial equipment space.

“I have never shied away from male-dominated industries. Maybe being a woman in a family of men has played a role in this. I spent six years at Barloworld as national key accounts manager, looking after their blue-chip customers, before joining Toyota Industrial Equipment (part of the EIE Group) to start a similar division,” she explains.

After successfully setting up and managing the new division, Malherbe was appointed Aftermarket manager. A year later, she was appointed to the position of General Manager Aftermarket, which included the running of the parts division for the business. Earlier this year, she was appointed operations director, which accounts for 65% of the company’s revenue.

One of the most challenging aspects of her role relates to people management. “We have a diverse workforce and I need to make sure the way forward – our strategic goals and visions - get buy-in from the entire team. I like to explore different concepts and brainstorm them with the various teams.

Malherbe has also set herself the task of making the industry more accessible, sexy even. “Because the industry can come across as somewhat cold and impersonal, a big focus for me is empowering the team and giving people a voice. Team dynamics are extremely important and where all the clever ideas reside. One of my role’s is to continuously motivate team members and unearth those ideas, using an open-door management style underpinned by humility and empathy.”

She notes that the industry has evolved significantly over the past 10 years to embrace new ways of doing things. “Last year, a few colleagues and I travelled to Australia to investigate how the local industry grew its market share so dramatically and quickly.”

From the outset, it was clear that the structure of the Australian operations was different. The reporting lines and segregation of duties were clear. Based on this understanding, EIE Group decided to restructure its operations, with a key focus on training and development.

In June last year, the business invested significantly in developing a training academy to nurture its own talent, with the emphasis on soft skills, technical training and sales development.

On the impact of Covid-19 on the business, Malherbe says most of EIE Group’s customers operate in the essential services industries. “Since the start of the lockdown, we only witnessed a drop of 20% in work demand. This means 80% of our technicians have been out there, taking care of the machinery.

“What has changed is the awareness amongst our technical teams with regards to working safer and following safe operating procedures. In the past, they took those little things for granted, but I’ve noticed a massive shift in their attention to the health and hygiene aspect of what they do,” adds Malherbe.

She says the greatest adjustment in the business related to administrative employees. “We had three days to get everyone working remotely. About 90% these employees are now self-sufficient and working at home without any major issues. We expect them to continue working in this way and have begun transforming our business to embrace the ‘hot desk’ concept whereby they can book a desk when they need to come into the office.”

COVID-19 has also seen the business improve its communication game meaningfully. “I think communication was one of our weaker points, but during the COVID-19 lockdown, we have engaged in an effective daily communication plan, which has impacted the business positively.”

Malherbe says women make up 40% of the management team at EIE Group. “Our CEO, Gary Neubert, encourages women’s development. He supports, guides, empowers and coaches us. We are fortunate to have a leader who is so open minded, empowering and willing to share everything he knows with us.

“The biggest challenge for women in the industry is winning over the technicians, who can be quite set in their ways. What is wonderful though is the number of female apprentices coming into the business. Last year, our top technician countrywide was a woman, and our top apprentice was a woman. What it boils down to is their attention to detail, their ability to take their time on a job and their methodical approach.

“Whether they are in the managerial or administrative space, or operate as technicians, I think these are traits our women bring to every role they are in. They also bring a nice dynamic into technician space – a more communicative and empathetic side that softens the hard edges of this industry.”

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