South Africa in the early ‘80s was very different to today. Television was still a novelty, typewriters, telexes and adding machines were must-haves for businesses, and fishing on the Free State side of the Vaal River was illegal on Sundays. And then there was Apartheid. The future for a small black girl, even one from a relatively wealthy background, looked dismal. Judith Serafim was just four years old when her father died, but she was very lucky indeed that her mother was an extraordinarily strong woman.
“My Dad came from Mozambique to make a new life in the ‘60s with nothing to his name,” remembers Judith. “He started two businesses and did very well through the 1970s until he passed away. When he died my Mom carried on with the businesses – a mail order company retailing homeopathic medicines, and a franchised slimming clinic. In those days it was virtually unheard of for a black woman to be successful in business, but she did exceptionally well in taking over where my Dad left off so we were very comfortable financially, and we moved from the township to suburbia. With the growing violence and the political uproar of the late ‘80s she decided to send us – me, my older brother and our younger sister – to a Catholic boarding school in Ixopo. I believe that made all the difference in our lives, having a better life in terms of education.
My Mom was adamant that an education was the only thing that could give her kids a chance of making something of themselves in a wider world. To have this background – first moving out of the township and later going to a boarding school at a young age, it was remarkable. When I think back on those nuns, it was all about responsibility, discipline and structures. Everything worked according to a plan. I think that the Christian ethos that comes out of it moulds you into doing and understanding things better. It was hard. We cried every time we were dropped off there, but after some time when you look back you appreciate the lessons you learnt. We were incredibly fortunate.”
Being fortunate isn’t enough, though. You have to give your luck all the help you can, and after matriculating Judith studied for her finance qualification with the SA Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators and then followed up by achieving her Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) in Marketing Management through part time studying. “My first full-time employment was with a parastatal in KZN where I was exposed to the world of marketing,” she remembers. While juggling her time between her studies and her work Judith had a son, so she had to factor parenting into her career plan. “My son was with me the whole time,” she laughs. “I’d go to work, then pick him up from school afterwards and take him to my lectures at the marketing college. He’d sit in their canteen and do his homework. As he grew older, when he got bored he’d walk home and cook himself noodles while he waited for me to get home. To this day he can’t stand noodles – he had enough of them back then!”
Judith has never been a job-hopper using her status as a black woman to stalk larger salaries, more status and bigger perks. Her most recent position as Regional Manager (KZN and Gauteng) of Sasfin Commercial Solutions saw her actively involved in the administration of governmental incentives for industries over a period of twelve years. This often concerned the automotive industry, which garnered her loads of experience with the International Trade Administration Commission’s incentive programmes, the Automotive Production and Development Programme (APDP) and various other incentive and development schemes. “I like to do my job well and build relationships, networks and contacts, and carry on growing. For me job-hopping on BEE would not work. I’m a person who likes to cement myself, so people who see me realise my value, and I like to make a difference. People need to see who you really are.”
And then, of course, there was the dream. “I’ve always had this longing for entrepreneurship,” she says. “I knew what the next step for me would be – my own business. I wanted to leave a legacy for my children the same as my Mom and Dad did for me. It was just a matter of what it would be. I didn’t do this because I was unhappy at work – I wasn’t.” Judith spoke to various friends and business contacts in the automotive industry about her intention to go into business and did a lot of research over two or three years. “I had discussions with several companies whose people knew me from outside business and I soon had a few offers. I needed to do the right thing at the right time, and didn’t want a partnership just for the sake of it. I needed the same commonalities, the same values, and I eventually found exactly the right team to work with.”
Judith took up her post as MD of a new company Imvusa Interior Trim in January, which will focus on interior trim components. “I’m intimately involved with the business and we’re going to be fully up and running in a couple of months. We have our engineering staff on board already and I’m very fortunate to be working closely with such a skilled team from Toyota. I don’t have automotive manufacturing experience so this is all new to me, but my team does, and I’ve worked closely with the industry for years. I’ve read many business plans, studied automotive production processes, bills of materials, everything that goes with the business except actual manufacturing. Then there are my marketing and financial skills so we fit together perfectly. Toyota is being wonderful – they’re drilling us in terms of doing things the Toyota way, on quality assurance, on safety, and on personnel development and I’ve learnt so much it’s been incredible. One thing I need to say is that a lot of people talk about BEE and it just remains talk. But we’re going to do it and well, because Toyota is so supportive. They’ve been like a big brother holding my hand all the way.”
At the recent NAACAM (National Association of Automotive Component and Allied Manufacturers) convention in Durban speakers made a few points very clear. To comply with the APDP and the South African Automotive Masterplan to escalate car production from today’s 600,000 to 1.4 million by 2035, South African manufacturers need to find buyers for locally built cars and components in a rapidly expanding African marketplace. In terms of the APDP and masterplan, local content also has to be lifted from just under 40% to 60% over the next few years, and small and medium black-owned businesses must be brought into the supply chain to help the country succeed in transformation. Toyota’s strategy to support SAAM is clear and developing small Black Owned suppliers is a priority. The Interior Trim commodity is one in which there is room for another supplier to allow competition and increase the number of small black businesses. Toyota selected Judith and her company as an early Tier 1 supplier, and are doing everything they can to ensure that she and Imvusa are successful.