Personality profile: Jean Mearns

29 July 2020 News

Going back to the beginning

I retired this year after running the printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing company W.H. Circuit for 27 years, and looking back on things, I got into this business through sheer ignorance!

I was running training programmes for the Free Market Foundation where I was training employees about business principles. My background was teaching accountancy and economics so I really enjoyed my next move to the Free Market Foundation.

This whetted my appetite to own my own business. Subsequently I bought into W.H. Circuit at the beginning of 1993, which had been started by Willie Hanauer in 1990. At the time the company was operating in a derelict building which had to be demolished so my husband, Norman, and I bonded our house to purchase the factories which we operate from at the moment.

The business, in many ways, was a family affair, with Norman, a science teacher, running the chemistry at night while teaching during the day and Jonny, our son, running the electrical tester plus redesigning some of the electronics in our machines, while studying engineering at the University of Cape Town.

A new era

A low point was when Jonny emigrated to Sydney, but in stepped Ryan Pomario, a client of ours, claiming that he thought I was getting pretty old to run a business, (which was another low!!) hence the handover of the running of the business to Jeanine and Ryan Pomario from this year, while Norman and I will remain in the background.

Jeanine and Ryan will continue to take the business into the new role which it is playing very successfully as the ‘workshop’ for all our customers. We offer a turnkey solution, from design to manufacturing, housing and testing the final product. We have found that the key to our success in offering this service has been that we take out the everyday unproductive side of developing a product, which we have found that our clients prefer to outsource so they can spend their time where they can gain a better return on their energy spent.

Activism and achievements

During the apartheid era I was an active member of the Black Sash and this drove me to eventually take on the chairmanship of the MEIBC in the Western Cape. My hope was to transform the way in which we as South Africans thought about keeping jobs in South Africa and finally to get rid of this ‘them and us’ attitude. Finally I realised that it was a losing battle and not to take place in this era – the unions, I felt, were hell bent on carving a slice of the lucrative political cake for themselves with no understanding of what the underlying economic principles were that drove the economy of a country.

In 1996 I received the SBDC Sanlam ‘Entrepreneur of the Year Award’, in recognition of turning the company around, as it wasn’t doing very well initially. As a result of that, and partly because I was a woman in this male dominated field, I was invited to Denmark where they had a very progressive mindset. I worked at a factory in Denmark for about three weeks, and was invited to attend board meetings, where the trade union also had a seat at the table. The whole focus was around keeping the business in Denmark, and I wanted to bring this same focus – getting away from a ‘them and us’ attitude – back to South Africa as the chairman of the MEIBC. Ultimately this didn’t work out as I’d hoped because our trade unions do not see things the same way as their Danish counterparts do.

Think like a fox

Keeping a local PCB manufacturer going, when others have failed or simply resorted to importing boards from China, has been challenging. As Clem Sunter says, you have to think like a fox if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur – you have to be smart and strategise. So what we did was we remained small, with the emphasis on 24 to 72 hour delivery for prototypes, because that was out of the Chinese domain.

Fortunately we didn’t expand into doing long production runs, because to get a long line running just to process a couple of A4 sized panels is not feasible. We had the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) knocking on our doors to lend us money to expand, but we stuck to our guns and focused on what we were best at. Besides being a fox, I think you’ve also got to get lucky, and we were lucky in that we made the right decision not to go into long runs.

We now offer a turnkey service, from design right through to finished product, as well as taste jigs, etc.

Coping with the new normal

I think a good thing that’s come out of the COVID-19 lockdown is it’s given us time to reconnect and think and realise that things aren’t going to be the same. To give you an idea, in our factory we are working three days a week to minimise our employees’ exposure, and working from home the rest of the time, so we’ve set up people so they can do quotes, phoning, marketing, etc. from home. On those three days they work 12 hour shifts – when they come in all the jobs are already at their workstations and our production flies for three days.

We’ve all got to think out of the box. For June, July and August, we have said to everybody, no public transport, let’s arrange lift clubs amongst ourselves; let’s work at home for as long as we can; and let’s be open to working flexible hours. I think it’s also taught us that working remotely actually works really well. I mean, we’ve very quickly got up to speed. In fact, I think most of us have found that that we’re more productive.

Jean Mearns.

Closing thoughts

It is my hope that at some stage our government will gain some sort of understanding that no developed economy can survive without a well developed electronics industry. We have seen the result of Covid-19 when China came to a grinding halt. While this was good for us as we picked up many orders which would normally have gone to China, we desperately need our country, as a whole, to realise the detrimental effect of losing institutional memory, which is only gained through years of experience and cannot be learned overnight!

I feel extremely fortunate to have had the privilege to work with our team at W.H. Circuit, many of whom have been with the company for the past thirty years. As I have always said, “no one works for me, they only work with me, for without each other our team will fail to exceed the expectations of our customers.”


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