01 September 2021

Island Board – a family-built business

Island Board is a successful Soshanguve business with roots stretching back almost 30 years. Founded by Joseph Sithole, the business has grown over three decades to become a trusted name in the community. Joseph’s son, Belson, has been working in the business in some way or another since he was a teenager (when he used to help out on weekends to make pocket money). With a business degree under his belt, is now helping his father to run and grow the business. In 2021, Island Board opened its first showroom, which has proven a resounding success. 

Where it all began

Joseph started out as a tiler in the 1980s and would find jobs through adverts placed in The Star newspaper’s classifieds section and flyers that he would hand out at places like CTM and Union Tiles. He ran a team of 12 workers and they would travel to wherever the work was. But managing such a big group with only his car for transport was tricky, and Joseph eventually decided to rather join his brother’s small furniture business.

His brother showed him the ropes and he learned to make wardrobes and chest of drawers units. They would then sell their wares at local pawn shops for a small profit margin. Joseph believed there was more money to be made in selling the raw materials and so he began chatting to the board suppliers. He built relationships with the people at Board Master, Board City and A & D Bargain Boards, among others, and began to buy boards from them, taking the products into Orlando, Soweto, and selling them locally.

Eventually, he decided to set up his own small shop, and so the idea for Island Board was born. He chatted to a friend about how to register a company, and got in touch with the friend’s accountant to do so. With his paperwork complete, he set up marketing his business, using pamphlets and his natural sales skills.

Soon, his business was pulling in local customers, but he also found that competition was on the rise. He decided to move his business to Soshanguve and began looking for a premises there.

Even as he and his team were moving their boards in, people were already asking for pricing. Joseph smartly waited to assess what his competitors were charging before deciding on pricing. He was also able to cut boards to size – something that nobody else in the vicinity was doing at the time. 

He quickly built up the business by meeting customers’ needs, giving free advice and providing reliable service and much-needed products in the community.

He was able to buy his first CNC machine, second-hand, as well as an edge-bander, which gave him an additional competitive advantage. He opted for a pricey Italian edge-banding machine, but he says that although it was a big investment, he could justify it because it did perfect edging – much better than the other machine he’d been working with.

Always looking for ways to improve his efficiency, he hired someone to run the edge-bander, and then began investigating the possibility of fetching boards directly from suppliers instead of having to wait for a delivery slot.

“The people of Soshanguve also helped us a lot,” he remembers. “Some of our customers have been with us since the very beginning. Good carpenters will defend us and our work if anything ever goes wrong to protect us because they love working with us. We were the first to open a cutting and edging shop in that area and people appreciated that.”

Growing and modernising the business

As Island Board grew, Joseph had to find more space. From one rental unit, he moved to two, then three and eventually seven, effectively taking over a large portion of the building.

He got a landline to boost the business’s professionalism and then a speed-point, which allowed him to process card transactions instead of working only with cash.

At this stage, Belson was still in school and would help his father with handing out pamphlets, as well as travelling with him to visit suppliers or run business errands. He showed an interest in the business, and so Joseph would teach him about how things worked.

When he was in Grade 12, his dad bought additional machinery and Belson learned to work the new CNC machine, which he would do on weekends and in his school holidays for extra cash. 

When he finished school, his dad asked him what he wanted to study at university – he was ready to fund any degree of Belson’s choice. Belson didn’t hesitate. He knew he wanted to study business.

As he studied, he got more involved in Island Board, wanting to put what he was learning into practice, and understand aspects of the business he hadn’t previously.

In 2017, Belson joined the business full-time. He would again accompany Joseph to meet suppliers, but this time to build business relationships with them. As he got to know and understand the business from inside, he found ways that they could improve on customer service – which had always been the cornerstone of Island Board – and his role naturally evolved into customer service management.

He then convinced Joseph it was time to move from manual quotations to a computerised system. He spent time chatting to Zunaid Modan at Board City in Lenasia, who helped him to understand the software solutions available. 

Island Board rolled out the new quotation system in the business, with Belson in charge of doing the quotes initially, until he found someone – his first hire – to take over. 

Together, Joseph and Belson looked at how they could continue to improve the cutting and edging side of the business, grow inventory, better assist with customer enquiries and minimise any loss.

“I’ve learnt as much from working with my dad as I did in business school,” says Belson. He would also attend expos and industry functions, following trends and keeping track of new developments in hardware.

Showing what’s possible

In 2017, Island Board had been approached by one of its customers to create a “mini showroom”. Based on the success of this, and with encouragement from PG Bison’s Enterprise Development Manager Thabile Dikobe, who firmly believes that homeowners need to see products in application to understand their options, the company decided to invest in a full showroom in 2021.

“It was very costly, time consuming and labour intensive, as it meant restructuring our entire space, but building this showroom basically means the product can sell itself,” says Belson. “It’s allowing us to compete with bigger companies and we see it as a stepping stone to even more growth.”

Belson admits he was a bit nervous, given the funds required, but says that the feedback has been very good so far and one customer even said Island Board had “brought Sandton to Soshanguve”. 

“Now people can see the difference between SupaGloss and SupaMatt and they can see designs they haven’t seen before,” he says. “Sometimes, they come in with the carpenter to see designs; sit down and they change their whole plan!”

Thabile says that she’s thrilled to see the finished Island Board showroom, which plays an important educational role in the community and provides a point of reference for local carpenters. “It also shows that Island Board can compete with any other business,” she says. “With this showroom, they are igniting interest and creativity, showing people what is available to them.”

Secrets to success

Island Board has not only become a sustainable and successful family business and a testimony to perseverance, but also a valuable contributor to the local Soshanguve economy, creating jobs and helping people to build homes and businesses.

Joseph attributes his and his family’s success to hard work, honesty and God’s grace. “I want us to be able to call every customer ‘Mr Comeback’,” he says. “We always say that the customer is right because it’s not just today we are thinking about. Without the customer, we are nothing. So, I say the customer is my boss.”

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