Caroline rebuilds an 85-year-old family legacy
When she entered the world of pump engineering at the age of 30, largely by default, Caroline Houghton’s peers wagered that she wouldn’t last more than a fiscal quarter in the male-dominated industry.
“At my first South African Pump Manufacturers Association meeting, everyone assumed I was there to take minutes,” quips the Rapid Allweiler CEO.
Armed with a degree in food and nutrition and a fierce determination to rescue the business her grandfather had founded in 1932, Houghton’s first daunting challenges were a R13-million lawsuit and a nil-balance bank account.
Undeterred by her youth and lack of product and procedure knowledge, she plunged in with enthusiasm and has gone on to secure her place among the pump-manufacturing industry’s best.
Fourteen years down the line, Houghton continues to innovate within the pump-engineering and manufacturing business, but it has not been without challenges.
Without a mentor in place, she has had to learn everything firsthand. “I took our catalogue home and it became my bedtime reading,” she says. “I learned how to build a pump so I could understand what function each component performed. Every time I visited a different factory, I asked questions and learned to steal with my eyes,” she adds.
Having an inexperienced woman appointed as their new boss at first made for an unsure factory workforce, but Houghton had a plan. “I paid them a bonus for the first time in three years and that was them sorted,” she says.
Sales and administration staff were harder to please. “I had to prove to them that I was there to work with them and save their jobs. I always reminded them that they knew more about the business than I did and that I needed their help.”
The irony is that Houghton had never planned to take over from her grandfather. She was searching for someone capable of doing the job, but the company could ill afford a managing director’s salary, so she stepped in and lived off a basic wage for two years to revive the business.
It was only after an international company shareholder remarked on “the amazing job” she had done and suggested she step in as managing director that she considered permanently taking on the lead role.
Houghton credits passion for the work she does, and self-belief and getting on with the job as vital elements to her success. She is also grateful that her grandfather lived long enough to see her turn the company around.
“My dad died when I was 19, so it was my grandfather who stepped in and helped me and my mom. When I had to go in and save the business with a huge lawsuit pending and no money, I never stopped to think that I knew nothing about pumps, I just had to do it for him,” says Houghton.
Today, Rapid Allweiler draws on more than 220 years of combined local and international expertise to offer pumping solutions to meet a wide range of industry requirements. Thorough briefing and assessment by a dedicated sales team ensure that the correct pump is supplied for each specific application, which has kept warranty claims to a minimum.
Acknowledgement of Houghton’s contribution to the industry has come in the form of awards such as the Best Centrifugal Pump Manufacturer – South Africa and Most Influential Woman in Pump Engineering 2017 in the MEA Sub-Saharan Enterprise Awards 2017; Enterprising Women of the Year Award (2014); IWEC Award (2014) and a Stevie Award (2015).
This year, the company turns 85. Not only does Houghton head Rapid Allweiler, but she is also CEO of Quantum Foundry Group, which manufactures pump components.
Her advice to other women in her industry and comparable fields is to believe in themselves and to prove that they can do the job.
“As women, we have to work harder to prove ourselves and we do not fit into the boys’ clubs,” she says. The only reasons why a woman would not succeed in a male preserve are lack of self-belief and lack of effort, she adds. “We even threaten them a little with our sixth sense.
“It’s said that the first generation builds, the second spends and the third destroys. I consider myself the first generation as I had to rebuild from scratch.”
Houghton continues to be inspired by her grandfather’s passion for and commitment to a company founded on the principles of quality and service that has stood the test of time.