Celebrating its 65th anniversary last year, leading supplier Bearings International (BI) was also on track for another year of “significant growth,” says MD Bart Schoevaerts. He attributes the company’s upwards trajectory since the Covid-19 pandemic to maintaining close contact with its international partners and ensuring that stock levels remain intact despite the supply chain challenges.

During the same period BI restructured its business to focus more on its various business units, namely Bearings and Seals, Motors and Drives, Power Transmission and Allied products. “It has allowed us to improve our customer and employee experience,” notes Schoevaerts. The benefit of these changes already became apparent in 2021, with the impact accelerating further this year. BI has grown its network and now has 43 branches across South Africa, together with increased export business into Africa.

On the human resources front BI has also hired some specific skills and experience, together with an intake of interns and young graduates who continue to be promoted internally. “It has been wonderful to see all these people flourishing and thriving,” says Schoevaerts. BI also fosters inclusion by investing in diversity and equity. “We bring people together to find solutions and drive innovation in safe and welcoming environments where all feel valued and heard.”

Being part of the larger Hudaco Group has allowed BI to collaborate with its sister companies to deliver total solutions to key customers. For example, in 2020 BI became a channel partner for ABB electric motors and in 2022 was recognised as ABB’s best channel partner for the Middle East and Africa region.

“Our slogan is ‘Always there, making it work’. I believe that in these difficult times all our customers have been able to rely on us. Our people have really taken this motto to heart,” says Schoevaerts. BI’s 24/7 service offering has been instrumental in assisting customers with any breakdowns or after-hours requirements. “I think more and more partners are seeing BI not only as a reliable supplier of quality bearings but consider us as partner of choice for ancillary product lines like electric motors and drives, chain, belts and couplings.”

A major achievement for BI in 2022 was getting its online store up and running. “A new generation of engineers and buyers have arrived, while the pandemic has also significantly affected our day-to-day lives. Today’s B2B customers are very clear about what they want from suppliers: More channels, more convenience and a more personalised experience.”

Schoevaerts comments that this demands the correct mix of in-person interaction, remote contact via phone or video and e-commerce self-service across the purchasing journey. Adjusting to this new business dynamic has required B2B organisations to shift from ‘traditional’ and ‘internal’ sales to a ‘hybrid’ model to keep up with the times and be closer to customers.

Developing its e-commerce capability is testament to BI’s ongoing investment in innovation. “We are investing in the right technologies at the right time, along with a deep understanding of our customers and our own operations.” BI has also been proactive in terms of its sustainability initiatives, installing solar power at its Parkhaven head office in Johannesburg to mitigate the impact of ongoing loadshedding.

The South African market remains the biggest contributor to the business and exports are ramping up. While the pandemic brought with it a lot of travel restrictions that reduced opportunities to visit African customers, BI quickly adopted tools such as video conferencing and e-commerce. “This trend will not go away,” stresses Schoevaerts. On the contrary, it has brought many African customers within BI’s reach.

Although the distribution of goods into Africa remains challenging, Schoevaerts is confident that new solutions will come about quickly and that new partnerships will be created as a result. “Our expansion into Africa continues apace, but we believe that South Africa still offers a lot of room for growth.” This is due to the advent of new technologies such as e-mobility, offering opportunities not only in the passenger vehicle segment, but equally in yellow metal machinery at mines and construction sites.

“I also believe that we can further improve and strengthen our value proposition in some specific sectors,” notes Schoevaerts. This includes agriculture, with BI enjoying a strong presence at Grain SA’s NAMPO Harvest Day 2022 in Bothaville in the Free State and Bredasdorp in the Western Cape.

Apart from the successful addition of ABB electric motors in 2022, BI continues to launch new products and brands into the local market, including Cross Ocean from Japan and Masta Bearings from India. Prior to Covid-19 saw the launch of IMAK gearboxes, which are now finally gaining traction.

“Besides launching new products, we continuously bring new technologies to the market in conjunction with our partners,” says Schoevaerts. This includes the introduction of Schaeffler Lifetime Solutions in early 2023, a full suite of industrial maintenance products, services and solutions for the lifetime of a machine. Another new product on the cards is Saniline washdown ball bearing units from Cross Ocean, which BI is targeting at the food and beverage industry to provide the ultimate bearing solution for food safety.

Schoevaerts has been at the helm of BI for two-and-a-half years, having come onboard during the difficult Covid-19 period. “When I joined BI, it was with a clear mission to turn the business around. Personally, I set a target to double the business in three years and increase its profitability. After two years, I can proudly say we are well on track. We will certainly continue to expand our product and service offering, as well as our branch network locally and throughout Africa.”

He concludes: “We will continue to invest time and resources to develop authentic and highly capable leaders skilled at inspiring and encouraging all employees to achieve their full potential. Together we have navigated complex challenges, grown this company sustainably and launched new products that are better for the environment and our customers and delivered record revenue. We will continue to realise this growth by executing our strategy and delivering returns for our shareholders, employees and society.”