A staff engagement secret that should be distributed throughout SA

I had one of my more inspiring visits to Surf City on Friday. It came in through visiting the factory of a newly turned 50 year old Rajeev Pattundeen, who signs his emails “shoemaker”. He owns Palm Footwear, an old fashioned labour intensive factory housed in a large but unprepossessing building opposite the old Durban International airport.

Rajeev and his mentor, 70 year old retired Nedbank KZN head Henk Leenstra, decided that to celebrate the shoemaker’s birthday they’d hold an outsized business lunch for friends and associates. As most present were local entrepreneurs, they wanted a keynote speaker to talk about business without depressing everyone. It’s a thin field right now, so I got the call.

Judging by the questions, the assembled guests were happy enough with my “SA is a fat pitch” message. But it was I who left uplifted. Rajeev and his wife/business partner Kiran employ over 900 people in the kind of business we are told cannot compete with Asian mass producers. Yet they are flourishing, having driven imports right out of SA’s synthetic school shoe market.

Palm’s quality (six month guarantee) and price (under R100) is impressive. But what really inspired me was the way Rajeev is treated by the workers. I watched from the admin office as he walked the production line and was spontaneously greeted with loud cheers, hugs and selfies. Staff engagement of a kind I’ve never witnessed before during literally hundreds of factory visits. Palm’s secret sauce should be bottled. And distributed. Widely.