Training tells its own story


Patrick Gordon, incoming General Manager of CalAfrica, received a visit from Plumbing Africa in his second week at the office. After 19 years at Cobra, “I’m enjoying a new challenge again,” he says.

By Eamonn Ryan

Just three months before, Chris Kyle, then General Manager of CalAfrica had first called him to announce he would be retiring in four months, and would Gordon like his job? In fact, that role has been split into two – with Gordon, previously national training manager of Lixil Africa, taking over this position, and Jackie van der Merwe retaining the role of chief operating officer. Kyle says when thinking of a replacement, he could think of ‘nobody more suitable’.

Like so many eventual plumbing specialists, plumbing was the last thing on Gordon’s mind when he left school. In fact, his first job was in agriculture on the mechanical side, which was to stand him in good stead when finally he did enter the plumbing trade with Boumat (the forerunner of Plumblink, featured in this issue in a supplement) in 1985.

The seeds of his extensive career in technical and training were sown at this early point. He explains, “Being a newbie, I wasn’t yet allowed to talk about product or technical issues to customers, so I made it my policy that whenever a question came up I would make it my business to learn everything about that question so that I was able to explain it exactly – rather than just tell customers where to find that answer. I’ve always been very keen on gaining knowledge and understanding the ‘behind the scenes’ story; taking things apart and seeing what’s happening. One of my first exposures was with Mervyn Jordan, who at that time was running an organisation known as the National Institute of Sanitaryware and Plumbing, doing product knowledge training.

“I sPatrick Gordon, together with outgoing General Manager Chris Kyle. Image by Eamonn Ryanpent two months enrolled on learning all about plumbing products and their application – and that was really the beginning of my career. Today, when I do training I always try get students to get the proper background to the subject. Often the ending is less important than where it comes from, because that is what gives them the big picture of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how it all fits together. It tells its own story eventually.”

When the pursuit of knowledge becomes a career

Gordon adds that “accurate knowledge is the big thing in plumbing, and that’s why I’ve always enjoyed training.” Still a relative novice, training was his passion but not his function at this point. He made his way through H Incledon’s showroom, sales, learning about civil engineering and sales repping on the mines. That experience took him throughout the country and was rounded off with domestic plumbing and buying, ensuring he had a broad exposure to every aspect of the plumbing industry – which coincidentally was what he was coming to realise was necessary for a full understanding.

Eventually, he came back to Johannesburg and got the opportunity to join Cobra where, until his recent move, he remained for an astonishing 19 years. Again, he started at the bottom, in the service department, which gave added vigour to his learning. “I was fielding calls all day from people wanting technical information. Essentially, I was now in the position of the person that in my previous job I used to phone.” He may have started at the bottom, but he didn’t linger there; his boss resigned and within one year he was the service department head. A year later he was promoted again to Product Development. However, after three years there he was asked to return to the service department – this time nationally.

“It was while I was doing that job that I started developing a training programme for all my service technicians. At that time there was no training done at Cobra, and when regional managers saw what I was doing they requested that their service managers be allowed to sit in. From there it expanded to training all internal staff and even merchants. At that point, in 2006, the function had to be split and I took over just the training.”

By this time, what had started as a ‘just a job’ had become Gordon’s passion in life. The roots, he explains, had been evident as far back as his first job in farming but it hadn’t been allowed to flower until now. “In those early days, I was interested in knowledge – but I depended on others to give it to me and wasn’t yet the ‘source’ of it. I now had the opportunity to become that ‘source’, and I enjoyed that. By that I mean, I became the place where people would come to source information.” Practically speaking when, say, a mining client had a problem, he would come to Gordon to explain how to put all the products together to develop a solution that solved his plumbing problem.

“I was privileged to be part of Cobra’s Technical Department, where I had a like-minded colleague in Martin Coetzee (today retired, but part of Iopsa’s technical division) and we had a lot of fun breaking down new prototype products from R&D to see how they worked.”

Lixil and the Dawn Group took over Cobra two years ago, and Gordon’s position was clarified as Training and Category Manager, with training consuming 80% of his time and products the other 20%. “Now I was able to fully focus on the products.”

Taking training to the country

Gordon ultimately took his passion for training wider than Cobra, establishing with others a school training programme. He explains that it isn’t widely known, but plumbing is an available subject at school – not widely known nor enrolled in because there was no training material for the subject. “I was approached by a technical school in the Free State to give them our training materials, because they’d heard about what I’d developed. But I couldn’t do so because the materials alone are of no value without appropriate tuition. I took the teacher and trained him on the material up to a point where he was a qualified plumber (as well as a teacher).

“Between the two of us we developed an entire curriculum and this has now spread to about five or six schools, each of which are able to train a class in plumbing.”

He was also approached by Iopsa and GIZ (The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, a German development agency headquartered in Bonn and Eschborn that provides services in the field of international development cooperation) to help write the new plumbing curriculum for the NOCC (National Occupational Curriculum Content) A21. “It was great to be able to put all this information, which I’ve gathered through the years, into a strategy to formalise a national training programme for qualification as a plumber, which we achieved about a year and a half ago.” The programme is in its second year, with the ‘old’ and new curriculum running concurrently, as people had started before the new programme was released. Gordon describes the old curriculum as antiquated. The new curriculum brings in a lot of new plumbing technology and removed aspects that are seldom any longer done, such as sheet metal work.

“For instance, part of the current exam to become a plumber is that a trainee has to bend his own cone flashings and step flashings, whereas nobody does that anymore – you buy the manufactured item in a shop.

As one door closes, another opens

His tip for youngsters following in his footsteps is not to wait for others to give them knowledge or even opportunity, but to create the opportunity themselves. “Success stems from the effort you put in yourself, rather than waiting for somebody to come and feed you information or lead you to the waterhole. Personally, I always wanted that knowledge.” He gives the analogy of him buying a new car – when he buys it he takes the instruction manual and reads it cover to cover, “So that I understand this car from bumper to bumper.” In a similar vein, his first action on arriving at CalAfrica was to study its product catalogue cover to cover.

Another tip is to show respect to people, and he gives an anecdote of how he almost fell from grace in his early career for this reason. “When I first started at the old Boumat group my new boss was introduced to me as “Jack Jonker” and I proceeded to call him that. He took offence to that, saying I should have called him “Mr Jonker”. Although I apologised, the company was in the process of a retrenchment campaign, and because I had offended him, he retrenched me.

“However, I immediately went to another company where I put an emphasis on calling my new boss ‘Mnr Swanepoel’ but he, in turn, insisted upon a first name basis. So you have to understand who you’re dealing with and what they want, and address them appropriately. Whether a person wants to be called ‘Mr Engineer’, or whether it’s a humble plumber who does not want you to talk above his head, you have to talk on their individual level. What has contributed much to my success is that I never talk down to people but make sure I talk the same language as the audience.”

Another lesson from that anecdote, he says, is that as one door closes another opens. “I didn’t regret being retrenched at all, as it opened up a new career path for me. Things happen in life – don’t fixate on them, but rather use that energy to create something new.”

Other highlights of his career include being a regular radio presenter for a plumbing programme on Mix FM (the Midrand station), as well as a being a regular contributor to this publication. “We often don’t realise the impact we have on others people’s lives, but being in the public space like that brings a humbling acknowledgement of what impact one can achieve.

“When you realise that people are touched by what you do, it’s highly fulfilling to know you’ve actually achieved something, and that’s been the greatest highlight of my career to date,” says Gordon.

He says this as another door opens for him, “This [the CalAfrica job] is a much more focused challenge for me now, as I have to lead the team with what is a much more focused offering than the 3 000 to 4 000 line items we had at Cobra. They are more technical products that I can really get my teeth into, even though it’s a 10-person company compared to 1 300. It’s more hands on, with me getting involved in the assembly and manufacture.

“All the products at CalAfrica are more complex and technical, each with SANS approval. It’s a good quality product all imported from Italy – which is an additional reason I took this job,” he concludes.