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“I’m going to miss it, but one must move on!”

Chris Kyle, outgoing General Manager of CalAfrica, looks back at a lifetime in the plumbing industry before his retirement. He is an icon of the industry who has not just worked for companies, but been deeply involved in the professional development of the industry itself.

By Eamonn Ryan

Chris Kyle as a flying instructor. Image credit: Chris KyleKyle was one of the first contributors to Plumbing Africa, writing thought-provoking technical articles ever since its early days in 1998, when the magazine was a four-page newsletter, and says he will continue to contribute to Plumbing Africa – as well as magazines in the other fields he has become involved in over the years – notwithstanding his retirement from his current job. He is not retiring from the industry, he pointedly says.

Getting involved in what was to be a lifelong involvement in the plumbing industry was not a well thought out decision by Kyle. One of his early jobs in 1979 was as a junior sales person for Castle Brassworks, who manufactured technologically-advanced brass products run by a German gentleman, Mr Buehler. In 1985, the company was sold to Cobra and is now owned by the Lixil Group.

“At the time I joined I had no strong intention of remaining for any length of time, nor being involved in the plumbing industry, but rather viewed it as a means to an end to pay for my commercial pilot studies and training. In those days, companies were very particular about who represented the company, based on one’s product knowledge and attitude. I started out selling the product primarily to the merchant trade, but showed more interest in the technical side of the business. Due to forward thinking and technical innovation the companies’ product offerings and solutions were mostly advanced for the time by comparison to what was available in the rest of the manufacturing industry in South Africa. Because the products needed specific technical installation requirements to function properly, the business had a considerable focus on serving the architectural and engineering fraternity to ensure their correct installation and application.

“This focus also enabled getting the product ‘specified’ into projects of all sizes and also opened up the opportunity of providing ‘value add’ services by giving capable design input into the entire plumbing system as part of a development’s overall design plan – including the tanks, pumps, piping and hot water generation – even if they weren’t Castle Brassworks products. And that’s what I wanted to do. The company did regular psychometric profiling of staff, from which it was identified that I should indeed be on the technical side. So I shifted there,” says Kyle. After the acquisition by Cobra, he continued on the specifications side of the business dealing with architects and mechanical engineers – this time on a national basis.

Into the blue sky

His first ‘retirement’ from the industry came in 1988 when he left the industry to pursue an alternative career as a commercial pilot – his other passion in life – and qualified to fly turbine and jet aircraft and to train other pilots. As much as he loved flying, he says his passion became dimmed by endlessly living out of a suitcase. So, in 1997, back to the corporate plumbing industry he went, rejoining Cobra in the specification department as the national specifications manager: commercial and industrial, technical products. During this time, he spent most Saturdays training pilots at a local flying school and loved the combination of instruction and flying. In the same vein as his plumbing industry career, he became a regular contributor to the piloting profession, writing technical articles and others on safety and other aspects of flying.

In 2006, and for a period of ten years, he started his own business in the plumbing industry assisting people with the design of plumbing systems for buildings, parallel to which he established his own and very successful flying school at which he put many pilots through their qualifications.

“In 2016 I was approached by the owner and operator of CalAfrica to do training of CalAfrica staff. I found that it wasn’t just technical training that was required but a need for more strategic insight to grow this business. I was subsequently offered the position of general manager in August 2016, and in the three years since then the company has grown very nicely, in what has been a depressed and challenging market. Success in this industry is dictated by having sound knowledge, networking and being involved in the industry through Iopsa and other bodies.”

“In my new appointment as General Manager of CalAfrica I soon realised that absolute focus was needed to achieve my predetermined goals and strategies to grow the company, so I exited the flight academy business, which, by the way, continues to operate very well under the management of its new owners.”

A legacy not yet finished

Notwithstanding a lifetime of work in the plumbing industry that includes various jobs and business interests, Kyle’s legacy will inevitably pivot around what he has done unselfishly for the entire plumbing industry.

“We gained accreditation to offer CPD (Continuing Professional Development) points for members of the SA Institute of Architects, to bring to reality the fact that national standards must be adhered to when it comes to plumbing installations, and the liability that arises from non-compliance. We drew up an awareness programme for architects, which we put to their professional organisation, whereby if they attended a presentation by us, they would receive CPD points – they gained knowledge (and points) and we are assisting ourselves by in turn uplifting the plumbing industry.

“Notwithstanding a lifetime of work in the plumbing industry that includes various jobs and business interests, Kyle’s legacy will inevitably pivot around what he has done unselfishly for the entire plumbing industry.”

“We then did the same with Iopsa, where we developed up-to-date materials through which members could acquire CPD points while gaining knowledge, as well as news on international trends and national standards. For me, it has been a fantastic journey – the plumbing industry is one made up of a hearty, robust and friendly class of person and I’ve made a lot of friends in this business,” says Kyle.

His involvement has seen Iopsa growing from strength to strength, as well as the establishment of the PIRB. He describes this iconic event (PIRB) as one of the best things that has happened to the industry, and its origins stemmed from the cessation of plumbing apprenticeships, “Which meant that anybody could now be a plumber,” he says.

“That wasn’t good, because the quality of workmanship slipped badly. A group of people centred around Lee Smith realised this, and together with Iopsa established the PIRB, thereby starting the concept of the ‘licensed plumber’. The industry is now beginning to gain a realisation of that objective – plumbers are licensed, they have to do Continuous Professional Development, and in the process become recognised as a profession rather than just a trade.”

The value of this, he explains, lies in the fact there was little in the way of official academic textbooks or a training route to qualification in this industry. “This means the knowledge people have has been built up from personal experience covering years – and it was incumbent on the people with the knowledge to impart it and give back to the profession. There’s quite a number of people I can think of who have done just that – people who collectively have the philosophy of giving back to the industry rather than just seeing what they can take from it.”

There’s no excuse in life for querulously complaining, ‘Nobody told me that’ – go out and find out, he says. “You’re given an opportunity to make a career – but further than that it’s in your own hands to either go the extra mile or stagnate. It’s up to the individual to uplift himself and upgrade his skills. A lot of personal growth comes from experiential learning. That’s been an important motivation to me – what can you give to the industry without getting to the point of it placing you in actual financial strain,” says Kyle. “If I have advice for youngsters entering the industry, it would be: give of yourself and success will follow naturally. Perhaps not crazy-huge success, but fulfilling success, which counts for more.”

Kyle says his successor Patrick Gordon was hand-picked for having all these attributes. “Plus, the timing was perfect, with Patrick being primed for a new opportunity – it was almost as if it was meant to be.”

Into ‘retirement’

At age 66 and after a lifetime of work, Kyle feels the time is right for a break from the daily grind. “I’m looking for a change of lifestyle: I’d like to be in a position where if I decide to load up a bike and head down to Clarens for a four-day ride through the Golden Gate National Park, I can do so. That doesn’t imply I’m leaving the industry – I’m definitely not. I’m in discussion with the various institutes as to what they want from me, and it’s a foregone conclusion I’ll still be highly visible giving my input wherever asked. It’s accepted that I will still advise CalAfrica on certain subjects whenever I can offer my experience and add value to them.

“There is consequently no final parting, but I will be leaving CalAfrica with great warmth and great satisfaction as to what I have accomplished here.

“It will enable me to pursue my flying interest again; more on a mentorship basis to the school and a little bit of instruction – but when I want to do so, rather than as a fixed schedule I have to stick to. The enjoyment aspect of everything I do will be my priority – because life is like that, it’s what you put into it rather than what you take out of life.” Having said that, he contrarily says the time has now come for him to be ‘just a little selfish’, “And have the privilege of a small bit of freedom. Life is like the seasons – I’m now starting into winter, but I love winter.”


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