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A career spanning slide rules to iPhones

Well into his mid-70s, Barry Chipps is still in the plumbing industry and shares some of his 50-years’ experiences, from cast iron to HDPE.

By Eamonn Ryan | All photos by Eamonn Ryan

Pangolin Plumbing founder and plumbing veteran, Barry Chipps.Like so many people in the plumbing industry, Chipps got into it more by default than design – as he wanted a job either in the farming or engineering line. “But once I got into plumbing, I fell in love with it and really enjoyed the people. Plumbing has a culture of nice people,” he says. “I grew up on a farm in Ficksburg and after completing school I farmed for a few years and attended a technical college where general farming skills were taught. This included welding, tractor maintenance and more.

“Shortly after this I was accepted as a trainee with Stewarts & Lloyds in about 1962. I was posted to Pietermaritzburg and started in their stores, complete with collar and tie as there was no such thing as casual wear. Stewarts & Lloyds were very big on training, development and motivation at its training centre in Vereeniging. This is where I learned various skills, and I’m sure many in the industry today will remember the names Wally de Kock and Larry Grudge.

“The focal sectors at Stewarts & Lloyds Pietermaritzburg were municipal and agriculture, but we also had sugar mills, Alcan Aluminium, SA Rubber and more industries. Also, the first oil pipeline from Durban to Johannesburg was being constructed – all the welders being from Texas. Pietermaritzburg was the only branch in the group – apart from Scottish Tube in Durban – that sold plumbing and sanitaryware,” he explains.

In those days, for bathrooms the industry could still only offer, for instance, cast iron baths and Shanks low level suites – and only in white. Colour options were just starting, lead traps and cast-iron waste pipes with star taps completed a bathroom.

“In those days everything not local had to be transported by rail, unless you got a permit. It wasn’t like today when everything is wanted ‘now’. In those days the railways were fairly efficient, but even so a delivery from Durban would take a couple of days. Sewer pipes were salt glazed earthenware which were delivered by railway trucks packed with straw and unhooked in our siding. During this time, I ran the Comrades Marathon twice – in shoes of the day, which were simple canvas takkies with the toe part cut out.

“It is awe inspiring to see how the product has changed over the half century, especially in the range of sanitaryware. We had copper in those days, but a lot of the piping was galvanised.

“Also at this time, in 1969 married Barbara, my lifetime mentor to whom I am still married 51 years later. That same year I was transferred to Bloemfontein as departmental manager, which was very much an agricultural branch with products such as borehole exacts, Climax windmills, irrigation equipment and so on. A fair amount of trade was from Lesotho, mainly from foreign companies and at this time the Orange-Fish rivers tunnel was being constructed.

“It was an incredibly busy and uplifting time. In addition to that, Secunda was being constructed – the magnitude of these projects for a young lad from Bloemfontein was staggering. Our Durban Street premises was bursting at the seams.”

In 1974 I was transferred to one of the S and L, H Inceldon & Co subsidiaries, situated at 56 Durban Street, City and Suburban in Johannesburg. This branch was bustling with many major contracts, as at this time the Carlton Centre, Ponte building and Johannesburg General Hospital were all being constructed, and we had relationships with the mines and other industries.

“It was an incredibly busy and uplifting time. In addition to that, Secunda was being constructed – the magnitude of these projects for a young lad from Bloemfontein was staggering. Our Durban Street premises was bursting at the seams.

“In 1977/78 I was seconded to Kimberley as manager of the company’s Northern Cape region. There were three departments – Sand L, Incledon and Baldwin Steel – with big clients among manganese and asbestos mines and De Beers the single biggest client. We serviced a big geographic area from Upington to Vryburg, and Carnavon to Pofadder. Gary Till was one of my departmental managers and today runs a successful merchant business in Durban.”

Life was about to change

“Life was about to change as a new powerhouse arose in the merchant business – Boumat. They approached me to run Incledon Bloemfontein, where I also met Bill Lee who was to have a big influence on my career. Back in Bloemfontein in 1979, we set about refocusing Incledon into a typical Boumat operation. However, by 1981 I was back in Pietermaritzburg/Durban with Seaboard Industrial, a specialist tile company which had also been acquired by Boumat.”

Chipps’s interests extended beyond the plumbing sphere – he had not lost his roots in the farming industry. “I had a chicken farm as well just opposite Cedera Agricultural College and travelled to Durban most days. The Boumat group was growing and in about 1986 I was appointed MD of Incledon Port Elizabeth, and in 1993 MD of Jack Dobson – another Boumat company based in Johannesburg. It was here I met another of the great influences of my career – Mike Piper, a Boumat regional director.”

The two became something of a tag team, with Chipps and Piper moving around the country. Finally, in 1999 they jointly left the Boumat group to start their own business, Independent Plumbing Suppliers (IPS), which is still a going concern.

He remained an entrepreneur until his first retirement from the business in 2013, and with nothing to keep him active, accepted another offer from his long-time friend and client, Arthur Claasen, to join AJC Plumbing as its buyer. He describes this company as ‘one of the biggest and most progressive plumbing companies around’.

“It was a great experience to be on the plumbing side rather than the merchant side,” he says – but not for long, as he was thinking of ‘retiring’ again. “But plumbing was in my veins, and soon thereafter I formed my own company, Pangolin Plumbing.” This business has grown steadily, and he was joined by grandson, Trent Chipps, in early 2019.

“Every day of my career has been an adventure – but the biggest highlight for me has been the friends I’ve made with the many suppliers and plumbing clients. What made this industry different is that suppliers have also been good friends – and if you don’t have that, your business would not have longevity. In fact, one of my career highlights was attending to 1995 Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park, invited by Cobra (Lexil) and surrounded by all my friends and suppliers. That was a blast.”

What has also been significant has been the changes in product, transport and IT – from slide rules to iPhones.”

The pace of change during this time was one of the major challenges Chipps faced in his career – in a field where product knowledge was essential and keeping up with market developments, as an ex-farmer he has had to keep pace with relentless evolution in technology. “The first computer that Stewarts & Lloyd had took up a complete temperature-controlled floor – with the same processing power as today’s smart phones.

“Another challenge for the younger generation is the entry of politics into the industry, and an enforced requirement for empowerment (employment equity and enterprise development) which was done quite naturally by companies in the past.”

He applauds the move to greater regulation of plumbers by PIRB and IOPSA. “We’ve seen the degeneration of the plumbing profession in past years as any number of fly-by-nights have called themselves plumbers, tendering for complex projects when they have no experience or qualification. Also, you cannot supply non-SABS products to the market – it has to be controlled.”


 


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