One of Dolphin Bay's valued clients AC Whitcher Sawmills, situated in the Tsitsikamma district not far from Plettenberg Bay, has been a family-run business since 1902. With the fifth generation now taking charge of its operations, it looks set to stay that way for a long time to come.
After joining the company just over two years ago and working as part of the team, Gene Ritchie, the great, great grandson of the original Whitcher, has accepted the baton from his father, Raymond, and is excited about adding his contribution to keeping the sawmill running optimally.
"My cousin Charles Whitcher is involved in the forestry side, so the family connection is strong, but I think there are several other reasons why we have resisted being swallowed up by larger companies," he says. "We are lean in terms of personnel and, because we don't have a cumbersome management structure, we are able to respond quickly to situations. It's an advantage in tough economic times to have hands-on leadership and the ability to make same-day decisions."
"Being small, we value our customers and try very hard to satisfy them. We would rather turn down an order than make a false promise to deliver. We have a great sales manager, Gill Botha, who has built up good relationships with our clients.
"Also, there's pride in our history and the desire to continue the legacy. Credit must go to my father, whose mother was a Whitcher, for building the business to where it is now, through some hard times and in the face of considerable pressure."
The company is no stranger to challenge: when the original Whitcher made his last cash payment for the sawmill machinery, his wife apparently told the supplier's wife, over a cup of tea, that she was so relieved to have that behind them that she had burned the two years' stack of receipts. Some time later, the supplier claimed that Whitcher was two years in arrears. With no proof of payment, and legally required to settle in full, he was forced to sell his plantations on the massive tract of land surrounding the sawmill.
"Whitchers and Ritchies are a stubborn lot", says Gene. "After that kind of trickery, no-one wants to be the generation that gives up or gets it wrong. We were raised in this area, we belong here. We've seen improvements over the years and we are determined to keep growing."
CEO, Shaun Westcott, joined the company 10 years ago when Raymond decided to scale down his involvement. "Gene was still at school then. He's head of operations now, but I'm sure he will eventually take over from me, so in a way I've been the transition between father and son. There aren't many family businesses that are in the fifth generation and we value the continuity that represents. Funnily enough, Dolphin Bay is also a family concern; we did business with Bertus' father years ago. That kind of connection builds a relationship that is hard to match in the corporate world."