Universal Paper & Plastics is on a mission to uplift hygiene standards across South Africa, its profits enabling it to invest in its surrounding communities
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Kyle Livingstone
Making money is simply a means to allow us to have a greater purpose in society.
“The family business of tissue paper manufacturing was a great platform from which I could best utilise my resources best to make a dent in the fight against the poor state of sanitation in impoverished local communities. I believe there is immense opportunity in South Africa and Africa to make a positive impact on the state of hygiene.”
For David Sher, business is a means to making a positive difference to people’s lives.
As Director of his family firm Universal Paper & Plastics (UPP), he left university in his hometown of Pretoria at the age of 22 in 2009, full of ideas as to how he could enhance the business with the ultimate ambition of being able to give back to society.
“Together with my brother Jonathan, we started from the ground up, working through all facets of the company to understand where the greatest challenges were,” he recalls. “The dynamic and fast-paced environment we found ourselves in really empowered us to make our mark.
“We are the fourth generation in the business and have been brought up inside it from when we were young. Spending our holiday time packing boxes in the serviette factory, spending time with our grandfather and father on the floor and getting up to mischief were amongst some of the things we used to do.”
UPP today focusses on the manufacture of high-quality printed serviettes/napkins, bathroom tissue and household towels from its hub in Ga-Rankuwa in Gauteng, around 45 minutes northwest of Pretoria. Major brands under its portfolio include; Dinu (household tissue), Dinu Professional (commercial products) and Diamond (napkins).
Its 386-strong team helps to produce with a capacity of 3,000 tonnes of product a month, supplying major retailers across Southern Africa such as Checkers, Pick n Pay, Spar, Woolworths, Clicks, Food Lovers Market and Makro, as well as independent wholesalers, hotels, fast food chains, airlines and catering and hygiene companies.
“The fact that we produce a product that everybody needs makes it even more relevant for myself to develop the company for the greater good,” adds Sher. “I believe that the future of our business will be built on a foundation of goodwill created through our CSR programmes.”
Indeed, this commitment to the community is evidenced by the fact that UPP has a 20-strong team dedicated to CSR activities, known as The Universal Angels.
Set up in 2016, the group includes employees from all areas of the business who are mandated to build a social outreach initiative in order to help establish strong social relationships with local people living in and around Ga-Rankuwa.
Detailing further the premise behind this extensive CSR programme, Sher adds: “The industrial park in Ga-Rankuwa is surrounded by densely populated townships, that within its region of Tshwane hold 25 percent of the city’s population. This is a staggering number considering the harsh realities faced by a high percentage of youth unemployment in the country.
“We believe that there is an important role for us to play in working on solutions to help alleviate poverty and improve the state of hygiene in the city. We have taken part in various initiatives from donating products to the underprivileged schools, old-age homes, orphanages and special needs facilities in our areas.
“Several of our staff members have taken time out to share stories and lessons learnt in life with groups at a few secondary schools. These group sessions have helped motivate and encourage teenagers to focus on their studies and develop personal career plans that are essential to realising a successful future.”
This sort of work is what motivates Sher to ensure UPP operates as a sustainable, profitable business.
A key differentiator and competitive advantage realised by the firm is the degree to which it controls processes, a feature which enables it to pay uncompromising attention to detail.
For example, for a number of UPP products, the company also manufactures the raw material and water-based printing inks. Processes further down the chain are also handled in-house, such as storage, distribution and aftersales support for customers across the Southern Africa region.
As well as internal HR and design departments, UPP also has its own metal fabrication workshop that handles all engineering modifications across all areas of the company, while its mechanical workshop and diesel mechanical team deals with all repairs and modifications of equipment and vehicles. These are all served by an in-house electrical facility.
“We believe this provides us with the ability to efficiently adapt and overcome challenges as they present themselves,” says Sher. “We have a decades-long successful track record with major retailers that does differentiate us in terms of our reputation for reliable and efficient supply in the market.”
Continuous investment in both technology and people, assets that symbiotically work side-by-side, enables UPP to maintain its competitive advantage.
“Our inspired and skilled people utilise the latest technologies, processes and systems to create products that are second to none in quality and the solutions they offer,” Sher continues. “Developing innovative everyday products that satisfy the creative mind and hygienic needs of our customers is our mission.
“Not only do we strive to provide a leading range of products that will improve the state of hygiene across the country, but we also intend to become the preferred tissue supplier in South Africa. With UPP, people and ideas matter and we aim to deliver with excellence and integrity.”
In the area of tech investment, UPP has been investing at crucial intervals ever since the first serviette machine was purchased in 1955. Serving to both upscale and diversify the company’s production, this equipment facilitates consistent quality of product – a key factor in the purchasing decision-making of retailers.
The year Sher joined the firm, 2009, saw a vital investment decision made.
He explains: “In 2006 we spotted a gap in the market for a printed toilet paper product which generated a substantial increase in paper usage for the business. At the time we were purchasing tissue paper from Sappi but were restricted to a limited monthly tonnage.
“This limitation was the main reason for investing in four new Chinese paper machines in 2009. The process of making tissue paper was quite a challenge within the business as we were well-established as a converting company but had little continuous production process experience. We persevered and continued to develop a unique form of papermaking which helped us to realise growth for the business on a level we had never experienced before.”
Such growth was accelerated in 2017 thanks to the acquisition of a state-of-the-art European tissue paper machine, a device which carries twice the capacity of all four of the Chinese machines bought in 2009. This year (2019) has also seen two additional roll converting units and a napkin wrapper installed.
“We established a research and development department in 2012 which has helped the company to improve in many areas of the business’s operations,” says Sher.
“We believe the key to continuous improvement is to fully understand the problem you are trying to solve by investing in the correct resources and utilising a structured method of analysis, diagnosis, research and implementation.”
Indeed, a key priority for the Director over the course of 2020 is to simplify processes and improve efficiency even further, at the same time increasing capacity and introducing smart designs which encourage learning about the importance of hygiene.
Another area of focus will be improving the employee value proposition within the company, with a particular emphasis on training and development.
“We have a very well-structured and effective recruitment process that starts with succession and development plans from our lowest grade level to senior management,” Sher explains.
“The purpose of these plans is to develop individuals to realise their unique potential and path within the business. Each employee has a unique path that is determined by their level of aptitude, experience and goodwill created within the business.”
Promoting staff internally is identified by the Director as the key to sustaining a positive staff morale – if an existing position becomes available, UPP will always look inwardly and advertise the position before seeking an outside appointment.
Not only does it open up opportunities for employees, it also reveals what would otherwise be hidden pockets of talent within the organisation. Indeed, Sher himself sits in every final interview to ensure candidates meet all the requirements of the job in question, looking in detail at their ability to perform tasks and track record within the company if applicable.
And looking ahead to the future objectives, centred around sustainable growth and creating products that tackle the issue of hygiene, it is more important than ever that UPP hires and promotes the right individuals.
Sher concludes, citing the importance of culture in fulfilling these ambitions.
“We place a great deal of importance on whether the individual has lived our company values during their tenure before we promote them. Living our values starts with nominating other individuals which usually leads to nominations and then rewards.
“This is an important honour at our company. We believe that when our people live the values, they start to realise their true potential and excel in their efforts to grow within the business.”