South Africa’s Storage Management Systems is ensuring that its customers’ warehousing setups can serve modern-day commercial operations across numerous industries
Writer: Tom Wadlow
Project Manager: Vivek Valmiki
The global warehousing and storage market was worth $479 billion in 2017. As more and more consumers and commercial organisations turn to online, on-demand purchasing, the importance of such behind the scenes operations exponentially grows.
North America alone accounts for $133 billion of this industry, a global share of 27.7 percent, and it is here that South Africa’s Storage Management Systems (SMS) is targeting with vigour.
Having firmly established itself in its home country and the wider Southern Africa region, the opportunity identified in the USA and Canada is one that greatly excites Managing Director Theuns Pretorius.
Joining the Company as a project engineer in 1996, Pretorius worked his way up the ranks in rapid time to his current position in 2000, also becoming a partner in the business since then.
“SMS started off in 1983 as just a crane-style material handling business, before specialising in the 1990s in the supply of vertical storage units,” he explains.
“Since I became Managing Director in 2000 we have expanded more into turnkey, automated warehousing solutions. We have moved with the times and these products and solutions form the backbone of what we are doing today as an intralogistics solutions provider.”
Sink or swim
Central to SMS’s evolution over Pretorius’s tenure has been a freedom to explore ideas and take responsibility, a mantra that the MD has reciprocated right through the organisation.
“I have been given free reign to develop the Company into what it is today,” he says. “Part of our success is down to our attitude that as long as we hit our profits, then we are free to implement ideas.
“This is also my management style – unless I need to get involved I am hands off and let my team exercise their own expertise. They need to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them, just like I have been allowed to do.”
This is reflected in the way SMS approaches risk, the Company always willing to investigate solutions if it believes it can solve a problem for customers and clients. Its team of multi-disciplined engineers are given the accountability to make decisions, something which Pretorius and, ultimately, the business, has benefitted from enormously down the years.
New recruits, often sourced through employee referrals, are also thrown into the deep end. “For our engineers it is very much a case of sink or swim,” Pretorius adds. “We want to retain people who adapt quickly and are free thinkers.”
SMS’s suite of products and services is an embodiment of this culture of innovation. A mixture of in-house development and leveraging of partner company expertise enables it to offer turnkey solutions to its customers.
These can be split into four key areas – materials handling, storage solutions, software and control solutions and value-added services. Such diversity has enabled SMS to serve a wide range of industries and organisations, from the likes of BMW and Nissan in the automotive space to Coca-Cola and CAT in respective FMCG and construction sectors. Coupled with knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the Southern African market, and SMS stands alone as a local provider able to offer tailored solutions underpinned by a European hallmark of quality.
It is simplicity, however, which is the key to SMS’s own flagship product – the Pallet MoleTM, which is a deep lane automated storage system.
The Mole product is the result of 18 years of steady development and has completely optimised the way pallets are loaded into deep storage. In short, this system provides the highest density storage with the highest throughput capability.
“This is one of the backbones of our business and key to our success to date in South Africa,” Pretorius says. “We have developed this in a South African context to be a robust system, and I am a firm believer in simplicity. I want us to develop products that are simple and serve a purpose, much like Steve Jobs and Apple with the very first iPod. Their competitors fell by the wayside.”
Into North America
This product has been identified by Pretorius as a potential gamechanger for the North American market, the Company’s major area of focus regarding expansion.
“From a logistics point of view North America makes a lot of sense,” he says. “It is naturally our biggest market because of its sheer economic size and is also the easiest market to get into. At the moment warehousing here is generally only semi-automated, so there is tremendous opportunity for us to introduce further automation.”
A key partnership with Frazier Industrial Company has allowed SMS to leverage existing infrastructure and gain traction in the region.
“We have been working with Frazier for several years now,” Pretorius says. “Through them we launched our first Mole product and over the last two to three years there has been tremendous acceptance of this product in the North American market.”
Further, SMS is part of the SpaceMaker Group with SpaceMaker Systems as the sister company in the US, emulating SMS SA.
Built on partnership
Deep cooperation with several European and local companies has also proven pivotal to SMS’s success, especially in its home markets.
The Company has acquired sole distributive rights within Southern Africa for German firm Hänel’s products. With more than 50 years of experience in designing and developing industrial automation equipment, Hänel specialises in automated small and medium goods storage and retrieval systems using a vertical carousel and lift concept.
Dutch family business turned global system integrator VanRiet Material Handling Systems is also a longstanding partner, specialising in solutions geared towards the courier express parcel market, ecommerce and third-party logistics companies.
Closer to home, Cape Town-based Progetto International is another key partner, the firm responsible for materials handling across numerous industries and providing essential services to SMS customers. These include installations and after-sale work, for instance on the Mole products across the greater Cape and east coast region, a service it has been providing for 17 years.
Finally, an exclusive distribution agreement with Spain’s AR Racking has granted SMS access to a quality supplier of steel-based racking and mobile bases, while also providing a springboard into European and Latin American markets.
“The key for us is that these companies are like-minded in their cultures,” Pretorius says. “They may not be the biggest in their industry but their service levels and out of the box thinking is what makes them strong partners.”
As well as identifying appropriate organisations to establish partnerships with, an important part of Pretorius’s role is to keep abreast of developing trends that are likely to impact SMS and the industry as a whole. This involves constant interaction with customers and attending international shows.
Asked what he thinks will help shape the warehousing and storage market in the years to come, he identifies several threads, including the rise of intralogistics services, autonomous transport and the proliferation of battery-based energy storage which could impact the formulation of future warehousing products. The drive for 24-seven operations, with no productivity lost as automated systems run non-stop, is what he believes will mould the industry.
But what of SMS’s priorities for the coming years? Pretorius concludes: “We are in the coalface of trends and the modern warehousing environment. An organisation is only as good as its weakest link, and people are cottoning onto the fact that warehousing cannot be left behind.
“For us, we need to build on that message in North America. We want to emulate our success in Southern Africa in this region, and the opportunity is certainly there to do so.”