In January 2020 without the knowledge of the forthcoming COVID-19 pandemic, like many others, Joaquim Bernardes enthusiastically got stuck into his new venture, one that he had dreamed about and planned for – of running his own foundry.
“It sounds like a stuck or broken record player but nobody had any idea at the beginning of 2020 what was instore for us three months later. Least of all we did not expect that non-essential businesses would be mandated to shut down and there would be severe restrictions on people movement. Governments confined you to your place of living and only essential services and businesses were allowed to operate. This directive was, of course, related to the outbreak of the novel COVID-19 virus that was (and still is) sweeping across most of the world.”
“It had, and still does, have a devastating effect on all of us in many ways. Sadly some more than others and we pray that the many come out stronger after this terrible time in world history.”
The existing furnace setup at Groves Foundry consists of four furnace bodies – 200kg, 300kg, 500kg and 600kg – and two power supply units with each unit accounting for two furnaces
“I had been in negotiations with the Smith family to acquire Groves Foundry and these were concluded at the end of 2019 with a schedule for me to take over in January 2020. Gary Smith had been running the foundry on his own after his father Ivan handed the reigns over to him in 2012. Gary had joined Ivan at the company at the age of 27 in 1995.”
“It is coming up to nearly two years since I have been in charge and myself and all of us in the company have had many obstacles and challenges to overcome during the pandemic but the lessons we have learned will take us on a positive path forward.”
“Like many we did not expect that come 27 March 2020 Groves Foundry would be forced to close down until 16 April. Later this date would be extended by a further two weeks. The company is categorised as a non-essential business and we had to follow the rules.”
“I understood the basics behind the decision but with it coming at a time when we were so new as owners was hard for us to comprehend. The uncertainty of the future was also very hard to grasp but thank goodness 18 months later we are still in business.”
New owner Joaquim Bernardes
“While businesses like ours need to make a profit, there are times when we need to remember the tremendous impact, as employers, that we have on our team. We can’t change everything going on in the world, but we can have an enormous impact on the people we work with and their families. Imagine how many people they impact as well.”
“When a downturn or disaster happens, it is important for us to stand unshakably on our principles. In the midst of the shutdown, we continued to practice our people-first principle. After many companies had lay-offs and could not pay staff, we were still able to hold onto our team. Instead of cutting positions right away, we found other ways to reduce costs and rally our company so that we could pay our staff throughout the lockdown, some of whom I have been associated with for many years as they joined me when I purchased Groves Foundry.”
“We all had to rally together and endure the circumstances that were thrown at us.”
“What many do not realise or contemplate is that with businesses like foundries you cannot operate from home. Production has to take place on the foundry floor and needs equipment to manipulate metal into a shape that further enhances product effectiveness and efficiencies down the line.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has understandably renewed discussions of business crisis management, and how to plan for and pre-empt unforeseen disruptions, ideally emerging stronger than before. The word ‘crisis’ tends to spur a sense of panic. Even so, it’s wise to take emergency situations head-on and with a laser focus. But to have this thrown at you when you are only in your third month of trading is tough.”
Groves Foundry still has a green sand section
“Groves Foundry has been in business for many years and has a history dating back to 1935. The foundry was known as Progress Foundry then and you can still see the reminiscence of the company signage on the current admin building.”
“The foundry is no different to any other foundry in the way it operates. I now have 11 years of experience of working in a foundry and some of my staff have three times that amount. Together we have enough experience to keep production up to the levels we are seeking as well as reducing our scrap rate.”
Scrap metal price rise
“Talking of scrap metal the price of one of the main inputs in a foundry has risen dramatically during the pandemic period. Steel and ferrous scrap prices have been rising steadily and at times rapidly in the last eight months. The scrap metal industry must be booming as prices have risen to an all-time high that I know of. As quickly as the scrap metal industry felt the blow of the pandemic, they’re now experiencing a significant bounce back. The now tight supply of scrap metals has boosted the global demand and the price for them in a big way.”
Supply chain disruptions and price increase of raw materials
“Another challenge has been the supply chain disruptions and price increase of raw materials.
Prices for raw materials, energy and logistics have soared on a broad front. Forwarding these unavoidable cost increases is however not taken for granted.”
Although limited with space Groves Foundry still produces 60 tons of castings a month
“Key input materials such as scrap, pig iron, aluminium, copper, coke, alloys and chemicals, as well as wooden pallets and mesh boxes, are just some of the materials that have increased in price by up to 250% over the past 12 months.”
“Foundries are reeling from the extreme cost pressures and others with the rise in prices of coal as well as pig iron – a key raw material for manufacturing metal castings in some countries. Fortunately we are not reliant on coal as are the majority of foundries in South Africa.”
“However, we are all reliant on power and the unscheduled loadshedding has had some costly experiences for us. I estimate that I have close to R200 000.00 of expenses that I have incurred because of loadshedding and that is not even taking into account the downtime and loss of production. The most recent was having to spend R40 000.00 on one of my main switches because it blew with the power surge when the power was turned back on.”
The company has a reclamation plant supplied by RC Systems
“The unscheduled loadshedding has been a problem for everyone but a company like a foundry could have a large amount of molten metal in a furnace. The extra cost of remelting and the other damages, for example to the lining, soon work out to be a sizable amount.”
“When I acquired the foundry it was producing between 35 and 40 tons of castings in a month. We have now increased this amount to 60 tons a month and the mix of metals comprises about 40 tons of steel castings, 10 tons of cast iron castings and the rest split between stainless steel and high chrome. We also do a small amount of manganese castings but rather leave those up to the experts in that field.”
“The industries we supply our castings into varies but to give you some idea indirectly we are supplying the chrome smelters with spares, gears into the mining industry and various components for pump manufacturers.”
One of the older patterns in the pattern shop – a children’s playground equipment accessory. The hundreds of patterns are housed in an old stable for horses
“On average most of our castings are up to 150 kilograms but we cast bigger and heavier ones as well. The largest one we produced weighed in at about 1.1 tons as cast.”
“Our existing furnace setup consists of four furnace bodies – 200kg, 300kg, 500kg and 600kg – and two power supply units with each unit accounting for two furnaces.”
“Besides my 11 years of experience in the foundry industry I also have over 10 years of experience working at two different engineering companies that are production orientated whereby one has a shop full of CNC machines machining product and the other equally as busy, but with not one CNC machine. All this type of work is outsourced by them and they assemble. I gained valuable manufacturing experience at both companies.”
Groves (Pty) Ltd was established by Horace Henry Smith and Dick Ardendorff on 23rd February 1932 and operated from Fenel Road, Selby, Gauteng manufacturing coal stove parts. The partnership was later terminated, leaving Smith as the sole owner. Smith then persuaded his son Ivan Trevor Smith to join him in 1971 to manage Groves Foundry as Horace Smith was still very involved in running H.H.Smith Founders and Engineers (Pty) Ltd, a company that had a non-ferrous foundry and manufactured fire equipment. H.H.Smith Founders and Engineers, which changed its name to Flash Fire Fittings, would eventually be run by Ivan Smith’s brother Ken and Ken’s son Valin would succeed him.
Hopper wheel castings manufactured for a client
In 1972 Groves Foundry outgrew their premises and moved to Booysens. After eight years at that site the company had to find a new factory to operate from because the landlord didn’t renew the lease due to emissions from the foundry. With money borrowed from his mom Erna Smith, Ivan acquired Progress Castings including the property of 24 De Kock Street, Vulcania, Brakpan.
There was an existing cupola furnace on the property and an old stable for horses where all the patterns were stored. Ivan’s wife Barbara Smith managed the office and Alan Grey was the foreman for Groves Foundry and at one stage the company had a staff complement of 89 workers.
Groves Foundry produced castings made of iron, SG iron, CR iron and white iron using the cupola furnace and melted aluminium, brass and bronze in a crucible furnace.
Castings ready for fettling
Due to Ivan’s wife’s death in 1984, he started losing interest in the business. Staff and unions became problematic for Groves Foundry and Alan Grey was about to retire. Ivan Smith set up a new company called Shell Sand and Cores. With Ivan’s extra responsibility his son, Gary Smith aged 27 years, joined Groves Foundry in 1995 to assist with the running of the foundry. Gary had a background in engineering and plastic injection moulding.
Gary soon became foreman and his responsibilities included managing the staff, running the office and being more hands-on with the operational side of the business. He also assisted his dad Ivan with the negotiations with the unions.
On average most of Groves Foundry’s castings are up to 150 kilograms but they do cast bigger and heavier ones as well. The largest one they produced weighed in at about 1.1 tons as cast. The mix of metals comprises about 40 tons of steel castings, 10 tons of cast iron castings and the rest split between stainless steel and high chrome
Later Ivan and Gary decided to stop using the cupola furnace and started melting the metal in a crucible using oil as the fuel, which worked better than the cupola. The oil for the crucible became expensive, so Ivan decided to try melting metal using an induction furnace this time. The particular induction furnace that they acquired did not function properly and it gave the company untenable problems so they assigned it to the scrap heap.
However, the Smiths did not lose faith in the induction furnace process and soon acquired a locally manufactured induction furnace. Groves Foundry then started melting all its metal requirements in the induction furnace. The company has expressed its gratitude to the late Mario Viegas, who worked for Casting and Machining Services at the time, the now retired Ray Van Rooyen from Insimbi and the late Garth Robins from GE Patterns and Foundry, all of whom helped the Smiths and Groves Foundry during the transition to induction melting and to assist with mixing of the metals.
Groves Foundry makes use of a Spectromaxx spectrometer
Gary Smith would in the interim complete a metallurgy course at the University of Johannesburg. Christopher Robins (GE Patterns and Foundry) and Paul Malone’s son also successfully completed the metallurgy course at the same time, which was run by well-known lecturer Derick Malone.
Gary Smith then decided to manufacture castings using stainless steel and this metal was added to the list. Simultaneously the company purchased its first spectrometer from Spectro Analytical Instruments, with John Taylor assisting with the training.
Gary Smith succeeded his dad Ivan in 2008 when he decided to retire. Gary’s wife, Tracy, joined the company in 2011 and assisted with running the office and managed the accounts and finances.
When the company started to lose business as the finished product was not meeting clients’ expectations, Gary Smith sort help from Steven Thomas from Quantus Foundry. Together with his help and the acquisition of a shot blasting machine to improve the surface finish, Groves Foundry improved the quality of the castings that they manufactured and the result was the company won back its clients and business improved.
Groves Foundry had always used the CO2 gassing system but on advice from Jacques Swanepoel of Dzanetech, Groves Foundry converted to a chemical sand system and purchased reclamation equipment from RC Systems and built a reclamation plant. This transition and capital equipment purchase made production more cost effective and improved casting quality.
Sadly Gary’s wife Tracy passed away suddenly in October 2018 and not long after that in December 2018 his dad Ivan also passed away. Gary wanted to fulfil Tracy’s dreams of relocating and schooling their two daughters in Scotland, which he has subsequently done.
As a result Groves Foundry was sold to Joaquim Bernardes in 2019 and he continues with the family legacy of ‘Groves for Stoves’.
“Gary had a situation that he needed to address and likewise I had an ambition that I wanted to fulfil so the opportunity for us to negotiate and come up with a solution, was presented. There are no regrets from my side. My sister Camilia is in charge of the admin side, we employ 22 staff and tonnages are slowly growing so we can’t complain.”
For further details contact Groves Foundry on 076 325 8534 or visit www.grovesfoundry.com