Mike Wolhuter finally decides to retire

“With great intentions I was going to retire more than two years ago but that well-worked out plan fell through when colleague and fellow director Graham Smith, who was due to take over from me as Managing Director, due to family reasons, decided to emigrate to Australia and left PDC in June 2020. Jaco Wiese, a young engineer heralding from the Boland area in the Western Cape, has subsequently been appointed as the new MD and my handover period is ending at the end of the year and I will officially take retirement this time,” explained Mike Wolhuter of Pressure Die Casting (PDC).

“Although new to the industry, Jaco’s wide experience in manufacturing consulting, smart factory systems, renewable energy, a business start-up and leadership, can only add to PDC and the casting industry in South Africa. The foundation of PDC is one of innovation and Jaco believes this is a great place to continue re-inventing and investing into the local casting industry.”

Describing Mike’s career is fascinating when you consider that for the first six years of his life he was running around in South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, where his dad Henry was one of the chief ranger’s in the Park. A humble but proud man it is not surprising that Mike has had a successful career when you look at some of his family that he is surrounded by.

Mike Wolhuter and Jaco Wiese

Not one to blow his own trumpet it is not known by many in our foundry industry that Mike’s grandfather was a ranger in Kruger National Park and is famous for having stabbed to death a lion.
The 1904 saga of Harry Wolhuter, one of the Park’s first rangers, was that while riding on horseback two lions attacked him shortly after nightfall. Toppled from his horse, one of lions seized him by the shoulder, and dragged him almost 100 metres, into the bush. At this point, the semi-conscious ranger managed to retrieve his sheath knife from his belt and stabbed the lion. The mortally wounded lion then dropped Wolhuter who managed to climb into a tree before the second lion came after him. Wolhuter believes he was saved by his dog, Bull, whose persistent barking at the second lion distracted it. Wolhuter’s assistants then arrived, and carried him back to camp.

Mike, an engineer by trade, has successfully headed up PDC for close to 25 years, having started his career at the company as General Manager in June 1994. He has been described as a maverick in his approach to business, but it is more a case of his passion, a trait that runs in the family. He is one guy who is constantly pushing the boundary for learning and implementing radical and new ideas. Along with his fellow directors, Mike has created an ethos within PDC that breeds passion. PDC actively works to ensure each of its employees is working in a field they enjoy and are developing to their full potential, to the benefit of the company.

Mike lost his father at the early age of six, which led to the family leaving the Kruger National Park and moving to White River, Mpumalanga. After spending the first four years of schooling at Uplands School in his new home town Mike was then sent to St John’s College in Johannesburg to complete his schooling. This was followed by a compulsory two years in the military service before he went onto complete a BSc Metallurgical Engineering degree at Wits University from 1979 to 1983.

“I then did my MBA though the University of Wales. I never did the MBA to get promotions or a transfer but rather as a self-learning exercise. It took two years out of my life but taught me the joy of reading.”

“My work career began with Middleburg Steel and Alloys (now Columbus Stainless) as I had obtained a bursary from the company to complete my university studies.”

“I had the most remarkable 10 year career with them as an engineer in training before moving into production. We were exposed to Krupp Stahl in Germany on many occasions and were given fantastic training and opportunities. I think Middelburg Steel and Alloys was one of the most exciting, forward thinking, liberal companies around at the time and gave us huge learning opportunities in manufacturing in South Africa, driven by the late visionary Des Winship, who would later become MD of Hulamin in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, a town that I would spend the rest of my working career in.”

“I finished off my stint in Middleburg as the Cold Mill Manager.”

“My move to PDC was an opportunity that unexpectedly came up, but it allowed me to implement all I had learnt into a medium size company.”

“When I joined PDC, Trevor Sweeney, one of the senior shareholders, made it his mission to introduce me to all the other foundries working with aluminium in South Africa and not just those in high-pressure die-casting (HPDC). Everyone was so willing to share what they knew when they eventually realised China was their competition and not PDC. We collaborated and were involved with many companies and institutions in South Africa including Mintek, formed a small joint venture with the CSIR on SSM and became members of AFSA, CDA and the SAIF and later worked with the NFTN. We made it our goal to know what was happening in the local foundry industry and stay abreast with technology, by attending foundry, metal and manufacturing international exhibitions every year. We realised that if we wanted to compete on the global platform we would need to be ‘up there’ with our equipment, systems and processes.”

“Trevor’s partner, Mike Fitzsimons was an astute accountant and businessman and ensured we turned every penny over a couple of times before we spent anything, a trait that still resides in PDC being cost efficient.”

“Through attending these exhibitions we have implemented numerous new ideas into our manufacturing plant in Willowton Road, Pietermaritzburg. When I say ‘our’ plant I was given the opportunity to buy equity in the company by the two entrepreneurial businessman Trevor Sweeney and Mike Fitzsimons, who had acquired the company in the 1980s, two years after joining them.”

“PDC was established in 1952 and there have been many companies that were started by the company and then sold. One of these is our neighbours across the road who started out as Hardware Assemblies before changing its name to Pfisterer because of an international purchase and now to Vexila because of local investment. The company is a major supplier to Eskom and the international electrical distribution and reticulation market.”

“Another company was Sheerline Aluminium System, which is now in the Wispeco Aluminium stable, as is PDC.”

“Wispeco Aluminium bought into PDC in 2015 and then in 2020, the directors sold our shares to Wispeco. When we asked Wispeco why they bought us they said that we had all the makings of a progressive company with a solid foundation.”

“Another company was Mustang Horse Shoes and we also formed a joint venture with Hinges and Hardware for a number of years.”

“Over 10 years ago we installed our first robot because we had decided to automate our manufacturing processes wherever possible. It made no sense at the time from a payback point of view but it was the right thing to do. With labour costs increasing and the need for increased throughput we have automated many more processes at PDC without which we would not be competitive on the global playing fields today.”

“In 2007, just before the financial crisis, we made a policy decision never to buy a second-hand piece of equipment again and then struggle with overhauling it. In the last 15 odd years we have bought amongst other things 17 new CNC machines for our machining and tooling department and seven new die-casting machines for the foundry, without which we would not be in business today. We currently run 12 die-casting machines from 160 tons to 630 tons, casting brass, aluminium and zinc.”

“With our policy to always learn and improve production and manufacturing processes about 10 years ago we were fortunate to be introduced to Dr Morris Murray, a die-casting expert and consultant from Australia, who was in the country through an intervention of the NFTN. His experience and advice has had a big impact on PDC to get to where it is today.”

“PDC currently produces products and components for the building hardware, automotive, water meters, fire protection, electrical distribution and reticulation sectors.”

“Our exports have been growing and with the weakening rand and the increased global interest in PDC we are confident that exports will constitute the majority of our turnover in the next few years.”

“We have always backward integrated our processes to ensure that quality is controlled from buying our own scrap, melting and alloying our own ingots, HPDC, CNC machining, anodising, chrome plating, plastic injection moulding and plastic extruding.”

“We currently employ just under 300 people and process about 300 tons of various raw materials a month.”

Industry 4.0/Smart factory
“We are currently putting an Industry 4.0/Smart factory plan together to be incorporated over the next five years. This will include AI, digitalisation, automation, virtual reality, Internet of Things, 3D printing solar energy and many more new technologies.”

“To achieve all of this we have always employed smart and innovative engineers who constantly work on production efficiencies and savings and process design improvements.”

“A number of years ago we also introduced the Engineers-In-Training programme whereby we employ a graduate engineer for a one year practical journey on the various aspects of a manufacturing environment. The objective of the initiative is to provide young graduate engineers with practical manufacturing experience in all aspects of business so that they become more employable after a year of practical on-the-job training and experience.”

“Key focus areas of exposure include manufacturing, material handling, process design and improvement, metallurgy, HPDC, robotics programming, 3D printing, automation, factory layout and design, data collection and analysis, structuring and implementation of concept solutions in practice, public speaking and presentation to management and report writing.”

“Exports of fire protection sprinklers to the USA have been one of the many success stories at PDC.
Most fire sprinklers were sand cast pre 1990. PDC spent many school fees in the USA and is now a dominant player in this market in the USA, including brass water meters. We continue to see growth in this area as long as we continue improving productivity, reducing rejects and exceeding our customers’ expectations.”

“From a work perspective taking PDC from a relatively small ‘back yard’, labour intensive operation to a globally competitive company that now has ISO 9001:2015 and TS16949 certification, has an excellent safety record and the best clinic in the area, an attendance record above 98% and regularly achieves double digit sales growth, are accomplishments.”

“PDC have also been awarded numerous business awards over the years.”

“Diversification of our customers and markets has enabled us to weather many storms.”

“The move to the Natal Midlands has really suited my family’s outdoor lifestyle. We purchased a small farm near Hilton College when we moved here. Over the years we have tried farming chicken broilers and layers, guinea fowls and beef cattle and growing Christmas trees and proteas for resale. We lost money on every new venture that we undertook on the farming side but we had fun as a family trying it and realised how hard it is to farm.”

“The Midlands is a hub of superior education and were able to give our two children – Chris and Jess a great education. They are both married now with Jess living in Amsterdam and Chris in Cape Town.”

“The outdoor lifestyle has also led us to do the obligatory Comrades Marathon, Duzi canoe marathon and Midmar mile, all iconic sports events that are held in and around Pietermaritzburg.”

“I have also climbed Kilimanjaro with some friends, completed a full ironman, paddled around Mauritius and next year I intend to do the Cape Epic with my son as my partner.”

“With my imminent retirement I will have more time to train for this classic endurance race but more importantly I intend keeping my mind active by doing some coaching and mentoring, travelling on my GS800 adventure motorbike, property development, being physically active with sports, continue to do 10 hours a week of learning, some woodwork and knife making and whatever fun life sends my way including chiselling away at my bucket list.”

Another lesser known fact about Mike is that he has a twin brother – thank goodness there is not a third or fourth. Acclaimed African wildlife filmmaker and cinematographer Kim Wolhuter is his twin brother who is famous for a long list of movies and television programmes, including Hyena Queen, Killer Dogs of Africa, Hyenas at War, Nature (TV show), The Cheetah Children Shooting the Big Cats – 2006, Man, Cheetah Wild (TV show), Stalking Leopards and Living with Leopards.