The story of Gert Cronje and Mars Technologies
Many of today’s successful tech entrepreneurs will tell you of a pivotal ‘aha moment’ when they realised that they had stumbled upon something. For Gert Cronje, that ‘aha’ was just good old-fashioned common sense.
“When I left the army, I joined the Reserve Bank and worked in their accounts department. Back then, working on the old computer programs was tedious.
“We would type in data into those old computers for processing, after which, it would make a printout. Then, we would take that printout and sit down with a hand calculator to check if the computer had done its calculations correctly,” Cronje remembered.
“After that, I would then put in a tally to that the computer’s calculations were correct. But then I said; ‘wait a minute, this is actually stupid’.”
He approached his superiors with an alternative solution.
“The Reserve Bank later bought two spreadsheet packages and they asked me to evaluate, which one was better suited to the bank’s needs. That was when I discovered my passion for IT and delivering solutions and subsequently entered the IT sector.”
Cronje was born in a small railway town close to Mbombela (Nelspruit) in Mpumalanga.
“In 1992, I relocated to East London and stayed there for ten years then went to Cape Town; came back to East London and then, in 2004, came to Port Elizabeth as the Regional Chief Executive for Business Connexion,” he said.
While, Cronje was making inroads into his new-found passion, a small, then lesser-known IT company with a futuristic name, Mars Technologies, was also building itself up after being established in East London in 1998 by a migrant Kenyan entrepreneur.
In 2009, Cronje bought out the founding members and became its new Managing Director. That same year, the company entered the Port Elizabeth market were it established its headquarters.
Over the following few years, Mars Technologies saw exponential growth and, through an investment by another company, has since transformed into the prolific black-owned managed IT company that it is today.
“From 2009, there were three people that started in Port Elizabeth; in East London, it was 16. In 2015, those three people have grown to around 30 odd staffers,” Cronje described.
He said the PE branch started “with only a few contracts in the outsourcing and managed services industry where we had placed people onsite at our biggest customers”.
“Our big break was when we successfully bid and won an IT services tender at the Coega Development Corporation (CDC) in 2009 and first increased our staff to 15 people, then have continually grown from strength to strength,” he described.
The company first rented an office opposite the SABC in Newton Park, Port Elizabeth, and after just three months managed to buy their own premises along Villiers Road in Walmer.
Last year, was particularly a highlight for the business.
“In 2014, I told my team, if we continue doing business the way IT companies have always done, we will close our doors by the end of December. We needed to find new alternatives as the old IT ways were increasingly becoming irrelevant to this century,” Cronje said.
Mars Technologies later introduced a new innovative Canadian product to the Eastern Cape market.
“We have been installing it on our customers’ sites and they are getting value out of it,” he said.
“During the same time, we learnt that the majority shareholder of a Durban-based IT solutions company called CAIS was relocating to Australia. We expressed interest in his shares and a deal was concluded at the end of September and we became the majority shareholder.
“At the end of August this year, we acquired the last of the shares and merged the company with Mars Technologies.”
With that acquisition, Mars Technologies has grown with an additional 70 staff and now also has offices in Johannesburg and Durban as well as a representation in Cape Town. The company’s IT offerings and expertise also expanded.
“Since we like it here in the Eastern Cape, our head office remains in PE. The beauty of modern technology is that we can do our business from virtually anywhere,” he said.
Still Cronje said the local IT sector was facing many challenges that threatened its growth and contribution to the economy. He said that, perhaps due to the current economic climate, profit margins were falling as clients demand more but wanting to pay less; cut-throat competition was also resulting in local players not working together for the growth of the sector.
“The bigger your company grows, it seems, the more stringent the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) rules become. Hence, you will find someone operating out of their garage at very low margins and they’re getting business, while the bigger companies are struggling,” Cronje said.
“However, BBBEE is not a total ‘train smash’. I see it as an opportunity to also partner with smaller companies and transfer skills – but one must tackle this with a positive attitude. Without the right attitude, it is unsustainable!”
He remains optimistic about his company’s future.
“I would like us to grow to a point where people with an IT-related problem immediately call Mars Technologies,” Cronje said.
“It can be ten customers but we want to give them the best service. We do not want to be the biggest IT company in South Africa, but want to be a professional company that can be relied upon to deliver the best services. Then everything else will follow after that.”
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