The last 24 years have proved a tumultuous period for John Cross, who has seen fluctuations in the fortunes of the South African economy, witnessed changes in technology and culture and survived personal hardships. Throughout that same time span he has continued to grow Cross Fire Management (Pty) Ltd into a highly successful business that has become one the largest fire protection companies in the country.
“Let’s start from the beginning and September 1st, 1990. That was when the business began and there were two of us working in an office with no windows, that was about 4 by 3 metres in size,” Chief Executive Officer, Cross recalls. “We started out with small maintenance work on shopping centres and gradually grew the business from there,” he continues.
Cross had been involved in the fire protection industry since 1974, an era he says, when people took real pride in their work. Back then a lot of his work was for companies like Pick ‘N Pay and he vividly remembers the first job his new company completed in 1990:
“Whilst we began life in the Johannesburg area and the business was located here, looking through our order book, Job Number 0001 was in fact in Port Elizabeth. Over time we continued to work on small jobs (mainly in Gauteng), building our reputation for good quality and good service and about two years after we started the business, we changed the name to Cross Fire Management, which I was not too happy about at the time as it incorporated my name, however things worked out well for us.
“We carried on growing and eventually moved to bigger offices, purchasing a house around 20 years ago, which was big enough for the 8-9 members of staff we had back then.
“As the company expanded we got to the stage where we began to tender for bigger projects and ourfirst big break came in 1998 when we worked on Carnival City in the East Rand.”
This was a R6 million contract and provided ample proof that Cross Fire Management was able to handle bigger jobs.
However that same year saw an appalling turn of events in Cross’s own life as he was involved in a hijacking and was shot three times in the back, resulting in him being hospitalized and paralysed from the waist down.
“It had a big impact on the business as I was not able to run operations as I had before and I had lots of physiotherapy and rehabilitation which took up my time. I was told initially that I would not walk again but have defied the medics and returned to playing golf and got my handicap down to single figures,” he recounts.
“Fortunately the business continued to grow during this time and in 2001 we moved into our new premises in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Nowadays we also operate a small office in Cape Town and we have grown into the third largest company of our kind in South Africa,” he continues.
The company’s initial philosophy of quality over quantity played a big part in that growth and Cross Fire Management soon became the market leader in the fire protection trade for small-work type projects such as revamps, extensions, and to a large extent, servicing and maintenance, as well as emergency repair work.
Although small-work type projects remain an integral part of Cross Fire, the company has evolved to an extent where it is in a position to undertake any fire protection assignment irrespective of size or complexity.
Today the company specialises in the design, supply, fabrication, installation, servicing and maintenance of the following systems, which include but are not limited to the following:
Automatic sprinkler installations; hydrant and hose reel reticulation; medium and high velocity deluge water spray systems; dedicated fire water supply pump and tank installations; fire and smoke detection and evacuation systems; fire suppression gas installations; hand fire extinguishers and appliances; symbolic fire and escape signage; fire stopping and sealing and fire fighting foam installations.
Cross says that a challenging economic environment has changed the direction of the company in recent years: “Our geographical footprint stretches across South Africa but in the past 3-4 years it has gone beyond its boundaries.
“Price have hit rock bottom with new smaller businesses coming into the market and continuing to drive down prices, so we decided we needed to look for new opportunities and we have worked in a number of countries across the Continent including: Angola where we have 2 jobs, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, 2 contracts, Malawi, Mozambique 3 contracts, Namibia and Nigeria, where we have just secured a new contract. We have also completed projects in Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia.
“Roughly 40 per cent of our work is derived outside South Africa’s border now but whilst prices are better elsewhere there are still a range of problems including red tape and different cultures. We have gone alone on each of these projects without partners, but have come to work with local agents over the years who have often helped us.
“There is also plenty of opportunity for large maintenance and small works contracts and up to 20 per cent of our turnover is for this type of work.”
Cross suggests that much of the company’s work is derived from fire consultants and from builders/developers, on projects where there is no fire consultant.
“Our clients are often builders and we are appointed as Specialist sub-contractors. We still work with major retailers like Shoprite and Pick’n Pay, on the smaller side we have over 2,000 clients on our register.
“Property development companies are also big clients for us and we have worked with the likes of Atterbury Property Holdings and Growthpoint Properties and we have worked with these companies in other areas of Africa,” he describes.
Price point is a key determinant on contract wins and Cross says that the market has squeezed margins significantly in South Africa:
“We recently looked at our gross margins since 2009 and they have come down by 12 per cent over that period, which is partly why we looked further afield.”
One of the challenges of new territories is understanding the legal implications, while in South Africa, health and safety is a challenge Cross Fire management has fully embraced with our own team of specialists. The company is accredited by the Automatic Sprinkler Inspection Bureau (ASIB) and operates to their standards of quality management.
Training also plays an essential role, as Cross explains:
“We have around 55 members of staff and in-house training plays a key role in maintaining skills and focus and keeping abreast of changes in regulations. We run in-house classes two nights a week.
“Red tape remains a challenge however along with finding skilled labour. People just seem to care less these days and in my opinion the labour standards in the country today are pathetic. That is why we’ve introduced our own training and we try to instil the right ethos on attitude and care for our fitters.”
Cross says that technological advancements have greatly changed the way that business is conducted, but not always for the better:
“We use CAD and drawing programmes nowadays and communications has changed enormously and we spend up to half a million rand each year to keep up to date with software. We encourage workers to stay out of the office and to work on-site when they can, taking their laptops home. However, the culture has changed too and communication is a big thing for me and the art of speaking has been lost to some extent with people preferring to send emails and message via cellphones, which have replaced conversations.”
With transformation and gender equality important issues in the South African work place, it is worth noting that the only two ASIB certificated women in the country employed outside of ASIB are with Cross Fire Management.
Cross himself has seen enormous upheaval in his personal and professional life and is now preparing for the next few years.
“We are always on the lookout to bring on board a black partner or investment from a black empowered business, which will of course improve our BBEEE rating. I have also got to start looking at how much longer I carry on working; at some point I will need to retire and have over the last few years, put a succession plan in place,” he concludes.