Over the decades, there have been phenomenal developments in the fields of science and technology. Within Africa, the growth of commercial scientific and research companies has gone hand in hand with education, with investment seen as a key driver for further development. With over 70 years of outstanding service and innovation, Cape Town-based Lasec Group remains an important partner and supplier to countless industries across the sub-Saharan region and has its sights set on opening exciting new market channels over the coming years.
“As a “laboratory solution provider”, we can take our customers from an empty room to a fully functional laboratory by providing everything from equipment, to application support and service and maintenance after we’ve supplied the products. Similarly, our educational division locally manufactures curriculum based products for education and ensures the correct use of these products in the classroom, by training teachers,” describes Delphine Darling, Business Development Director.
The Lasec Group history is long and proud and steeped in family values which run deep to this day. The current CEO is Mike Furneaux, who outlines the development of a business and set of principles which still run true today:
“My father, Mr. F. B. Furneaux, founded Lasec in 1945 with the help of my grandfather, his father-in-law Dr. H. Green, who was a medical doctor. From its humble beginnings in a home garage, the Company sought to be the ultimate supplier of quality laboratory consumables and equipment. In the early Seventies my brother and I joined the small family business which then consisted of 5 people. This brought a new energy and the desire to grow and expand the business further, starting with a mission to partner with selected International Suppliers, many of whom are still closely aligned with the business today.
“Lasec was built on the solid foundation of personalised customer service and professionalism, which is the mantra that Lasec holds first and foremost to this day.
“For many years the strongest markets for Lasec were the research/training labs linked with Tertiary Institutions and the Pathology Laboratory market within South Africa. However, in the late 1980’s this was expanded to include the Industrial Laboratory segment as well. In the mid 1980’s Lasec purchased an Educational Manufacturing Company, heralding its entry into the Science & Technology Education sphere as both a manufacturer and distributor of school syllabus-aligned products.
“Post- 1994 Lasec started its expansion into Africa with the launch of its Export Division, which now contributes 30 per cent of total annual turnover and is seen as a major growth node into the future.
“The vision of Lasec is to continue its expansion servicing the Health, Science and Educational Markets in Africa.”
Naturally, whilst upholding its key values, the Lasec Group has evolved and today serves a varied and widespread customer base throughout South Africa and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
The laboratory division, branded Lasec, supplies to pathology and diagnostic laboratories, universities and research institutions, biotechnology laboratories and production sites. In addition, a large portion of the Lasec customer-base exists within the industrial sector: pharmaceutical production, food and beverage production, the motor industry, mining, paper and packaging. The laboratory division also has products and expertise aimed at water testing and agricultural research which spans across both private and public sectors.
The educational division, branded Edutrade, has an established customer base in South Africa and is also expanding further into sub-Saharan Africa rapidly. Customers of Edutrade products include schools (both private and public) as well as home-schooling parents and companies that desire to improve education in South Africa or other African countries.
Edutrade facilitates Corporate Social Investment in Education by connecting these companies or sponsors with schools that are most needing and most deserving of assistance. This facilitation includes supply of product to meet curriculum requirements as well as training of teachers to correctly use the products in order to enhance the education of the children attending the nominated schools.
As Lasec Group has grown and diversified, it has significantly expanded its product range and today has over 21,000 active stock codes on its system, with approximately 9,000 of these related to instrumentation and 12,000 related to consumables.
“That sheer volume, combined with trends in buying patterns across the year and budget cycles, puts an onus on us to keep abreast of trends in order to plan accordingly and adjust our stock-holding,” acknowledges Kylie Davis, Marketing Manager.
“There is also an element of local manufacturing within the Lasec Group through our factory located in Durban. The manufacturing facility specialises in educational equipment, curriculum-based kits and school laboratory furniture. Customised stainless steel products for certain laboratory applications (such as freezer racks for cryostorage) are produced in this same factory and our Diagnostic Kit packing facility is located a few doors away,” she continues.
The nature and volume of products supplied by Lasec Group puts an important emphasis on 3 key elements of the business: employees, warehousing and IT systems.
With over 370 employees at Lasec Group, developing technical and soft skills is an essential part of maintaining a steady operational ship, as Allistair Gardener, HR Manager explains:
“Training plays a vital role in the development of our business and our employees. We train our staff in a number of ways with a specific emphasis on technical and soft skills. Technical training would include in depth training both in-house and overseas conducted by our principals and suppliers to ensure we are delivering optimum solutions to our customer base. Soft skills training would incorporate personal development, for example trusted advisor sales training for our customer facing staff and warehouse and distribution learnerships for our operations personnel,” he outlines.
“On-going and repeated application training for our customer base is an ever-increasing component of our business which has to be backed with service and maintenance programmes (though qualified engineers within our national service unit) of the portfolio of laboratory equipment that we supply”, adds Dr. Eric Sydenham, Technical Director.
Davis says that certain products within the company’s portfolio do have special temperature control requirements and Lasec is fully equipped to deal with these, including the need for “cold chain” deliveries.
“Efficient warehousing is vital to the success of the Lasec business as it allows us to optimise the cost of product through bulk imports, ensuring that we have the right products at the right prices for our customers in the shortest time possible. The total space occupied by the Lasec Group across the country is 14,000 square metres, of which 10,000 square metres is warehousing split between our main facility in Cape Town as well as Johannesburg and Durban,” she describes.
Warehousing and stock control increasingly rely upon sophisticated IT systems and Davis indicates that Lasec has fully embraced technology:
“Lasec uses a sophisticated ERP system to assist with stock management and purchasing. Combining this data with an in-house customised web allows all areas of our business access to real time information such as stock levels, supplier orders, customer purchase orders, sales and pricing history for all products. Analysis of this data allows Lasec to predict trends and strategize purchasing and warehousing accordingly.
“The management of the large number of stock codes and items in the collective Lasec Group portfolio is a challenge. It is essential to ensure that not only are stock levels optimal, but that all details connected to these items are up-to-date and correct, such as pricing and costing,” Davis states.
As the Lasec Group expands its geographical footprint, a number of new challenges have come to the fore, as Dr. Sydenham explains:
“Exporting into sub-Saharan Africa comes with its own set of challenges with customs and duty charges as well as pre-inspection requirements that can be unpredictable. Each country is different and requires experience and an understanding of the individual markets to be able to effectively conduct business.
“On a local level, with the technical nature of our product range and customer-base, it is important that Lasec stays on top of regulatory changes in the various industries we support, particularly in meeting ISO and SANAS requirements. We engage with our local and international customer-base to determine their specific regulatory needs and trends,” he says.
“Exchange rate fluctuation can have a significant impact on the Lasec business and these need to be planned for in terms of costing and foreign exchange contracts. In general, when the economy is under pressure, as it currently is, we face added challenges across many aspects of our business,” adds Stephen Craddock, Financial Director.
Despite these challenges, Lasec Group continues to increase its opportunities and the size of its workforce, as Darling, affirms;
“The major investments the Lasec Group has made in the past year and a half have been in headcount to keep pace with our customer demands and premises to accommodate the additional people and stockholding resulting from this demand.”
This forward-thinking approach is very much in line with ambitious plans for the next couple of years: “Our goal is to double our footprint in the next 24 months which means that we will be focussing more on the rest of Africa as well as new customers in South Africa. We are also working on expanding our product offering in the diagnostic arena,” Darling adds.