The Improvon Group – Tight Focus, Broad Horizons
The Improvon Group handles every stage of property development, from land purchasing to administration Improvon is the brainchild of four directors with a combined 100 years of experience working across the property, investment and construction industries. The company handles every stage of projects from buying
land to construction and administrating the completed building. They understand their customers’ needs and the needs of the sector at large, and that makes them a powerful competitive force in the industrial construction sector.
Improvon’s been around for 25 years,” explains the company’s CEO, Stefano Contardo. “Over that period, we have been focused on investment in industrial properties and developing our own assets. We do construction, development, leasing and administration for industrial developments and distribution warehousing. We’re unique in that we combine those factors.”
Over those 25 years, the company’s four directors have been supported by a governing body and a heavyweight executive management team which Contardo himself heads up.
“The business is unique in that it combines production, construction, development, administration, leasing, and obviously we own the properties we build,” Contardo says. “Very few businesses have all of those elements. It gives us the opportunity to offer tenants a one-stop solution. We can identify the land, design the facility to their specifications and manage it for them over time. Few companies can manage all those attributes and all those functions. We are also one of the only companies focused exclusively on warehouse distribution and industrial properties. We’re not doing
residential or retail properties.”
He has seen the company grow, develop, and at the dawn of the millennium, begin expanding its horizons beyond South Africa into sub-Saharan Africa. It has been an exciting journey, but one with challenges along the way.
“The biggest challenge is we’ve struggled with finding quality land at the right kind of price around the areas where we operate,” Contardo says. “The price of land has accelerated and become more expensive and to access that part of the market you need to be able to hold that land on your balance sheet. Holding it over a period of time involves structuring your finances carefully.”
Fortunately, Improvon benefits from having a portfolio developed for over 25 years.
“In terms of land we’ve developed a portfolio over the years, buying it at the right price and understanding and identifying the pitfalls associated with land,” Contardo tells us. “We know how to make sure it is a viable property, which itself is a unique skill to be able to assess tracts of property and avoid the pitfalls that aren’t that obvious to less experienced individuals.”
Of course, attaining a team with that level of expertise and allowing them to progress and development is a challenge, especially when the field of warehouse distribution is a relatively young and undeveloped one in Africa.
“The warehouse and distribution industry specifically, was relatively small in Africa 10 or 15 years ago,” says Contardo. “Skilled individuals in key roles such as development weren’t easy to come by. One of our successes is we trained people and kept them in the business for a very long time. Our staff turnover is very low. Our average age in the business has increased accordingly with staff
retention. We’re still relatively young because we identify talent early and we’ve been bringing new people on board to add a new dimension to the business.”
One of the reasons the company boasts such great retention is the culture within the business, which is also appealing to new recruits. “What’s interesting is we’re a family run business and that culture of the family has remained with the business. Everyone sticks together,” Contardo points out. “We recruit from a cultural perspective as well as a skills perspective. We like finding people and giving them an opportunity to grow. We have initiatives in place and an apprenticeship programme and training programme to upskill people to fill posts. Both programmes have been put in place to give us the skills we need to execute our plans for the future.”
Improvon’s current expansion into sub-Saharan Africa also means challenging preconceptions among their target market. “Our involvement in sub-Saharan Africa is a big focus now. There’s this strong perception of South Africans coming into a country and trying to take over, and that’s not our intention,” Contardo is keen to say. “We’re looking to go into emerging nations, have local
partners, with local knowledge embedded in them. The key to our strategy is to become part of the country, using local talent, local contractors and professionals and local knowledge. We want to
understand, work with and upskill the local community. As well as embracing local culture and taking that into account when designing our projects. We want to increase the quality of living, providing new skill sets and a better environment for the people who are currently there.”
One example of these efforts can be seen in Nairobi, where the company has launched a programme in collaboration with local universities, directing graduates into long-term, sustainable employment. While the company’s geographical footprint is expanding, however, their industry focus is not. They are committed to the industrial and warehouse distribution sectors, and Contardo foresees exciting growth here.
“The intention of the business is to remain focused on the industrial sector. We are seeing retail and residential struggling of late. We’ll be looking for growth and deploying into regions like Zambia,” Contardo says. “Third-party logistics is driven by consumer society and we see that growing. It is going to take longer trying to develop demand for our specific product, but from a future perspective, we are going to remain in South Africa and stay relevant to the South Africa context while growing in sub-Saharan Africa, slowly rolling out the model across various nations. By the
time these markets get to a point of launching e-commerce and FMCG distribution solutions, we will be ready to take advantage of that.