The wide-eyed boy scout gazed in awe and admiration at the moon-walker, Neil Armstrong, and the astronaut’s words resounded in his ears: “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”
“That was an indelible life moment,” smiles Vivian Reddy, the now grown-up Boy Scout who in many ways has become a moon-walker in his own right – pioneering new frontiers and leaving deep footprints for others to follow.
Armstrong’s words have continued to be a guiding light to Reddy throughout his life, spurring this self-made businessman on to build South Africa’s largest electrical contracting company and diversifying into casinos, healthcare, property development and investment business.
Life dealt him a wretched hand of cards from the beginning. The youngest of nine children, he was to be acquainted with hardship, sacrifice and lack from the beginning. But inspired by his school- teacher father who had a passion for service to humanity, he imbibed the values of integrity and service from an early age. These too, became the foundation on which he has built his own life, clinging unflinchingly to the conviction that one gives greater meaning to life by reaching out to help and uplift others.
Initially destined for the teaching profession, Reddy had a chance encounter with an electrician which turned that career on its head. He was fascinated by the fact that Apartheid had hermetically sealed all doors to that trade for non-whites.
“I was one of the very first persons of colour who managed to get an apprenticeship in the electrical industry in the mid 1970s,” he recalls, freely admitting that his reception was “rough”.
“There were many injustices, many opportunities to get bitter and disillusioned, but I was convinced that with hard work and perseverance, I would achieve my dreams, so I refused to give up,” he says.
Reddy claims he was further buoyed by his own cultural background, influenced by the teachings of pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, who had preached the need for tolerance – a maxim which Reddy quickly made his own.
“Tolerance gets your eyes off the negative and focuses you on the future and what you want. And what I wanted was to become successful in the electrical business.”
The way he actually started his own business was hardly propitious. Annoyed by the blatant discrimination at a company Christmas party, he herded up all the blacks and Indians, walked over to where the white management was congregating and suggested that they share their whiskey and steaks.
The result was not unexpected. On the following Monday he was fired. But on taking his leave, he said quietly to the manager, “One day, this country will change, and I will have a power company bigger and more successful than yours.” A prophecy fulfilled some 12 years later.
So, armed with all of R500 and a bakkie, Reddy founded “Reddy’s Electrical” and set out to start his own business.
But these were Apartheid years. People simply did not employ people such as him to do electrical maintenance work, much less installations. Reddy’s own naivety and experience were very nearly his downfall, when he took on his first job without signing a contact.
Turning up at the company on completion of the work to collect his money, he was confronted by a large official sign informing the public that the company had gone into liquidation. It could not have happened at a worse juncture in time. He had just got married, and this unexpected debt of R500 000 meant no honeymoon and a very nerve-wracking start to a marriage.
Drawing deeply on the values and principles that inspired him, Reddy determined to work hard, persevere, become the best and succeed. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
“During those difficult years, we focused on becoming perfectionists, masters of quality, reliability and trust,” he comments. Those ideals are the lodestars of today’s Edison Power Group. “When you say ‘Edison’, you are saying ‘trust, integrity and reliability’”, he stresses.
The values have been deeply ingrained in the staff, whose mantra is Reddy’s “CANEI – Constant And Never Ending Improvement.” CANEI has become a point of honour for staff who apply it to every aspect of work and personal life.
“It’s how we ensure self-development, both as an employee and a private individual,” Reddy points out. “It is one of our life principles: it means that if we consistently improve even the simplest thing by making today better than yesterday, we are growing, we are become better people. It applies to work efficiencies, relationships at work and at home, the way we treat workers and the people around us. It has become a motto of our success and has contributed to the fact that we are consistently driven to create new businesses. It motivates us to constantly keep an eagle-eye out for new opportunities.”
Reddy’s leadership skills have been honed through his own experiences and he is a firm believer in leading by example and leading from the front. “You have to show people that you live what you talk,” he insists. “You must be hands-on and constantly in contact with staff so that they have no doubt of their importance to the business.”
So successful is this approach that the “Edison family” is renowned for its sense of belonging and pride in the achievements of the company. Always encouraged to seek out the positive in all situations, they are strongly motivated to find innovative ways of resolving difficult situations and to develop new approaches to work.
Reddy adopts a policy of employing only the best and has designed sophisticated human resources policies that ensure that training is carried to its peak and that opportunities for development abound. Staff know they are special, that their contribution is valued – as a result turn-over is minimal.
Reddy is convinced that this is Africa’s time. “Africa is the new Asia,” he emphasises. “There are golden opportunities to be seized across our borders and South African business should grasp them before they are whisked away by Chinese and Indian competitors. This is where our further growth and success lie.”
But Reddy is not just about business. His most cherished concerns lie with the disadvantaged and disinherited. The company’s social responsibility programme is impressively large, embracing education, the disabled, welfare organisations, community centres, health associations, feeding schemes, conservation programmes and peace and cultural initiatives. His dream project, an orphanage for AIDS orphans is now taking shape.
The future, he believes s full of promise. His company will be BABA 2020 – the Biggest and Best in Africa, an echo of a firmly held conviction: that each person must be the best he possibly can – no matter what his occupation or activity.
“No one who has worked hard has ever failed,” he points out.
It is not surprising therefore that Reddy is the recipient of a multitude of awards, from Outstanding South African in ‘92 to Paul Harris Community Service award in 1998 and Global Indian Entrepreneur of the year in 2003. He has received an award for sustainable contribution to engineering and business and this year has been invited to serve on the Bill Clinton Global Initiative.
Travelling extensively on invitation, he is one of South Africa’s most valuable ambassadors, spreading the good news that South Africa is one of the best countries in the world and THE place for investment.