With a commendable 30 years of business under his belt Hennie Badenhorst, managing director of Barwit Construction, gives SA Affordable Housing a glimpse into his career and insights.

By Benjamin Brits

Growing up and completing his schooling in Roodepoort, Gauteng, Hennie Badenhorst’s plan was to start his career by studying civil engineering, but alas, this was not to be as he didn’t qualify.

Instead he started work as an apprentice draughtsman for a company that specialised in sinking mine shafts. Badenhorst recalls, “I wanted to become a contract draughtsman because there were about 35 draughtsman in the drawing office, and those guys were all earning four times what I was earning, but we were doing the same work, so I decided that this is where I wanted to steer my life.”

The path ahead

A week before his apprenticeship came to an end, Badenhorst didn’t have a permanent position. The chief draughtsman called him aside and said that he could offer him a permanent opportunity, if he was interested. The opportunity, at another company, was also in mine work which was a good fit. That same day a meeting was set up and the company met Badenhorst during his lunch break.

“I found this quite odd as they came to see me for an interview, usually you go and see the company yourself when you are looking for a job,” Badenhorst laughs.

“Having never been for an actual interview before (I landed my apprentice job at a Christmas party I attended); I went to the chief draughtsman and asked his advice. I remember he told me that, ‘If I wanted R800 a month (understand this was in 1980), then you need to ask for R1 000 a month and then you can negotiate’.

I earned around R400 a month in those days. At the meeting I showed the drawing that I had done and the inevitable question about salary came, to which I immediately responded that I was looking for R1 000 a month (feeling very proud of myself). They said ok right away, plus they also offered me a company car. So, of course I took up the offer,” continues Badenhorst.

Taking the next step

In all honesty Badenhorst always knew deep down that he wanted to work for himself and when he got married, he and his wife already owned the land (where he still lives today). Wanting to build his own house, he took up a weekend bricklaying course where he laid bricks every Saturday morning learning the skills he needed to make his plan a reality.

“As I was doing draughting anyway, my wife decided to advertise in the local newspaper that I can draw house plans. Before I even saw the advert in the paper, I already got my first phone call and since then I have been drawing house plans, especially for alterations and additions. In those days though, the payment I received was enough to give me some good pocket money as a sideline but not enough to tell my boss that I was heading off to do my own thing,” says Badenhorst.

An opportunity came to do drawings for a company that only did alteration work. After 14 months and 190 drawings for them (and drawings were only given through once the contract was signed) Badenhorst thought that if they can do it, then surely he can do it? He already had access to people who wanted drawings done. If those clients didn’t have a builder, he could offer services as a builder too.

“I tell myself that this will be the best work I have ever done and this challenge is what keeps me excited.”

The point where Badenhorst got cemented into the building space came shortly after he completed a building quote for a client and on the evening of his return from a short holiday with his family; he recalls, “During our quiet time that night, I clearly remember praying when I was interrupted by the call to say that I had got the job; I thought to myself that this was a sign from above.”

Badenhorst went in to work and gave his boss five months’ notice and then he was on his own. Through word of mouth, news about his services spread and his business really got going, after which it just grew and grew.

Looking back there is very little that Badenhorst hasn’t done or been involved in from civil works to many more projects. Badenhorst became involved in light steel frame construction (LSFC) and, as it was something that he hadn’t looked at before, he did all the necessary research on the technology. At this point his son started working for him too and together – when visiting exhibitions – they took brochures to read anything to do with light steel frame construction.

Work with this technology naturally flowed in and the first LSFC project Badenhorst completed was in Lenasia, Gauteng, where he built a new house on top of an existing one while the occupants continued to live there. This was naturally an interesting start to the incorporation of LSFC into the business.

The ultimate reward

Badenhorst expresses that his most significant achievement is being in business and being his own boss for 30 years. Going through all the ups and downs that this industry has thrown at him has been difficult at times, but through all the challenges, business still looks good for Barwit Construction.

“If I take a look at things right now, even if we only get 25% of the jobs that we quoted on this week, that is still four jobs that I am very happy about because the work just keeps on rolling in,” Badenhorst shares.

Inspiration doesn’t come from an office

Badenhorst says, “My inspiration stems from the time I tried to study civil engineering; my dream was to build dam walls. I could never see myself being a lawyer or an auditor (even thought I got a distinction in accounting in school), sitting in an office all day long, swamped with paperwork where you look at bank balances all day (that are much bigger than mine). For me, on the other hand, I drive down the road and I see all the things that I have built, I can also remember back 25 years and still see those structures that I created. This is the reason why I do what I do. I have applied a principle I learned at my first job that when I start a new project, I tell myself that this will be the best work I have ever done and this challenge is what keeps me excited.”

A change in perception

Being involved in the industry for so long Badenhorst shares that he has grown accustomed to the way things work in the industry but in his own view he would like to change the general views and insights of light steel frame construction (LSF) technology. LSF has been around for more than 10 years and in all that time Badenhorst has built very few LSF houses.

“I would like to see developers and the general public change their mindset about bricks and mortar versus alternative technology like LSF. The lack of acceptance of this technology I believe can be attributed to a lack of exposure and understanding. A common misconception is the noise travel factor, but in reality, the difference between a standard brick wall and LSF wall is around 1.5 decibels, which as an example is that sitting having a conversation in a brick-walled room or LSF walled room you would not be able to hear through either. Many buildings that are re-developed in the inner cities (catering to affordable housing) have not been built to withstand additional loads where LSF can be used and additional rooms added on top of buildings using LSF. The list just goes on,” Badenhorst adds.

Some sage advice

“Naturally when you get to an age similar to mine, everything becomes a lot easier and you accept what is happening and what has happened, and you learn to cope with the many ups and downs of the industry. My faith has played a major role for me which I cannot deny and being a small business owner has also definitely contributed to my success. The aim of business is to always grow and become bigger, but my choice was to keep things smaller and under control. I have still been able to do all the things I wanted to do and there is not much else at this stage of my life that I can say I need. I can only advise people to take every day as it comes,” Badenhorst concludes.