By Nikki van Coller
Her company, Speciality Coatings, may only be in its fifth official year of business, but owner and MD Wendy Smith is certainly no stranger to the coatings industry.
If you haven’t personally met her yet, you will most likely have heard of Wendy Smith. Her career in the paint and coatings industry spans almost 30 years, and while she has largely kept a low profile during this time, she has simultaneously been at the forefront of the industry.
Her perfectionist mindset and dedication to finding solutions means her reputation truly does precede her. She is also hellbent on changing traditional ways of thinking within the industry and is quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) facilitating a mindset shift to an eco-friendly way of doing things, particularly in the wood finish market. This is not without its fair share of challenges and resistance, but slowly but surely, Wendy is starting to see the ripple effect of her efforts.
“More and more, I feel that my work is starting to show true meaning,” says Wendy, “and that it really is possible to find the sweet spot where premium quality meets forward thinking, earth-friendly innovation.”
Who is the woman making waves in a very traditional, male-dominated industry? Wendy is a forensic chemist with an illustrious career, now also a passionate business owner at the helm of her own coatings company, Speciality Coatings.
Her career path has been solid and consistent. After studying forensic chemistry, she began her work life as an analytical chemist at Plascon, with a technical sales support function. But Wendy quickly realised that she is not a born salesperson and prefers to be in a lab coat – learning, analysing, discovering and problem-solving. Her growing enthusiasm for manufacturing then led her into production management and procurement, while still overseeing the laboratories in environmental impact and research and development portfolios.
In 1998, Wendy joined Chemical Specialities (ChemSpec) as the technical operations manager. She remained with the company for the next 18 years as a technician, developer, researcher, leader, and trainer. Along with heading up research and development, she was the regional manager of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape areas – some of the only regions still profitable at the time of ChemSpec’s liquidation.
Always a problem solver, when the company liquidated in 2015, Wendy quickly pivoted and opened Speciality Coatings. Her aim was to continue to offer outstanding products, service, and advice to her ChemSpec clients, as well as to, over time, employ as many ChemSpec staff as she could. She currently employs seven and hopes to continue to increase that number as the business grows.
As the name suggests, the company develops and produces specialised coatings, and does so for all industry sectors. Wendy’s passion for the environment, as well as for furniture and industrial/interior design, has also led to a partnership with Hesse Lignal Coatings, one of the largest producers of wood finish coatings in Germany; Wendy secured a license to import their products to sub-Saharan Africa, and supplies Hesse’s low VOC polyurethane and acrylics, natural oils and water-based stains.
Her ‘right-hand-man’ is German native Mathias Kaestner, whom Wendy worked with for many years at ChemSpec, where he was the consulting chemist from Hesse Lignal. Most of the Speciality Coatings clients have known Wendy, Mathias and the rest of the team for a decade or more, and trust them to approach, implement and complete a project with technical excellence, expert advice and friendly, honest service.
Over and above a constant striving for nothing less than exceptional quality, three things are important to Wendy – sustainability, education and integrity.
Wendy has the ambitious goal of seeing the entire coatings industry lighten its carbon footprint through a focus on solutions that are friendly to both the earth and its inhabitants.
“Producing environmentally-friendly products from renewable raw material sources is of key importance to me,” says Wendy. “Traditional acid catalysed lacquers may be cheap and what people are used to, but there have been massive inroads made into eco-friendly products. These new products may appear more expensive short-term, but are better quality, safer for the environment and – because they require fewer applications and last longer – are actually less expensive in the long-run.”
Pushing the sustainability agenda and trying to change a long-standing mindset is not easy, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated industry. But Wendy finds that people are beginning to open-up to the possibilities that exist for eco-friendly solutions.
“It’s crazy to think that not too long ago, babies’ cots would be coated in acid catalysed lacquers, emitting free formaldehyde – a highly toxic substance,” says Wendy. “We are finally seeing a move towards the adoption of innovative, eco-friendly products and importantly, those who trial these products tend to convert,” she says, “but we do still have a long way to go.”
Education and training
Wendy’s other passion is education. At ChemSpec, she spearheaded an annual programme to provide 10 school-leavers with earn-while-you-learn intern opportunities. Over the course of four years, Wendy personally trained 40 young artisans, 25 of whom went on to follow a career in the industry and are making waves of their own. Wendy plans to initiate a similar programme at Speciality Coatings in the near future. In the meantime, she offers free training at her premises for clients, suppliers, applicators – in fact, for anyone who would like to understand the products and learn more about the technical and practical aspects of the industry.
“A competitor’s receptionist can come and take up the training if they want,” jokes Wendy. “I really believe that the more each individual within the industry knows, the more it benefits the entire industry.”
Honesty and integrity
Wendy has a strong belief in (and reputation for) honesty and integrity, from both a service and technical perspective. Her philosophy is to maintain transparency and truth at all times. “If there is anything less than absolute truth,” says Wendy, “it’s impossible to find the perfect solution.” To this end, and in line with her aim to help facilitate education and innovation across the industry, Wendy will happily give guidance and advice to even her competitors and their clients. “There’s room for everyone to grow,” she says. “They say the biggest secret in the paint industry is that there are no secrets – I want to educate, pass on what I know and help the industry by keeping the entire chain strong.”
Succeeding in a man’s world
What has it been like working in a technical, male-orientated industry for three decades? Wendy says she quickly learned that as a woman, there’s simply no room for error. She had to be precise, stick to the facts and prove herself, not by being loud or trying to dominate, but rather by ensuring everything she did was technically sound; gaining trust by providing solutions. “The other thing I learnt”, she says, “is that you can’t let your ego get in the way when a man asks if he can rather speak to your boss.”
To young females interested in entering a male-dominated industry, Wendy has simple advice: “Know your worth, keep a good attitude and always look to grow and learn.” Her belief is that women are programmed to not show vulnerability, but that it’s precisely by asking as many questions as possible that we learn the most. Wendy stresses that it’s important to always approach everything and everyone with nothing less than humility, honesty and integrity.
Wendy’s head-down-and-do-the-work attitude and focus on sustainability, education, and integrity, work together to allow her to forge new paths and pioneer an inspired way forward. She may still prefer the laboratory to the limelight, but if this is the first time you’re seeing the name Wendy Smith, we’re quite sure it won’t be the last.