Despite a challenging economic climate, Probe, South Africa’s largest importer of automotive and auto electrical components has remained committed to a flexible growth strategy that has sustained the family-owned business for over 50 years. CEO Frank Rovelli contributes Probe’s success to correctly anticipating market demand and providing best-in-class products coupled with solid aftermarket support.
Probe has been in operation since 1963 and in addition to being the country’s largest importer and distributor of automotive batteries, provides auto electrical components such as starters and alternators, as well as rotating electrics and industrial air solutions. The company also acts as sole local distributor and aftermarket support for a number of leading global brands, including premium battery brands Delco Remy and Prestolite. In fact, Frank recalls, the Delco Remy relationship extends right back to Probe’s origins, when the company was established by his father, Francesco Rovelli, in Witbank (now eMalahleni). Operating with only one agent, Probe was then the sole Delco Remy distributor in heavy duty starters, alternators and batteries.
Under the leadership of Frank and his brother Rick Rovelli, the family-run business has grown at 70% per annum for 20 years, signalling a robust growth story. Frank says that Probe’s operations, which now boast a nationwide footprint, have been sustained through several recessions, credit crunches and market changes. “There will always be some form of economic uncertainty. At Probe we’ve recognised throughout the years that the key to ensuring our business continues to grow is having the ability to adapt and deliver to market needs. In doing so we have developed a diversified product range that is supported by strong after-sales and customer support.”
Product diversification has been made possible through a number of strategic acquisitions and partnerships with key players in the market. In 2014, Probe successfully bought MED, a prominent, independent auto electrical wholesaler in South Africa. Along with it came the distribution rights for top international brands Aristo Brands and Dynamax Auto Components. This acquisition firmly placed Probe as a leader in the distribution of rotating electrics and complemented the existing heavy-duty range of starters and alternators.
Part of Probe’s expansion strategy has been to provide a complete industrial solution. Towards the end of 2016, the company established the Probe Industrial Technologies division to focus on providing quality air, power and safety solutions to industrial clients. The division acts as the sole local distributor of SCC compressors, a leading global brand of premium class air compressors, and also provides specialised aftermarket technical support. Frank says, “The relationship with SCC Compressors has resulted in Probe being able to provide our customers with the complete power package. This has been one of our key goals – to provide clients with a one-stop-shop – and is a compelling differentiator for Probe in a highly competitive market.”
In addition, Probe has further extended their capabilities via a recently established manufacturing facility where key electronical components – from starters to alternators – are manufactured and assembled. This initiative complements Probe’s well-established remanufacturing programme.
While Probe strives to stays true to its heritage by providing competitively-priced premium products and solutions, it is equally committed to a future built on sustainability and relevance. Last year the company entered into partnership with the Thesele Group, a wholly black-owned investment holding company that acquired a sizeable share in Probe. Rick Rovelli says that the partnership is a reflection of Probe’s commitment to strengthening their B-BBEE profile. “Our commitment to diversity began 20 years ago as one of Zimele Limited’s first BEE companies based in what was then Witbank. The partnership with the Thesele Group reaffirms this commitment. What is exciting about the partnership is that both Thesele and Probe have a closely aligned strategic vision, and we anticipate that by operating independently from any major group, great opportunities will open up for us in the market.”
Probe is an African growth narrative that is underpinned by key non-negotiables. Rick Rovelli says, “In terms of our product offering, we’ve always prioritised providing a quality product. The commitment to providing customers with high quality products and services at the most competitive price point has been a driving force since day one. Another key aspect has been to grow the business with a long-term view. Strategically, it is important that partnerships are the right fit for us and align with Probe’s goals and objectives. And in a practical sense, we have endeavoured to grow the business from a solid foundation that incorporates good governance and robust systems and processes. At Probe we like to say that we are a family business with corporate controls.”