DNA DESIGN ASSOCIATES (DNA) was founded in April of 2007 and is now an internationally active African group across the continent that also recently acquired the well-known Triad Construction to form a well-balanced interior design company with exceptional delivery skills outside of our borders.
DNA first set its footprint into the rest of Africa in 2011 and has to date successfully completed projects in many countries across the African continent. The company is also currently in the construction phase with projects in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana & Burkina Faso with offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town & Kigali.
The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to Founding Member and MD at DNA Eben Saayman about his personal, professional, and entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us your brief history; academic, professional personal growth to your role TODAY
Qualifying with a 3-year National Diploma Interior Design from Witwatersrand Technikon in 1991 my passion for turn-key commercial interior design was born after having worked for various SA interior design companies and it became very evident that there was a lack in delivering on what they promised to the client. I knew then and there that one day I had to build a business that would focus not only on great design but on exceptional quality delivered on time and to client’s specification.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of MD at DNA Design Associates?
I was actually a founding member of DNA, having started from a small office years ago and little did we know that it was to become the corporate design company of choice in SA with the largest footprint on the African continent today. So, it was a natural appointment as MD of the group when the time for such a position became imminent.
It is a great honour to be part of DNA today and still at the helm of the company because it means I can influence how we serve our customers better and how we continually grow the business across borders. From a customer point of view, we are able to provide them with an end-to-end solution from assisting with the selection of their site, straight through to the final hand over of an interior that functions as it was planned. I believe DNA is best placed to deliver on customer needs across the continent as we have gained experience in all the logistical factors that goes with international protocol and country regulations that shaped DNA into a trusted turn-key design company in countries where it seemed impossible to deliver. We have gained the expertise, knowledge and selected the right partnerships with trusted companies by elimination processes that took years to master.
I give credit and am grateful to everybody who has directly or indirectly played some role in shaping me into the person that I have become and unleashing my full potential. Within and outside of DNA, my first MD “Michael Oliver” who taught me a great deal about this exciting industry, my parents who supported and always believed in me, my partner and Financial Director Robyn Hill, my dedicated management team and all of the staff I have worked with who have played a major role in my progression. I must say it has been remarkable and I have experienced nothing but support from my team over the years.
I am very privileged to serve in various roles within DNA, from client relationships to costing and sub-contractor and project management interactions to what I still love today “overseeing the design inspiration & growth” of every client. I still lead the design and project management teams on every project no matter how big or small the overall project. Other than my role as MD I am also witness to every project roll-out from beginning to end together with my team and that is extremely rewarding and satisfying.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term as MD?
I want to leave behind an African business that is global in outlook and reputation. I want to have in place a culture of mutual respect, and a company in which people say ‘well done’ to each other. I want to have initiated, designed and helped to construct a handful of substantial projects in the major capital cities in African countries, to the ambition and quality that DNA Design & Project Management is known for in South Africa today. I want to have the company in the hands of empowered younger shareholders, who are already guiding it today on a smaller scale, so that my departure as director will be an easy role to fill by the next generation that will bring new insights and knowledge to the business.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
I am not a micro-manager, and I believe in team autonomy. I create spaces for inspired design and inspired project work by making people feel excited about the projects they are working on. I love sharing knowledge – sharing the great and not so great project storeys – what I learned from them and how we could avoid possible problem areas in future project roll-outs. I do not shield the staff on a particular project from the flux around a project. I lead neither from the front, nor from the back. We take on our projects as a design consultancy where we all make a difference and add to the overall success of a project.
My leadership style is, first and foremost consultative. I believe strongly in the power of engaging with people. I do not subscribe to an autocratic style of leadership and I think that makes DNA successful as a company because we make it up as we go along where people see me as a member of their team.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position as MD?
I take full ownership of my life and my work. It is a passion. I love making a difference to our clients and I love the notion that in our work, we contribute in making corporate offices fully functional, as they should be. There has been an immense turn-around on how the corporate office environment functions today compared to just 10 years ago. It is our dedication to enlighten and guide corporations into a more functional and staff friendly environment that contributes to the success of that exact corporation.
I lay awake at night dreaming of the next lasting impact we could make on a project that is currently in our design studio no matter how big or small.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
I have an open-door policy and try to be as interactive as possible with our people. I also have many discussions and offer project guidance to ensure that our people are kept informed of our goals and objectives. I feel that mentoring is a very important responsibility which enables me to give back and help our people just as I was mentored along the way by my first MD “Michael Oliver”. I also teach and lecture by invitation at various South African universities from time to time. I am always involved as I also mentor on a project-by-project basis and as part of leading my senior team. Mentoring for me works when I also get something out of it. I often find that my staff teaches me as much as I hope they gain from my shared experiences.
If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
I must admit that when we competed for the prestigious project for the United Nations Headquarters in Addis Ababa Ethiopia against 17 other international design companies, it was extremely rewarding when they chose DNA as their design consultancy of choice. I did shut down the entire office for that day to go out to celebrate with the staff for achieving such a high standard of design. THAT WAS A HIGH but not limited, as highs for me have been around people. Over the years, I have seen how people develop within our organisation to become leaders. We have some phenomenal talent and seeing people building the business to what it is today, is definitely a high.
Other highs which I have the privilege to witness on a regular basis are when I see the look on our clients’ faces when we exceeded their expectations every time.
We spend a lot of time, effort, training and resources on our personnel and sometimes the lows are when one is disappointed because when after years of engagement and grooming a certain individual for a specific position, they decide to leave. Our people are our business, without them we are just another company out there so it is always a low in my life when I see a talented employee leave.
Another low I have encountered during the years in this amazingly creative but extreme deadline driven industry is being let down by a trusted supplier just before the handover of a client’s project. Thankfully today I view that same low that occurred so many years ago as one of the greatest lessons I learned in trust, both from a supplier and client perspective. So now it is comforting to know that our design team can work with unexpected change in programming or occupancy dates. That’s why we have staff who are crazy about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. We make sure that the all-important details don’t get lost in the shuffle or consumed by the bigger picture. There is indeed a method to our business that can sometimes seem like madness but that was a very important low we do not want to repeat.
What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
DNA has won several design awards during the past decade including the QB award (twice – 2011 & 2014) and the IDA award for the “most creative workspace”. At DNA we care about and crave great interior design. We don’t mean design that simply looks pretty, or design that has the top architectural photographers swooning. Great design does that, but it does so much more too. Great design is about cultivating client relationships where creativity can flourish. It’s about listening to and collaborating with clients to understand their needs and their objectives, and then coming up with design solutions which are unique and meaningful and hit their expectations every time. It’s about striving and not settling. It’s about upping the artistic ante. It’s about creating something that packs an emotional wallop, but it’s a wallop backed with empirical knowledge, solid engineering and detailed execution. It’s less about big talk and more about big ideas – ideas that resonate within the hearts and minds of our clients and their constituents. Above all, great design is great fun: it’s fun to create, it’s fun to experience and it’s fun to see the reaction of our clients when their project succeeds beyond their expectations. THAT IS AN ACCOLADE IN ITSELF.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
Our growth has been phenomenal over the years as we have not only succeeded to be one of the interior design consultancies of choice in South Africa, but compete on a global scale across the continent. We have successfully grown DNA to be an international player in this exciting industry and are able to offer such high standards to countries that cannot comprehend the service delivery.
Our continued business growth is anchored on the need to maintain the best possible relationships with our existing clients; we still have relationships that allow us to provide advisory services to the same clients for the past decade. This is a rewarding feeling when your clients come back for a second & third time.
DNA has grown organically through hard work, good clients and consistent delivery, also through an inquisitive nature. The DNA of our company is the condition of being hungry; for knowledge, for newness, for challenges and for technology, banishing bland projects one at a time. What is now known as DNA Design & Project Management has grown by acquisition of companies, and by finding all the new ones during the past decade such as our educational furniture range.
We are proud to announce our sole distributorship agreement for South Africa and Rwanda signed earlier this year with ZL furniture, a furniture manufacturing facility in Qingdao China.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?
Ethics and integrity go to the very heart of what we stand for; it defines who we are because if we get that wrong then the DNA brand is worthless. We take immediate action against employees who are dishonest or who are tempted to beneficiate themselves through project work or project situations. We counter-message corrupt behaviour. We negotiate an upfront mark-up percentage on materials and furniture with clients from companies that supply and contract to us. This sets us apart from many competitors especially in the turn-key Interior Design field. We are totally transparent with our fees and commissions charged in the design, procurement and project management of our services and we believe that this is the only way to a successful project!
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
I think it is vital to any South African business to make sure that transformation is kept as a key objective. Here at DNA we have a Level 2 B-BBEE rating as we are 51% majority black shareholding owned, but that is just a scorecard. We go beyond that and drive real transformation. E.g. our procurement business supported 90% white owned companies only seven years ago. We now have over 30 sub-contracting companies which equates to more than 65% from previously disadvantaged communities supplying and consulting to us on various levels. We value diverse teams to bring fresh thinking and new ideas to enable us to serve the broader society through the work we do. We spend our time at every opportunity to attract and select the best creative individuals from the perspective of race, gender, culture and thinking to join our immensely creative team.
Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of.
At DNA, we know we are only as strong as our people. And we believe that our business future relies on the education and skills of tomorrow’s leaders. We invest in various programmes, to help develop and support passionate, driven and innovative individuals.
Recently, we launched a rather exciting initiative when we partnered with Rwanda University College to run a series of workshops where students will be taught to use design led thinking to problem solve what and how we impact society by using the creative side of our brain.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
Our business has a lot of creative people who do design and develop the project at hand which is the front end but we also have others who manage and operate behind the scene. The front end is fairly easy as it comprises projects that have a start and end date, but in the on-going service side we ensure that our staff is well trained and committed so that the professionalism and customer service standards are always kept as a priority. DNA’s management team ensures that superior service is delivered passionately and with operational excellence throughout the project life cycle.
When you not at work, what do you get up to and where can people follow you online?
I believe that personal and family time is a very important part of ones being and that a balance between the office and home should always be strived for, although sometimes easier said than done. I enjoy dining and travelling and therefore the venture of taking DNA into Africa has been very rewarding from both a business and personal aspect as I have experienced many breath-taking countries and cultures and dined with both locals, Director Generals, Vice Presidents, Secretariats, Ministers, CEO’s & Managing Directors alike right here on our beautiful continent.
Although not a great golfer, I also enjoy a round with a few friends and or clients alike. Other interests are fine wine and the bushveld.
We can be reached and followed on our entirely new website which will soon be launched at www.d-n-a.co.za where clients, contractors, suppliers and even other interior designers can subscribe to our monthly newsletter on the website.