Ian McCrystal is a man of many passions. Along with aviation, he’s also a fitness enthusiast and avid sports fan with a wish list of big ticket sports events he plans to attend around the globe.

Yet, away from travel and leisure, the First Cut CEO is a leader who is not only passionate about his business and delivering outstanding customer service, but is also deeply committed to the role the manufacturing sector has to play in helping his homeland fulfil its potential, in both an economic and a social context.

Ian McCrystal CEO of First Cut
Ian McCrystal, CEO of First Cut

“I’m extremely keen to see South Africa come through this dark period of uncertainty and underachievement,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “As much as government policy is crucial to accomplishing this, so is the commitment and dedication of those in the primary and secondary sectors of business and industry.”

First Cut has based its business on offering total cutting solutions to South African industry. Its product range of cutting machines and consumables from laser machines to hacksaw and bandsaw blades, to hand and measuring tools serves an array of sectors including renewable energy, maritime, automotive, timber and steel, to name just a few.

Over the decades since it was founded in Cape Town in 1956, the company now sits proudly as a South African market leader in the provision of cutting technology and solutions, but the road to today’s success hasn’t always been smooth. Ian acknowledges that – like the country as a whole – he and Managing Director Andrew Poole have had to face their own ‘dark periods of uncertainty’ as well.

“We have experienced two periods of immense cash flow pressure, which were, without a doubt, the most difficult times of my career,” he says. “The pressure placed on relationships all round was debilitating and highly stressful.” The solution, he explains, came from honest communication, collaboration with partners, some very careful strategy – and precision execution of these plans. “We came up stronger both times,” he says.

The resulting growth (14% per annum for the past 15 years) is what Ian labels the biggest change he has witnessed during his time with the company. “When I started out with Andrew in 1995, we had a team of a dozen or so people.”

Ian McCrystal CEO of First Cut

Now, more than 250 staff are employed across the country and – along with its Johannesburg head office – a manufacturing facility in Cape Town, and branches in Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit and Durban complete the company’s national footprint. “Of course, our management style has had to adapt from being very hands-on and transactional to something much more process-oriented,” he continues.

People are at the core of First Cut and Ian knows it, asserting: “Our business is nothing without its people.” In fact, their job satisfaction is how he defines his own success. “We need to know that our people are happy in their jobs,” he says, admitting that keeping this morale up is an ongoing challenge.

“Unfortunately it’s not something you talk about once and then leave to look after itself. It’s hard, it’s perpetual and we don’t always get it right.”

But he adds that keeping staff informed of plans, objectives and performance helps to achieve one primary goal: “It is most important that they feel they are truly a part of the business – that this is not just ‘lip service’ from management – and that they can make a real and meaningful difference.”

He acknowledges the hurdles from the current skills shortage in South Africa, but also believes that, as a business leader, the onus is on him to invest in his workforce. “At First Cut, we have an active program of personal development, such as formal internships and ongoing skills development.”

It’s all part of the First Cut culture, where the motto is to do everything ‘one step better’. “One step better in our range of capital or consumables from the portfolio of leading international principals we represent – and in the solutions that we offer to our customers. If these products or solutions don’t add value to the customer, we will fail,” he says.

Ian McCrystal CEO of First Cut

The challenge of providing workable and profitable solutions for their clients – representing good return-on-investment and helping to improve their businesses in turn – is what motivates Ian and his team. “It’s what gets me up in the morning and what drives us the entire day,” he explains.

With a primary manufacturing client base that is “at best flat and at worst shrinking”, Ian knows that a clear vision is required, along with ongoing productivity improvement.

“To achieve growth, you need to get the basics right, such as building robust and lasting relationships with suppliers and customers, innovation, product development and market extension – if you’re not doing those things, you’ll quickly go backwards and you’ll no longer have a business.”

“Building relationships with suppliers and customers, innovation, product development and market extension – if you’re not doing those things, you’ll quickly go backwards.”

As First Cut plans strategically for the future, its ‘total cutting solution’ of the past – encapsulated in the company’s tagline and ethos – is being replaced by a larger one that focuses on cutting, grinding and welding. “This new area, or portfolio, brings together our three fundamental strengths: relationships with our suppliers; joint technology; and a wide, strong and loyal customer base.”

But the starting point, he explains, is rooted in the bigger picture and a view of the current environment in South Africa. “We feel at the moment that the socio-economic climate in our country is wintery. It’s cold and challenging. However, within this wintery climate, there are pockets of warmth – of excellence and opportunity – which is very heart-warming and encouraging indeed.” And that, Ian explains, is where First Cut has chosen to position itself.