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A lot changes in 50 years. A lot stays the same.

When Fanie Marais walked into his first job on this day 50 years ago, he surely couldn’t have foreseen the future that lay ahead of him. It was 1 October 1970 and he had finished his 9 months military duty only the day before. As he had a relative in the industry, he went straight into employment with Westvaal Kitchens in Booysens, earning R150 a month.

Having a natural talent for sales, Fanie spent the next 3 months working on the showroom floor before moving to the contracts division. Over the next 13 years, he accumulated a wealth of experience, which he used to start his own business in 1983, operating as an agent for various kitchen manufacturers. Just 8 years later he founded Optima Kitchens.

Asked how operations differed back in the 70s, Fanie immediately replied, "Well, there was no such thing as pocket calculators."

We probably take it for granted now (after all, "there's an app for that") but calculating areas, materials, costs and discounts all had to be done by hand and required some good mental maths. Fortunately, he managed to purchase a pocket calculator in 1974, though it did set him back R140 (R7,500 in today's money).

Fanie suggests the biggest change in design over the last half-century of kitchens is the way the space is used. Describing kitchens of the time, Fanie explained, "The most notable difference is where they're situated. In those days, a kitchen was a separate room and was normally situated at the back door. These days, it's often the entrance to the home and is far more social."

And then there's the construction. The options for surface materials, finishes, cabinetry and colour are virtually endless but, as Fanie puts it, "Back then we were limited to steel, Formica and wood. That's it. And the parts were all very rough. There was no such thing as smooth runners or slow hinges, or even concealed hinges. The drawer runners in those days were absolutely terrible."

"Eventually granite became available and was very popular but, as you can imagine, was very difficult to work with. Once Quartz became available we were able to do a lot more with the designs."

It wasn't just materials that were limited in the 1980s, technology was also a constraining factor. However, recognising the potential, Fanie invested in a custom-built computer with a plotter in the mid-80s. It required a whopping R10,000 outlay, the equivalent of R140,000 in 2020, and the software was written by a family member specifically for the requirements of his business. Interestingly, Optima's custom software is still maintained by the same person, although the application is generations evolved from the simple tasks it was first created for. It's something that speaks volumes of the consistency and values inherent in Optima.

The 90s and 2000s also saw the internet boom. I asked Fanie if this had affected the way Optima operates and he answered, "Absolutely, clients have become a lot more informed. In the early years, people only knew what the reps told them but the internet allows people to research ideas and concepts and search for inspiration before they see us. It's great. Of course, there are always things that people may not have thought of or have overlooked, especially around ergonomics, and that's where the collective experience of this company makes a huge difference."

Touchingly, our conversation ended with Fanie explaining the one thing that has remained constant since that first day of October in 1970, "My wife has been a part of it for all of those 50 years. We were dating at the start and we're still married now".

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