Celebrate Women’s Day – Inspired by Pernilla Stålhane’s success of selling car batteries in Africa

Pernilla Stålhane, CEO and owner of the Swedish company Pallmax, is not only celebrating women’s day this week.  She is also celebrating the 10-year anniversary of taking over her father’s company Pallmax, in March 2009. The company provides customers in Sweden and Africa with high quality car batteries.

Pernilla practically grew up “inside” the company, accompanying her father to client meetings and travelling with him to Africa. By the time she was 20 years old she knew the business and the clients. Thinking equal, her father expected her to take over the business one day, a pressure Pernilla had a hard time handling at times.  After getting an education, working a couple of jobs, starting a family and doing “her own thing”, she finally decided to rise to the challenge of her father’s expectations. Many small family business owners will recognize themselves in the Pallmax story.

The business has more than doubled its sales since Pernilla took over, 10 years ago. The Swedish blonde who travels around bringing high quality car batteries to Africa has caused several raised eyebrows. Pernilla laughs.

“I am actually quite comfortable in most situations but, if I’m not I fake it until I make it!”

Getting to know their customers and families from cradle to grave was a strategy both her and her father believed in.

 “My father was a pioneer in Africa and sold his first car battery to Ethiopia in 1974, says Pernilla. We go way back with many of our customers”.

However, after the first couple of years of growing the Pallmax business, Pernilla started getting restless and wanted to Build Smart.

 “I wanted to revise our business model. It wasn’t enough just to rely on our Swedish base. Why would my customers keep buying batteries from me as a middleman in Sweden? I knew that we could never keep our position if we did not also start creating local jobs in Africa. We decided to set up a company in Africa with Uganda as a base, and the whole family moved to Kampala to be part of the Pallmax adventure.”

Now three years on, Pallmax Uganda is in profit, supported by eight employees. Having innovated for Change and ensured this successful establishment, Pernilla and the family have moved back to Sweden.

“When I look back over the last 10 years, the main challenge has actually always been the same: Where do we get the finance to scale up our business? And since we do not produce the batteries ourselves, it is a cash-flow balance act in itself to buy and re-sell.”

“To be frank, there are no long-term sustainable financial instruments in Sweden that we SME’s can make use of, when we want to scale up our businesses; especially not when we want to expand internationally. The banks are not interested, and the Swedish government instruments are mostly short term, and not for companies like us. If you are a trading company on top of this, it is almost impossible, despite a good turnover and profit.”

Pernilla remembers how Swedbank finally stepped in as the only bank to offer a tailormade financial solution, reassessing their model for risk assessment, enabling Pallmax to scale up their trade with Africa. When they established the company in Uganda, it was Swedfund, the government agency, which financed part of the investment. Says Pernilla,

“The irony is that with the right financial partner we could triple our sales and services in Africa.”

Pernilla’s story demonstrates the fantastic upsides of running one’s own business. But also reminds us that there are downsides which need to be considered and prepared for.

In order to scale up it is important to put long-term strategies in place, including a strategy for family members to exit. These are complex decisions which may need a professional board and external expertise. Pernilla shares some final thoughts,

“Many times I have felt as if I was swimming in a fish pond by myself. I have thought about this quite a bit, and I think that without external colleagues and professionals to discuss with, one is in danger of losing motivation and momentum. The family is not always enough.  

Having said that, Pernilla adds that she never could have managed without her husband, who stepped in to the company when they moved to Uganda. Today Pernilla and her husband Mats work in tandem running the business.   

We first met Pernilla Stålhane in Barcelona as one of our first Swedish International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) awardees in 2012, a network for women who run their own successful international business. This network has been a support in terms of building business opportunities and finding like-minded, growth-oriented business women from across the world.  Make Trade is the convener for IWEC in Sweden. Celebrate international women’s day by becoming a member of Make Trade and engaging in our work to promote more women in international business.

Women's network make trade

About Make Trade:

We have used Statement for International Women’s Day by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women to inspire our explanation

“Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”

Think EqualMake Trade works with SME’s, helping them to scale up through international trade. We also strengthen local business organisations in developing countries. In our work we have a special focus on women’s economic empowerment, promoting women to run international businesses and trade.  We believe that more women scaling up their business internationally is a positive force for gender equality. Support us by becoming a member!

Build Smart – An SME which wants to expand internationally needs help with a variety of international expertise. The expertise should be qualified, trustworthy and easy accessible.  For this reason we have built a the digital platform, Sweden on the Go , which allows companies to  search for qualified international expertise by country, industry and skill, a smart way to build relationships.

 Innovate for Change – we believe that our work and leadership to promote international trade can only be successful if we innovate together and have a common ground for the change that needs to happen.  Sharing challenges and success stories from across the world creates a wider understanding of the change that we need to make happen – innovation driven by co-creation. Engage with us on change by becoming a member!