Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Office hub allows ideas to flourish

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The Generator provides flexible space in which small businesses can grow

After starting in Auckland, Ryan Wilson plans to expand in Queenstown and Wellington. Photo / Richard Robinson
After starting in Auckland, Ryan Wilson plans to expand in Queenstown and Wellington. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ryan Wilson first experienced the difference a supportive community could make as a child growing up in Kenya.

What Wilson saw in Africa was in contrast to the environment at his English private school.

"One of the things that struck me about that paradox is how good Africa is in terms of its community and how it looks after people and how it comes up with ideas, how they support each other, I guess," he says.

"At the other end of the scale you have a bunch of people with a lot of money and probably a completely different focus; very inward, very selfish."

A Kiwi wife and career in sports management brought Wilson, 36, into contact with an older generation of New Zealanders, where he saw another example of that community effect among lawn bowlers.

He started a property development business with the idea of redeveloping bowling clubs around Auckland, using part of the site for apartments or commercial space while retaining the club.

He says the aim was to reinvigorate the clubs by providing them with cashflow while keeping the amenity, with the property developer taking the risk.

But the global financial crisis in 2008 resulted in funding for property ventures drying up.

Wilson's project, underwritten by now-failed property financer St Laurence, tipped over.

The financial crisis may have killed off his plans for bowling clubs but it created the perfect environment for The Generator, a stylish serviced office facility in Auckland's revitalised Britomart quarter.

Wilson says that after the crisis hit, companies were downsizing and trying to use space more efficiently.

Greater use of technology means more time is spent working away from the office, with the mobile workforce growing at 16 per cent a year on a compound basis, he says.

"All these factors are effectively creating an environment that is ripe for what I thought was disruption."

Most of all he wanted to construct a community in which businesses flourished.

Wilson saw an opportunity to provide a workplace for small businesses and those working from home as well as companies looking for facilities not available from traditional serviced office spaces.

Around this is wrapped an environment that allows people to share ideas, provides a sense of belonging and has the infrastructure and support services to allow businesses to focus on what's important, he says.

"It's very friendly, it's very open, it's very engaging. The fact that we've got a caf and a bar as a hub of the business is a key design feature to create that kind of interaction.

"Creative friction is another word that we use a bit of, so the ability to share ideas and come up with new ideas.

"You see that more in places like the kitchen where they all get together and solve problems on a communal level."

Wilson is also clear on what it's not.

"We're not incubators, we're not there to grow your business, we're not there to tell you how to do your business. We just want to create an environment that helps you achieve that."

Housed in two buildings in Britomart, each site provides a mix of spaces for businesses at different stages of growth and a gym membership-style subscription that gives flexibility to increase and reduce space needs.

"We're mirroring, I guess, the volatility that sits in that SME space."

When he first started The Generator two years ago he was not only taking a punt on the Britomart location, then in its infancy, but also sinking his own money into the project.

"Initially no one in the middle of a financial crisis was going to give me any money for something wacky like this. It was pretty new and alien.

"So I basically did it myself. Begged, borrowed, stole, found whatever money I could, mortgaged the house, that kind of classic all-in.

"There's nothing like fear and pain to keep you growing."

The goal is to take the business to 50 sites around the world with a turnover of $100 million and an exit, potentially by irritating a serviced office giant enough to force a buy-out.

Alistair Jeffery, head of finance services firm Bluestone Group, came on board as an early investor, not only providing a funding boost, but also giving Wilson someone to bounce ideas off.

Further investors have added funds, there is now a formal board, including Matthew Cockram, the chief executive of Britomart developer Cooper and Company, and a governance structure is now in place.

Either a heavy investment round or public float is on the cards in the next two years to finance expansion plans.

Wilson is nailing down a site in Queenstown, with Wellington planned for this year too.

The focus is also on capturing the essence of The Generator so it can be replicated around the world but also tweaked for the different sites.

"In the same way that we have different spaces that reflect different working habits, we want a network of clubs that reflects different communities, different environments."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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