Business: Council told to walk the talk

By John Maslin

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Myles Fothergill and a Cummins marine engine are dwarfed by the 338-passenger Fullers ferry behind them.  Photo/Bevan Conley
Myles Fothergill and a Cummins marine engine are dwarfed by the 338-passenger Fullers ferry behind them. Photo/Bevan Conley

When the owner of a firm with $20 million worth of work on its books starts talking about business, we should take notice.

Myles Fothergill, owner of Q-West Boat Builders in Wanganui, heads a company punching well above its weight and going against global competition.

This despite the high dollar putting pressure on exporters and the Reserve Bank increasing interest rates. It's about survival and Mr Fothergill says that's about "learning to do business in that environment".

But he wants the Wanganui District Council to start walking the talk and doing all it can to boost business in the city as well.

"The council has a perception that business wants council to help them with the business, but that's not right.

"My business has done extremely well. We've got around $20 million worth of work under construction or signed up and we're struggling to find staff .

"The council tends to focus on getting more visitors here, as if getting more visitors is going to fill empty shops in the Avenue. It will have an impact but not a significant impact.

"What will make an impact to Wanganui is new business. That's not necessarily going out and finding new businesses. We've got existing ones here that could create new business."

He sees the problem as Wanganui struggling to attract new people wanting to make the city their home.

"Other areas have a housing shortage; we've got a housing glut. We've got empty shops and a disproportionate number of superannuitants. But what we need is working families and to get them here means creating more jobs."

The collapse of Fitzroy Yachts in New Plymouth had seen his company pick up a couple of staff but many of those looking for work do not want to shift to Wanganui.

"That's one of the problems we always have. We can talk about low-cost housing and other reasons to come here but people don't want to move."

Mr Fothergill said in places like Auckland, labour costs had been driven up which meant companies like Q-West could not survive there. The costs were too high for it to stay competitive so Wanganui's a good place for it.

"When you do the maths, our staff are better off financially here than they would be living and working in Auckland."

A lot of Q-West staff was contracted or sub-contracted to other Wanganui businesses. The bottom line is that the Gilberd St boatyard is running with about 50 staff, the highest number ever.

But Mr Fothergill said the council needed to be working to make Wanganui a more attractive place for working families to come to, for businesses to want to set up here and, importantly, for existing businesses to want to expand.

The 86 industries in the Castlecliff industrial hub, where Q-West is domiciled, did some research a few years ago and found that collectively, they generated a turnover of $1 billion a year. Mr Fothergill suspects that is higher now. "Increasing the output from those 86 businesses by 5 per cent means another $50 million of increased business and that's before you even consider the dollars in wages it creates."

That's where the council could have the greatest impact by attracting people here "and that's distinctly different from increasing visitor numbers".

Before last year's local body elections, Mr Fothergill read every candidate statement and went to the meetings.

"They all said the same thing: they wanted to help us with our business and come and see us. I invited them to do that but not one of them has," he said.

Mr Fothergill said he understood the problems with the wastewater scheme and running a tight budget with high debt.

"But if you had a business in that shape and carried on doing what you were doing, you should have walked away from it a long time ago. Doing the same only gets the same result."

He said in the current economic climate, businesses succeeded by adapting to that environment.

"We've had to learn to do that, tendering for work offshore. We've changed substantially since 2007 and we focused on Australia. We know that by giving them the best value for money in design and build, we've created a competitive edge," he said.

Q-West positioned itself to provide customised one-off boats, targeted to individual client needs "and we do that pretty much better than anyone else in the world.

"Over the last 10 years, it has gone from people calling us on the phone to going through a full tender process but we've worked up a good way of presenting for tenders and it's paying off for us."

Currently under construction are a $7 million 338-passenger ferry for Auckland company Fullers, along with the Port Taranaki pilot boat and an Auckland Coastguard vessel. Mid-winter some of the Whale Watch fleet from Kaikoura will be in for refits and a contract to build a boat for the Victoria state police is likely to create more business.

With work already in the shed and contracts signed and others in the pipeline, Mr Fothergill said Q-West had work that would keep the yard busy for at least the next 12 months "which is about as good as we get".

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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