In part two of a series celebrating entrepreneurial success, Diana Clement looks at some of the more unusual ideas that local business people have dreamed up.
People have all sorts of unusual ideas for businesses. Some will be consigned to the annals of history pretty quickly. But others will succeed. After all, the inventors of the telephone and electric light were probably seen as cranks by some of their contemporaries.
Here in New Zealand successful entrepreneurs have done well out of everything from public toilets to coffins and even a gas-powered hangi.
It boggles the mind to consider that the Multi Kai Cooker - a stainless steel hangi-cooker - is for sale in the United States, although the main market will be Hawaii, where the concept of a hangi is understood.
The Multi Kai Cooker, invented by Whangarei air-conditioning engineer Doug Andrews, has proved a good seller in countries with large Polynesian populations.
The Multi Kai wasn't initially envisaged as a multinational business. Andrews used to have 44-gallon drum hangi cookups for friends and family. But they couldn't be sold legally. So he built a stainless steel prototype of the Multi Kai Cooker and patented it in 1997.
Since then he has sold thousands of the cookers that cook hangi food as well as working as a BBQ hotplate, shallow fryer, wok, casserole dish, smoker, low-pressure steamer and oven. These days he manufactures in Whangarei, Melbourne, and soon in California. So far the business hasn't made him "wildly rich". But the business, which operates out of the same factory as Doug Andrews Air Conditioning, employs his entire family and has enabled Andrews to offer apprenticeships to a number of street kids.
West Auckland-based Dan Glew has taken the public toilet to new heights. His "self managing" toilets sing, lock and unlock themselves morning and night and wash themselves down, removing 99.9 per cent of micro-organisms. The most up-to-date Exeloos also report to their owners over the web - able to provide updates on the statistics of how often they're used or wash themselves or even if the doors are opened or closed.
The Exeloo story dates back 30 years to when Dan and his wife Christine were travelling in Europe and encountered automated toilets in France. On their return home Dan, a valuer by trade, set up a building business, which suffered hugely in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"After that we needed to do something and we thought why don't we give those toilets a whirl." Because the couple was devoid of capital they employed engineers, architects and other professionals on a fee risk basis, with another businessman providing the company with space in his Penrose factory. The first Exeloo prototype was built in 1991, bought by the Auckland City Council, and installed the next year in Craigavon Park in Blockhouse Bay.
Currently there are 29 of the toilets installed in the Auckland region - including sites such as the Constellation Bus Station, Bayswater Park, Papakura South Cemetery, and Henderson Rail Station.
But to see the best examples of Exeloo's toilets people would need to visit Melbourne in Australia or US cities such as Washington DC and Atlanta, Georgia, says Glew.
Each and every order can be fitted with a number of special features which include the electronic dispensing of toilet paper, water, and soap. They have movement sensors, a variety of wash cycles, which could be for every use or every 10 uses, and a variety of music and voice messages. In total the company has sold 900 units worldwide and is constantly improving the design and features, says Glew. "We spend about 20 grand a month on design, development, and improving the product."
With a phone number like 0800 COFFIN Greg Holdsworth's business has to be a little out of the ordinary. In fact Return to Sender eco-coffins was almost an accidental business for the Aucklander.
The journey began when Holdsworth's father died and the son discovered that the coffin handle wasn't cold because it was made of plastic. The casket was made of MDF and even the lining was artificial. "Apart from the environmental side I was shocked by the fact that values of the casket didn't match the values of the guy who spent his weekends sanding and rebuilding wooden boats."
Some years later Holdsworth was finishing his Bachelor of Product Design degree at Unitec and chose to design an eco-coffin as his final year project. Because it wasn't a commercial setting Holdsworth could take his time doing the research and design. "In a normal commercial situation you can't do that because time is money," says Holdsworth.
"I decided to go back to the drawing board and break the mould of traditional thinking." The most dramatic change he made to the traditional coffin design was to turn the casket upside down, with the deceased lying on a flat plinth. "When my father died I wanted to sit with him for a few hours and have the old bottle of bourbon we'd talked about sharing. But you can't see him from the top of a box. With my Artisan casket the person lies in state instead of inside a box."
For materials Holdsworth settled on plywood because it had a New Zealand feel and wasn't laden with the chemicals of a MDF/plastic coffin. "Plywood is practical from a strength and weight point of view."
Building the Kingsland-based Return to Sender business hasn't been easy. While members of the public actively seek out the caskets, the funeral directing industry has proved reluctant to change its ways. The one area where there has been acceptance is from the growing breed of natural funeral directors such as State of Grace - a West Auckland-based eco-friendly funeral company.
"I just keep talking to the funeral directors to build a relationship with them." He recalls one Wellington funeral director who refused to stock Holdsworth's caskets but had to order two in a week thanks to customers demanding them. The business was boosted when Te Papa chief executive Dr Seddon Bennington was laid out in a Return to Sender casket this year after dying in a tramping incident.