Sometime in the middle of next month Chris Gudgin will pack up his belongings, his wife Alex, his Yorkshire Terrier Nacho and his Auckland salary and move 500km southeast from packed city suburbs to a little red house on a big town section in Gisborne.

Gudgin is a product manager for Albany-based tech company The Straker Group, which this year asked their 38 New Zealand employees — they've got another 82 in nine overseas offices — if they wanted the head office moved into the city centre, so a wider range of the city was available to younger staff struggling to buy their first home in the country's hottest property market.

Actually, some staff told company founders and owners Merryn and Grant Straker, an office in regional New Zealand would be better.

So in June, the company opened an office inside Launch, Gisborne's new tech hub, starting with two employees, growing to nine by this month and, with four or five actively considering joining them and keen interest from overseas staff, likely to reach 20 in the next year, Grant Straker says.

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When Gudgin and wife Alex arrive in New Zealand's eastern-most city, district-wide population 43,653 at the 2013 census, they won't be without friends.

And as they turn the key on their new, $260,000 three-bedroom home — their first — neither will it alone be the front door that opens.


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So will a future that seemed so elusive as they tried, and failed, for three years to buy a home in Auckland, most going for $100,000 to more than $200,000 over their budget, offering less floor space, virtually no outdoor area and a 30-year mortgage, rather than a 10- to 15-year one.

Now, the couple are talking about gardens and renovations and, yes, babies, Gudgin says.

The 30-year-old, a born and bred Aucklander, is a quiet achiever — he's not shouting from the rooftops about the exciting change in his life.

But he's thinking about it, and all the good things that once seemed beyond reach.

All the struggles of life in our biggest city will soon be a distant memory.

"We're not thinking about Auckland [anymore] ... this is a stage in our lives, a milestone, and it will take us in a certain direction in life.

"The possibilities are endless."

Gudgin is the first of The Straker Group's staff to, quite literally, put a stake in Gisborne's much more affordable soil.

Chris Gudgin, pictured in the Gisborne suburb where he recently bought his first home, is quitting Auckland for a life in the regions. Photo / Michael Craig
Chris Gudgin, pictured in the Gisborne suburb where he recently bought his first home, is quitting Auckland for a life in the regions. Photo / Michael Craig

Other workers, some with young families, have also transferred to the regional office, and they too are casting a keen eye over the city's housing stock.

Among them is married dad-of-two Jiro Sasamoto, who will switch from renting in Greenlane to househunting in Gisborne at the end of the year.

Any nerves are easily dismissed by the lure of a more relaxed lifestyle, and the security of knowing the roof over his kids' heads will be theirs.

"It means stability for my family."

It's a sentiment Grant Straker knows other workers share.

Gudgin and Sasamoto won't be the last to secure their futures in Gisborne's bricks and mortar, and that's how it should be.

"I'm a great believer that people should be able to get onto the housing ladder at a younger age. We believed the housing in Auckland was a broken system and that we needed to try and help some of these staff, especially ones with young families, or looking to start a family, get on that pathway.

"Housing here, it's like a quarter of the cost [of Auckland]. You're not talking about a 10 or 20 per cent difference, you're talking about hundreds of per cent difference in the cost of a house — there's no way you could ever pay them enough to be able to afford that."

And, they're happier, the 53-year-old says.

"They've still got a great job. The work we do is not mundane stuff, especially for the tech team. This is probably as technically challenging and rewarding as these guys are gonna get."

It was a house, two in fact, which started him on his own business pathway, when the former British Army paratrooper turned engineering graduate and then computing whiz formed The Straker Group with Merryn in 1999.

Grant Straker, co-founder of The Straker Group, in the new Gisborne office. Photo / Michael Craig
Grant Straker, co-founder of The Straker Group, in the new Gisborne office. Photo / Michael Craig

The couple, who each owned a house when they met, sold both and put everything into starting and then building their business.

"We didn't even have a house for a while. We risked everything to grow our business."

For its first decade The Straker Group focused on multi-lingual content management platforms, which are systems for running large websites in multiple languages, but eight years ago they expanded into translations, a major — and much more lucrative — switch, Straker says.

The newer arm of the business involves translating content into different languages, achieved by a mixture people and machines.

"We decided the $50 billion industry was the better place to be, rather than the $1b we were in at the time."

About 90 per cent of their business comes from overseas and tomorrow Straker Translations Group (STG) will be listed on the Australian Stock Exchange at an opening price of AU$1.51, giving it a market capitalisation of $86m.

The company has offices scattered all points of the compass, from neighbouring Australia and relatively close Hong Kong, Tokyo and Denver to far flung Barcelona, Cologne, Dublin and London.

And now, Gisborne.

It wasn't just about helping his young workers put a roof over their heads. There's a bigger picture, too, Straker says.

He doesn't want "selling each other houses" making the Kiwi economy go round.

"The way that you solve social issues is through economic empowerment. New Zealand, we seem to have fallen into the trap that everybody's a hero if they're at the bottom of the bloody cliff with an ambulance.

"The way you solve it is through economic empowerment and then we never end up down there and we don't end up being well known for all the bloody charities and things that we do, and that's not to knock those, it's just to say that it's the wrong way to look at it.

"The right way to look at it is if you empower people with jobs, with meaningful jobs, and you bring economies into the regions, then New Zealand is going to be a much better place. And it can't all be centred in Auckland."

When his staff first put a regional office on their wish list, Straker looked at Rotorua — where the West Auckland native spent much of his childhood — and South Waikato, where Straker's, who is Ngāti Raukawa, marae is.

But Gisborne's cheaper housing and beaches proved more enticing to his staff, the internet speeds are as good as Auckland, and the decision was settled when Straker was a judge for a hack-a-thon in the city and spoke with Gisborne mayor Meng Foon.

Foon told Straker there was local support for tech firms to come to the city, including a relocation grant from the Eastland Community Trust, and the longtime mayor is delighted his pitch worked.

"It's fantastic to have them here, we welcome the new world, well it's not that new really in terms of the technology, but if we can cluster an incredible group like Straker that will be the catalyst to encourage other firms to think about Gisborne."

The trust's relocation grant of $150,000 was a bonus, rather than a necessity, Straker says.

"We're a multimillion-dollar company, so that [grant] wasn't a big issue. It's just a nice to have, so when we said 'hey, we need to fly some of the staff down with their families for a quick tour, it wasn't coming out of somebody [in the business's] budget'.

"We would've gone without the grant ... but would we have got the same buy in, if we hadn't been flying people down?"

There are still challenges to meet — while travelling to and from Gisborne's airport is deliciously quick for an Aucklander, airfares are high, he says.

But he has high hopes for The Straker Group's newest location — it could become one of the best tech hubs in the world.

"It's one of the most stunning parts of the planet, and it's got just enough critical infrastructure that you just get a bit of momentum and you could take a region like that and turn it from a bit of a backwater, with a few issues and people wanting to leave and go drive mining trucks in Australia, to a vibrant tech hub where you can start to get, especially young Māori, into tech at a young age.

Gisborne's beaches are a big attraction, especially for surfers. File photo / Peter Meecham
Gisborne's beaches are a big attraction, especially for surfers. File photo / Peter Meecham

"And, all of sudden, you've changed it."

Still, he cautions others that any move to the regions has to be for a core business reason, otherwise it's unsustainable.

Their core business reason? Staff.

"The risk you run in Auckland is if you don't make it so they can get a house then they go looking for some other job that's not the job they want, but it's some big telco that might pay people loads of money and they're doing something that's not that creative."

Gisborne is far from the only regional centre looking to attract more people and business.

A Local Government New Zealand spokesman says councils in the central and upper North Island are particularly looking to attract business from Auckland by developing business, transport and retail infrastructure.

In the South Island, Timaru District Council's economic development agency launched a campaign to attract more business through their Aoraki Development arm.

Last year, accounting software firm Xero, founded by Kiwi entrepreneur Rod Drury, opened a Hawke's Bay office in Napier, its first in regional New Zealand.

Drury, who stood down as chief executive this year, couldn't be contacted this week, but said at the time the move showed the importance of creating tech job opportunities in the regions.

"It used to be that people needed to live in the major cities to accelerate their technology careers, but that's changing quickly. Opening this new office provides that opportunity to draw on talent across Hawke's Bay and lessens the burden on housing and transport in cities like Auckland and Wellington — win-win.

"If we want New Zealand to be better we've got to get the regions strong."

You won't get any argument from Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones.

The self-styled champion of the regions, who has been tasked with distributing the Government's $3b Provincial Growth Fund over three years, says he backs "1000 per cent" any firm willing to "swim against the tide or enjoy the early mover advantage" by heading to the regions.

Provincial Growth Fund money is coming to
Provincial Growth Fund money is coming to "Gizzy", regional economic development minister Shane Jones says. Photo / File

"This is part of what we believe we are doing. We're seeking a way to motivate, influence people to relocate their economic activity out of crowded metropolitan bases."

There is, at this stage, no relocation package as part of the Provincial Growth Fund criteria, Jones says.

"However, between ourselves and the independent transport authority, we will be investing for the next five years nigh on $380/390m around the Gizzy/Tairāwhiti area.

"That, among other things, is to ensure for those families who want to continue living there, businesses that want to relocate, that they can enjoy what we take for granted in the more bountiful parts of New Zealand."

The MP, himself raised near Kaitaia, welcomed Gisborne's latest residents to their new life away from the bustle of city life.

"They will enjoy the first rays of the sun, and they've got great surfing down there, and great weather."

Chris Gudgin and Jiro Sasamoto are about to start a new life, with their wives and, in Sasamoto's case, kids, in Gisborne. Photo / Michael Craig
Chris Gudgin and Jiro Sasamoto are about to start a new life, with their wives and, in Sasamoto's case, kids, in Gisborne. Photo / Michael Craig

Sasamoto's already brought his surfboard to the city, and Gudgin's looking forward to the simple pleasure of cycling to and from work — a 5km journey that crosses the Taruheru River and continues alongside the waterfront esplanade — instead of spending close to an hour behind the wheel in Auckland traffic.

"It will be interesting to see how my life changes," he says, thinking about having more free time in the sunshine of the East Coast.

His life might not be the only one.

The Straker Group employees overseas have been keeping up with the new Gisborne office via an internal social media platform, Grant says, and more than a few are liking what they see.

"We've got lovely office locations, like the middle of Barcelona, in Dublin and Colorado, amazing places to go, but they're all seeing pictures of the Gisborne office, and we've got all these people around the world wanting to work there because they're seeing pictures of sunsets and sunrises and the sea and the fish that people are catching, and hearing all the stories.

"I think this office is going to have a lot more attraction than we thought."

Auckland v Gisborne

Population (2013 Census)

Auckland: 1,415,550

Gisborne District: 43,653

Average house price (Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, median price in September 2018)

Auckland: $850,000

Gisborne District: $342,500

Average weekly earnings of people working (Statistic New Zealand figures for June 2018, based on a sample of 15,000 households nationally)
Auckland: $1262 (gross)

Gisborne/Hawke's Bay: $1046 (gross)

Attractions

Auckland: Shopping, nightlife including international concerts, the arts, Sky Tower, beaches and Hauraki Gulf islands.

Gisborne: Beaches, Rere Rockslide, wineries, Eastwoodhill Arboretum — The National Arboretum of New Zealand, watching the sun rise first in New Zealand.