2020 has been a year that has forced business to change. To change how it operates, how it communicates, how it uses technology. Disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic has hit no organisations harder than small firms and in light of the adversity they have faced and adapted to, the Business Herald nominates all small businesses as its business hero this year.
March started off like any other month, business owners and employees alike settling into the New Year after the summer break, but by the end of it - it looked anything but.
The global coronavirus pandemic brought economies to a standstill and forced businesses to shut up their shop fronts, but the level of ingenuity by New Zealand firms as they pivoted to continue operations and service communities under various lockdown restrictions has fostered an appreciation for the sum 500,000 businesses making up 97 per cent of the country's firms, and employing 30 per cent of the workforce.
No one has felt disruption from the pandemic more than South Auckland entrepreneur Richie Aholelei, but even though his gym shut down and revenue dried up, he turned his focus to the community rather than alternative revenue streams.
Aholelei, founder and co-owner of Papakura gym Crush Fit, put community first when Covid-19 hit. He took the time to arrange donations for the Salvation Army and started a foodbank collecting and delivering food for hungry south Aucklanders.
When he realised the local Salvation Army had closed, he drove all over, sometimes as far as Rotorua, to collect donated food, running a makeshift foodbank from the carpark of his gym each week.
Aholelei tells the Herald he was motivated to help his community as companies began laying off staff, and use his privilege for the greater good.
Following restrictions easing and life returning to normality, he formed a legal charity called The Kura Cares that continues to help struggling families.
He has also started a new business - Papakura Wholesale Meats - that gives the community access to affordable meat, cheaper than the supermarkets, operating on a 5 per cent profit margin. The company deals directly with farmers and companies such as Tegel and purchases products that are considered "seconds", products that have damaged packaging.
Aholelei says he has always been motivated to give back, whether that is through his ventures or in private.
"In a way, it just comes naturally as I didn't have much as I was growing up. I never used to have Christmases, never used to have birthdays, and it wasn't because my parents were chill, it was because we never had the money to. I'm in a position now where I'm quite financially comfortable and I don't have to struggle so I feel that I'm obliged to help other people," the 30-year-old says.
"If you look after the community, the community will look after you. I think a lot of business owners have it the wrong way around."
And it appears his theory rings true. During the lockdowns, Crush Fit, which celebrated its two-year anniversary during lockdown, lost about 50 members, but it has since regained those and more, and business is better than ever, says Aholelei.
Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O'Riley says small businesses have been carrying New Zealand through the economic recovery.
"I think a lot of New Zealand businesses have come out of the pandemic more resilient than they thought they were," O'Riley reflects.
In some ways, 2020 has brought about a decade's worth of change.
"I can't think of a year that has forced so much change ... it's forced us to think differently about health and safety, what an office is, how we work, how supply chains work, how export markets work," O'Riley tells the Business Herald.
"I never lived through wartime, but I can only imagine it must have been a bit like this, where you are dealing with day-to-day challenges, things constantly changing, all the while there is this overriding thing happening behind that you can't ignore."
O'Riley says he is "enormously proud" of the business community for the way it has dealt with disruption from the pandemic. "The way businesses have collaborated and worked together has been amazing. Part of what's got us through has been that collectivism, we've seen New Zealand pull together in the past around difficult situations, but it has absolutely happened at scale.
"Individual businesses have been incredibly resilient, but as a collective we've seen business work together and that's been a substantive reason why we've got through."
While it may be a little too soon to call defeat, O'Riley says SMEs have never worked harder, smarter or think harder, and navigating the challenges so far has been commendable.
Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ, holds a similar view.
"Small businesses are so important, they're important to their communities, but they are also so important to New Zealand at a national level. Those businesses create amazing products that are not only bought by other New Zealanders but highly competitive in international markets as well. They are amazing, and they have demonstrated that in what has been a very difficult year," says Hope.
Covid-19 was a short, sharp shock and forced businesses to reconsider how they operated their businesses, he says, and a lot were able to quickly deploy technology and resources to other areas to continue trading.
Hope says the pandemic highlighted the importance of the small business sector to the greater business economy and has proven why it was vital to have a contingency plan.
A blessing in disguise from the disruption was that firms had become more efficient and productive. "As horrible as it was, Covid did provide that hair-raising moment where businesses thought 'I have to do this or we might not be here tomorrow'."
Hope says small firms' resilience has been a credit to the country's recovery so far, and it was heartening that they had been recognised as vital to New Zealand by the Government.
"We're seeing some pretty astonishing economic numbers and a lot of that will be driven out by the small business sector."
ASB Bank chief executive Vittoria Shortt says she believes small businesses have come out of the pandemic stronger than ever, with disruption almost a blessing in disguise.
"Small business has come out much better than we had expected," Shortt says, adding that this was in part down to fiscal support through the Government's wage subsidy scheme, the Reserve Bank lowering interest rates, and relief from the banks on debt repayments.
"Beyond that, the ingenuity, and Kiwis really re-imagining their businesses; All of those things together, collectively, along with the management of the virus in New Zealand, has played an important part in helping us get to where we are at the moment."
Small businesses were in a good place, but remained cautious of headwinds ahead.
Changes made to operations during restrictions had resulted in gains that many owners had not thought were possible, says Shortt.
"It is incumbent of all of us when you go through situations like this to come out better ... and I do see a lot of businesses stronger as a result."
Shortt's message to businesses was to continue on the journey they had been on in recent months: "Keep thinking about how to diversify and find different revenue streams, keep thinking about digitising your businesses, and keep thinking about being more productive."
Michael Barnett, chief executive of the country's largest business chamber Auckland Chamber of Commerce, says many SMEs took steps this year that they may have taken more casually over a consecutive five-year period.
The business veteran says going digital and switching to be able to transact online was an undertaking by a huge chunk of the SME community this year.
An early survey the chamber undertook a couple of months into the pandemic found that 54 per cent of small businesses were not adequately structured to operate digitally. That number would be very different now, says Barnett.
"For many businesses, that is what enabled them to keep doing business, and keeping in touch with the networks that they had."
Barnett says the pandemic had catapulted SMEs onto the global stage, with countries across the world acknowledging and showing appreciation for their small operators.
"I certainly think the Government has a greater appreciation for SMEs."
Lewis Gradon chief executive, F&P Healthcare
F&P Healthcare was already one of New Zealand's best-performing listed companies when Covid-19 hit and changed it forever.
The pandemic and the sudden demand for the company's medical respiratory equipment have seen its share price soar – almost doubling in the past year.
Throughout it all, chief executive Lewis Gradon has felt the weight of responsibility that comes with the grave circumstances of F&P Healthcare's role in this crisis.
The drive to meet the huge surge in demand wasn't first and foremost about maximising shareholder returns – it was about saving lives.
Meeting that demand under trying circumstances of lockdowns and supply chain disruption was no easy task.
The reality is that F&P Healthcare has succeeded in delivering on the health front and on the financial front.
But Gradon is certainly an unassuming leader.
Interviewed about his role as a finalist (and eventual winner of) the Deloitte Top 200 chief executive of the year, he said deferred to the quality of the team around him.
"We recognise the efforts of our teams, so we struggle a little bit with the individual recognition," he said.
"The amazing thing about the last six months for this company has been the contribution of absolutely everybody ... every individual and every country ... the second part that's different is the contribution of our families through all of this."
Accepting the award last week before an audience of New Zealand business leaders, he highlighted the grim reality of what his staff had seen this year in international hospital systems that had been overwhelmed by Covid cases.
He reminded them how lucky we have been in this country. He warned them to be patient as, despite the vaccines, the global rates of Covid continue to rise and with it the risk of new local outbreaks.
- Liam Dann
Big guns helping out
When New Zealand faced a desperate shortage of PPE gear after Covid-19 arrived on our shores in late February, a group of New Zealand business leaders came to the rescue.
It was a job the Government was never going to do quickly enough. When China and then Europe were blind-sided by Covid-19 early in the year, countries around the world scrambled frantically to order enough PPE gear to keep their hospitals running, their health workers safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
New Zealand, thousands of miles away, was in danger of being at the back of the queue until a group of business leaders and entrepreneurs – businessmen Graeme Hart and Craig Heatley, Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall, Zuru Group's Nick Mowbray and Trade Me founder Sam Morgan - took charge.
Organising the massive supply chain of equipment in the background were former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, liaising with the Government, and Zuru co-founder Anna Mowbray.
By early April, nine chartered planes carrying loads of urgently needed disposable masks, intensive care ventilators, sterilised gowns, plastic face shields, medical goggles, medical alcohol wipes and hand sanitiser were starting to arrive in New Zealand from Shanghai.
The Mowbrays sent hundreds of their staff in China out on missions to factories producing PPE gear, placing orders and paying upfront as the rest of the world was trying to do the same thing. The PPE equipment was provided at cost to the Government.
The rescue mission followed an urgent meeting between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the group of business leaders.
When Nick Mowbray learned Kiwi food banks were running critically short of supplies during a phone call with the Prime Minister, the Mowbray siblings Anna and Mat joined him in organising a website and fund-raising drive, matching donations made by the public dollar for dollar.
In addition the Zuru Group donated 265,000 nappies, 20,000 children's toys, 20,000 face masks and hand sanitiser to US hospitals, a gesture highlighted last month by American actor Blake Lively who told her 27.8 million Instagram followers what the Mowbrays had done to relieve critical shortages in New York and Texas.
- Jane Phare