Brian and Kathy Bland are a team. They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Their company, QSI, and its partners VizLite DT, CleanSpace, Nikki Plastics, Protal, Banwear and Poseidon NZ, is an international producer, importer and exporter, based in Whanganui. They have a contract with the Ministry of Health to produce face masks as protection against Covid-19.
From their former home in South Africa to their new start in Whanganui, their story is one of courage, resourcefulness, family and the ability to produce what's needed when it is needed. They have factories in Pacific Place and in the Mill Rd industrial estate, and more planned.
When Midweek called at the Bland's Springvale home for a chat, Kathy and Brian were joined by daughter Brenda and accountant (and friend) Colleen Tasker, ostensibly to add credence to some of the stranger stories that emerged.
"When our business started," says Kathy, "I was on the phones: I knew nothing — I'd been a housewife. A person phoned in and said they wanted a two-man toilet. I said, 'Do you mean one man sits and another man sits and they hold hands while they're on the toilet?' He said, 'Yes, something like that.' I said, 'I don't know about that but I will speak to Brian and I'm sure we can help you'."
"In the mines, underground, you have a two-man or four-man toilet, and you sit next to each other," says Brian. "There's a tank underneath and during the dog shift, between midnight and 4am, they take it and dispose of it. You do not know how many two-man and four-man toilets we sold after that."
After four years' military training, Brian stayed on in the army as quartermaster for 10 years. It was a Scottish regiment.
"We all had kilts," he says.
"I think that's where he learned his organising skills," says Kathy.
After the army Brian got a job working for MSA, a company in South Africa, and was there for 20 years. On the weekends he built houses, half of which he rented out.
"We never owed any money to anybody, ever in our lives," says Brian.
When they were married, they moved into one of their own unfinished houses, completing the work as they lived in it.
On May 1, 1985, Brian and Kathy started their own business specialising in workplace safety. With an estimated 600,000 people working in South African mines, the market was huge, but the first year was hard, building the system and growing contacts.
"We ended up supplying every country in Africa with riot equipment — body armour, gas masks, helmets, shields, T-batons — what we make here [in Whanganui] is 5 per cent of what we made there," says Brian. The catalogue was enormous.
"Sometimes we had to make 6000 sets of body armour in three weeks; people used to sleep next to their machines. We sold right up to Libya; Egypt I supplied to.
"I built up the factory there to 600 people."
Then, they uprooted and came to New Zealand. They chose Whanganui partly because their "immigration chap", Chris Tunbridge was from here.
"When I came here in 2001, I brought five families, including Kathy and myself. We had a meeting with [Prime Minister] Helen Clark at the Beehive, with the Minister of Immigration, and I told them what I wanted to do. I found a bit of dirt in Pacific Place and bought it from Trevor Attrill.
"The town had space to grow.
"Chas Poynter [mayor at the time] became a very good friend and he helped a lot. He was so loyal to this town. I've never met a better person.
"Then the Ministry of Health wanted us to make face masks. They gave us the tender for 25 million masks."
Brian had been importing product from South Africa and selling it at low profit to keep his new Whanganui company solvent. Now, the MoH contract was the making of QSI.
Brian's aim is to see New Zealand grow its manufacturing industry, with his own company setting the example.
"I believe in New Zealand: there's no finer country in this world.
"Forget about China: make your own products."
"Brian has always believed in manufacturing," says Kathy. "Because he can design his own end result. He knows what has gone into manufacturing, the ingredients but he hasn't always had the knowledge, so he had to do the research. Every funny item that came along, he would have to do the work but he manufactured it himself. When the people from the mines came to him and wanted different kinds of face shields and specialised things, he did the research, he'd get his team together and they'd work it out."
"You must always listen to your customer," says Brian.
Brian has a reputation for hearing what's needed, then working out how to make it or provide it.
"He's got contacts, so he knows who to ask and where to go," says Kathy. "In next to no time [the company] will be like it was in South Africa."
"Brian and Kathy are resourceful and very unassuming," says Tasker, semi-retired accountant and friend.
This year, another MoH contract has the company producing 80,000 masks a day.
"We work seven days a week: there's no stopping," says Brian.
When the pandemic hit and China and India closed their borders, preventing the import of raw materials for manufacturing in New Zealand, Brian called on his South Africa contacts.
"Within 24 hours we spent about $3m buying raw materials."
To begin with, product was air freighted into the country. On June 24, the first high-cube 40ft container arrives.
"Thereafter, every week we get a container," says Brian. "Air freight will stop.
"Now China's opened up again and some of their prices have gone up by from 400 to 1000 per cent."
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Brian has kept his staff on.
"I've got one chap who has been 19 years with me," he says.
Brian and Kathy are presently waiting for their New Zealand citizenship and the much-valued New Zealand passport.