Hutt at Heart

Covid-19 – uncertainty and opportunity for Lower Hutt companies

Many Lower Hutt companies have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown and some are already seizing the opportunities slowly emerging from the crisis.

Petone-based Hills Hats Chief Executive Simon Smuts-Kennedy followed the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Before there was any suggestion of a lockdown in New Zealand, the company reviewed and upgraded its health and hygiene processes and went to work on a new product line.

Demand for the new range of stylish and reusable protective face masks was instant with health workers, trades people and others, including one of the company’s US retail chain clients.

Some 450 masks were produced and sold in the three days before lockdown. Production halted as Simon struggled unsuccessfully to get Hills Hats registered as an essential service. Another 500 masks are ready to ship once lockdown ends and around 2000 are sitting on the production line.

He says the company is ready to ramp-up production once he has a clearer view of how the market is evolving.

With our heightened understanding of infection risk, he believes the potential long-term demand is “massive”.

“But the question at this point is how to get to the market place. I won’t be giving up. Like any crisis, there are so many opportunities that will come from this,” he says.

Be nimble

Seaview-based engineering company, Metal Art, originally earned its reputation through the design and manufacture of architectural metal furniture.

Within little more than a week into lockdown, the company’s 15 staff had come up with a new product line, designed and produced prototypes and were getting ready to ship the first of 500 hand sanitiser stands to a supermarket chain and other customers. Other orders are in the pipeline.

Managing Director Carl Longstaff is quietly confident the new products will continue to see strong demand, by companies, government departments and organisations dealing with the public face-to-face, once lockdown ends.

“We’ve always had the objective of being a nimble company, cross-training staff across a range of engineering techniques and materials and that’s now paying off. I really can’t rate my staff highly enough.”

He says the global financial crisis of 2008 taught Metal Art some valuable lessons. The company was able to quickly adapt, it acquired another company, quadrupled its product range and came out of the GFC stronger than before.

“So in these situations, it really helps to keep a focus on that light at the end of the tunnel,” Carl says.

With Covid-19 turning the spotlight on the vulnerabilities of international supply chains, Carl suspects the current crisis may result in some of the manufacturing capacity lost during the late 1980s and 1990s returning to New Zealand.

“I get the feeling that some of the large companies, that made a conscious decision to purchase offshore in last 10-15 years, are now realising it may have been a mistake in the long run, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Opportunity to regroup

Mark Wilson, Managing Director of precision engineering firm Myriad Engineering, agrees that opportunities will emerge from the Covid-19 turmoil.

His company has been working sporadically during the lockdown, providing products to essential services such as KiwiRail, and is gearing-up to resume full operations.

“We definitely see opportunities but it depends on how they evolve. We need more clarity and investigation before we get a clear picture as to how and if we can make them work,” Mark says.

He is part of a group of managing directors of six diverse companies who meet regularly to share ideas and experiences.

He says the group’s focus for the last couple of months has been “survival” – laying out scenarios and strategies to get through the coming months, especially ensuring the life blood of any company – cash flow – is protected as much as possible. Part of this preparation for Myriad Engineering has been a focus on sharpening-up systems and processes, being more strategic around stock management, checking in with clients and suppliers and making sure the team and its culture are in good shape.

Business not quite as usual

Meanwhile, across the city in Waiwhetu, plastic sheet and packaging manufacturer, and the country’s only PET (polyethylene terephthalate) recycler, Flight Plastics, has been focused on maintaining business as usual. As a food packaging producer, Flight is an essential service and production has continued during lockdown.

Director Derek Lander says the company had been preparing for a possible lockdown weeks ahead of the Government’s announcement.

Because the company is a food packing manufacturer, hygiene standards are already embedded in the team culture and the transition to Ministry of Health Covid-19 standards was relatively straight forward.

“We’re doing what we were doing before and trying not to cause any disruption to our customers or our staff, and to continue to do what we do well – be a consistent quality supplier and employer, he says.

“For us, level three will look a lot like level four but it’s an enormous issue for anyone who wants to reopen their business. It’s not just a business issue, it’s a wider community issue.”

Chamber and council collaborate

Lower Hutt Mayor Campbell Barry says he knows how challenging the current situation is for local businesses, but is proud of the work companies are doing to make the most of the available opportunities and to contribute to the Covid-19 response. “It’s great to see companies innovating and pivoting their business to meet new demand.”

Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce and Hutt City and Upper Hutt councils have joined forces to provide support for local businesses and to foster a businesses supporting businesses approach to the crisis.

Chamber Chief Executive Helen Down says the partnership is a great example of local government and the private sector rapidly and effectively working together – a result of early relationship building between the sectors. “What’s also emerging – and I’ve been aware of this for some time – is the astounding ability of Hutt Valley businesses to adapt and to rapidly change direction in response to demand – in this case to Covid-19.”

Hutt City Council Chief Executive Jo Miller says, “When we take into account our strong and  dynamic manufacturing and technology sectors, it’s easy to see Lower Hutt becoming a regional centre of economic recovery once the Covid-19 situation eases.”

Since the lockdown began, over 600 Hutt Valley people and companies have signed up to #Love Local. Business-focused live streams and webinars are being hosted, with local experts providing advice and guidance. If you’d like to sign-up, go to: huttvalleynz.com

 

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