Road to Recovery

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This month we return to those Waikato businesses whose stories we told during lockdown, to find out how they are faring now. We found teamwork, determination and ingenuity are helping them through uncertain times.


Coming out of lockdown stronger

Cambridge website builder Rocketspark experienced significant growth in March and April as businesses launched ecommerce websites and online service propositions, says director Grant Johnson.

New customer enquiries also increased significantly, he says. The business uncertainty early in Covid-19 was a challenge, though, and some key decisions were put on hold. “While we’ve experienced great growth we’re still operating with some caution due to the uncertainty of how the impact will play out over the longer term.”   

Johnson says with the advent of Covid-19 they went on the offensive and produced a huge amount of content, new features and online classes to help businesses. 

“We have many clients in hospitality and food services so we rapidly developed a scheduled ordering system that the likes of restaurants, cafes, bars, butchers, bakers and florists could use to set up schedules for pickup and delivery of food orders.”

Because of their work to support businesses’ transition to ecommerce they have been invited by Xero to join their Xero Hour learning sessions. Rocketspark will be sharing the opportunities for small businesses to generate business online.    

“As a team of mostly introverts the lockdown has suited our personalities quite well,” Johnson said as Level 2 kicked in. “From a work perspective we’ll enjoy spending some time with the team in the office but there will also be some routines from the lockdown that we’re likely to carry through such as daily check-ins with the remote team.

“While a business like ours is well suited to working remotely, the more social aspects of life are a key part of work-life balance.”

Long term, he says the online video classes launched during lockdown will stay.

“We’ve seen some amazing success stories during lockdown and it has highlighted how important it is to understand your market and not roll over in the face of a crisis. For those who innovated, hustled and pivoted during lockdown, many have seen incredible results where they’ll come out of lockdown in a stronger position than they were before.”

‘No one knows how this is going to play out’

John-Paul Mclean, of Ryder Technologies and Stampngo, says the Covid-19 lockdown gave the company time to focus on new solutions for business and clients, and they were able to build a stronger relationship with some key customers and suppliers.

“Another key success was the ability of the staff to adapt and change focus. We have designed and built new products that we believe will be in demand entering into level 2 and beyond; we have created new websites, sales funnels and content for these products in a matter of weeks.

“The ability to collaborate digitally with tools like Miro will become a cornerstone of how we operate in the future. We have adapted to running workshops to get away from unproductive meetings and the results have been phenomenal.”

Stampngo

He says they had a spike in sign-ups for the StampnGo App as they entered Level 3, from cafes and restaurants looking for a pre-order, contactless payment and pick up solution. “I think we would have had a year’s worth of learnings/data within a two-week period, which as digital product designers is really awesome.”

Long term he says as digital designers of web platforms and apps they will move to a build fee and monthly fee as opposed to just a build fee.

“This will reduce the initial costs to clients but also provide a better monthly cashflow to Ryder Technologies,” he says.

Mclean says he heard stories of SMEs not coping with the changes involved in lockdown because they hadn’t kept up with technological change.

“Now is the time to get educated about how technology can make your business better and get the training to implement these products. I can see it being quite normal now for people to do the accounts/HR/marketing part time remotely from home. It will be more productive and there will be a larger talent pool for remote workers now. SMEs need to have the infrastructure in place to attract remote workers.

“No one knows how this is going to play out. All we can do is be responsive and adapt to the changing markets.”

‘It’s like being part of a family’

The Covid-19 lockdown and aftermath presented a challenge to Hamilton law firm Norris Ward McKinnon’s strategy around culture and growth over the past 18 months.

“The lockdown has challenged our growth strategy, given the uncertainty and the inevitable recession,” says managing partner Sam Hood. “The lockdown has also challenged the culture aspect of our strategy, because prolonged physical separation can be a barrier to individual wellbeing and team cohesion. In saying that, our teams have found new ways to get together, using apps and platforms like Zoom and Teams, and are sharing information they probably wouldn’t have before.  We’ve got to know each other better in that regard.”

He says morale is high, as the firm has avoided redundancies and salary cuts. “We are continuing to invest heavily in the well-being of our people. It’s pleasing to see that the lockdown has not dented our confidence or caused us to retrench.”

Sam Hood

There could be a positive spinoff, as Hood sees the firm making changes to enable greater flexibility for people to work when and where they want, higher investment in the resources to enable this, and less work-related travel.

“During the lockdown I tried to speak with every member of NWM about their individual experience. Those conversations showed just how much people missed their work colleagues, and how important those work relationships are to our overall wellbeing and sense of belonging. In many ways, it’s like being part of a family – easy to be complacent in those relationships, and occasional misunderstandings, but when the chips are down, you know who to turn to. Plus you miss those people when they aren’t around!”

The importance of supporting local businesses

Journies was such a new central Hamilton gym it hadn’t even opened before the lockdown. Co-owner Opal Higgins says they had to quickly come up with an online offering.

“Our challenge was figuring out how to run a gym, without a gym.”

Finding and using the right technologies proved a steep learning curve.

“I grew up with a Commodore 64, and my partner Sam couldn’t even figure out Bebo back in the day.

“With the help of our teenagers, input from our younger, more tech-savvy coach Monic, and hours of Youtube videos and tutorials, we managed to figure things out.”

Journies Gym owners: Opal and Sam Higgins

The online product helped relieve the immediate financial pressure, and their social media efforts created more awareness of the gym, which she says has led to some of their local, remote clients joining up for in-gym memberships.

“Being able to open Journies gym has been huge. We still have some on-going remote clients, but are so excited to finally utilise the facilities we spent so much time and energy on pre-lockdown.”

She says they noticed that during the lockdown people had more time to focus on their health and well-being, but now the balancing act of work and family is back so the accountability aspect of their service remains vital.

She says the online gym will remain a part of their service, on its own and in combination with in-gym sessions.

“We’ve been super impressed with the ingenuity of Kiwi businesses over the lockdown period and what other businesses have done to adapt. This experience has reminded us of the importance of supporting local businesses and networking with others even if they’re in the same industry. We’ve also learned, and made use of regional and government services that support small businesses, and encourage companies to check out what’s available in their area.”

Getting used to the ‘new normal’

Escapist, in central Hamilton, turned to an online escape room offering during level 4 of the Covid-19 lockdown. “Although they are a big success, it is not the same as physical escape rooms. So business-wise, moving to level 2 means we can start earning at normal level, not at a massive loss like in level 4,” says co-owner Pam Ariestia.

She was pleased that loyal customers made the effort to come in and spend money with them once the lockdown lifted.

“Being able to operate our physical escape rooms and see our customers again in person has been really good. As a business, our reason for being is to provide a space where people can connect, play games and solve problems together – seeing that play out in person again is really cool.”

Ariestia says Escapist is keeping its online escape rooms and board game store, and working towards its own print and play offering.

She has a warning and a plea. “Being able to operate at Level 2 has been good for business, but it doesn’t mean that we are out of the trenches yet.

“We still need support from the local community and domestic tourists; if you have a choice to spend local, please do so!”

An ‘amazing’ team of staff and students

Hamilton tutoring service Mindfull Tutoring had to switch quickly from face to face learning to online when the lockdown started.

Owner Claire Howarth says the uptake was “fantastic” and they were able to continue to deliver lessons across all year levels.

“I have come to realise that this team is not just our 10 amazing teachers, but also a team of 160 outstanding students making it work at their end.”

Post-lockdown, they decided to remain online for the rest of term 2 to provide certainty for students and their families. However, at level 2 they can access more teaching resources and meet with colleagues and students where necessary. It also gives them the chance to prepare their offices for term 3. “Most importantly, it has given us time to set up systems for cleanliness,” Howarth says. “Our once-administration lady will be spending these last few weeks of term 2 sterilising the premises to a level that a doctor would be proud of.”

She says the sudden introduction of a lot of technology to staff with varying levels of experience working in shared online documents or via video conferencing was a learning curve. “As a result of this potential barrier, we underwent a period of rapid professional development,” she says. “Prior to Covid we only had two teachers using these platforms, so this increase in the technological skill base of our staff will give us more freedom as a business. We now have more flexibility in terms of how we deliver lessons and the accessibility of lessons to those in various locations, or restrictive circumstances.”

Bring on the Trans-Tasman bubble

Hamilton inbound tour operator Leisure Time Group went from a busy tourism season to abruptly having no income at all when Covid-19 struck. Managing director Scott Mehrtens and marketing manager Vicki Annison say they worked alongside the industry associations and bodies to campaign the Government to ensure support was offered to tourism businesses across the sector.

“Unfortunately it seems that the inbound tour operators are one of those sectors that the Minister of Tourism says he is unable to save. With no clarity around how long international borders will remain closed, and very negative messaging around this, we have already started to see cancellations of tours from our overseas travel agents that had clients booked to visit New Zealand next year.”

Scott Mehrtens

Scott Mehrtens

They are focusing on what they can offer to the New Zealand market, which sees them working on adding more tours to their schedule of trips, as well as adding a new section to their website offering holiday packages to independent travellers.

“We have also been in touch with a lot of New Zealand travel agent offices who are also keen to sell our New Zealand travel offerings to their clientele.”

They have re-opened their Hamilton and Auckland offices, and have added some flexibility to their cancellations policy and new Covid-19 related terms and conditions.

“Our business will look substantially different for a long time to come – as long as the international borders are closed, and/or quarantine restrictions are in place, then no-one will be able to visit New Zealand for a holiday or for an international conference/business event. The long-term impact of this, to the whole economy not only the tourism and events sector, is enormous. We hope that the Trans-Tasman travel bubble is established promptly and efficiently; this will then enable us to work with our Australian agents to facilitate New Zealand travel for their clients.”

Something positive to look forward to

Resolution Retreats’ Joelene Ranby says the challenge for the women’s wellness retreat has been similar that faced by many businesses in the tourism and experience space, as they cancelled fully booked retreats and closed the retreat for the lockdown in level 4 and level 3. She says there was initial reluctance to re-book later in the year as people were nervous about the future. “But thankfully, we now have a light at the end of the tunnel and people are starting to re-book as they now need a retreat more than ever,” she says.

“I think so many people set out to achieve great things in their health and wellness during the lockdown, to find it was harder on them than they expected. We’ve found that everyone really wants and needs something positive to look forward to for their mental health.”

Joelene Ranby at the retreat.

Joelene Ranby at the retreat.

Ranby says with border restrictions looking set to last for some time, they would welcome a Trans-Tasman travel bubble with open arms.

“We are really proud of what our country has achieved so far with the challenge presented by this virus. We think health and happiness is something which has become more front-of-mind for people that perhaps took it for granted before, so that in itself is certainly a silver lining.”

‘Challenges brought us closer together’

Ebbett Toyota’s operations were closed, aside from a handful of essential services vehicle repairs, at alert level 4.

CEO Richard van den Engel says the company’s challenges were similar to those most faced over that time: figuring out how to pay fixed costs with little to no revenue, communicating with customers to explain when they would be back and what that would look like, keeping staff engaged and responding to the fear of uncertainty, and being aware of mental health issues associated with the pandemic.

“What we found, though, is that those challenges brought us closer together as a team and to our customers. They all brought out a certain resolve, kindness and willingness to cooperate. It’s been humbling to watch the team respond.”

They reopened the doors under level 3, but service customers had to drop their car on the forecourt, leave their key on the passenger seat and walk away. Their repairs would be discussed over the phone once they had walked offsite.

Richard van den Engel has helped Toyota reclaim top spot in Waikato.

Richard van den Engel

“We facilitated test drives too, but only by stealthily dropping our demonstrator to the customer’s home and walking away.  Level 3 meant we had to become innovative, and we tried some things which we’ll take with us into the future – for  example, walking a customer through a car using Facetime is something we’ll continue to offer should people want a walk through from the comfort of their sofa.

“Moving to level 2 meant we could welcome customers back into the showroom – it felt like the sun had come out at the end of a rainy day!”

He says some of the digital ways they have worked with customers will become common place, including offering virtual walk-arounds of vehicles, at-home test drives, and pick-up/drop off for service customers.

“Internally we’re also leveraging digital tools better – we work across three branches and typically all meetings have been face to face, requiring many people to travel, but we’ve got really good at using Microsoft Teams to run virtual meetings, saving everyone time.”

Pivoting with the times

Soda Inc collaborated with a team of other Callaghan Innovation funded incubators on Hack the Crisis NZ during the Covid-19 lockdown. Chief executive Erin Wansbrough says there were 887 registrations, 210 idea submissions, and 55 registered teams, and they have continued the collaboration with Creative HQ and Ster Innovation to put together an “after Hack” support programme starting on June 2 for the teams who want to keep their idea moving.

Soda Inc used online community catch-ups as a new way of chatting with people about industry issues relating to how they are coping with Covid-19.

“Our latest small business programmes are close to launch. We pivoted a few times and ensured our offerings were going to provide real value to small businesses. With Covid, we have also adapted and will now be offering these online. This breaks down the barrier of time restraints, cost of travel, cost of the programme, and health and safety requirements.”

The coworking space was closed under level 3, and now that it is open again, Soda has altered its lease terms to accommodate month by month leasing.

Wansbrough says the team always had the option to work from home, but not all staff took it up in the past. “Now everyone is well set up and looking forward to being able to combine the office lifestyle with the working from home lifestyle more. As a team, we are confident we can work from anywhere now.”

Staying positive and enthusiastic

Matamata-based Tainui Press managing director Dale Ertel says the lengthy lockdown provided time to work on the business.

He says he watched podcasts and webinars, and took part in many Zoom meetings covering a wide range of business topics, albeit all aimed at surviving the unique circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The daily 1pm Government Covid-19 updates were compulsory viewing.”

Ertel says it was a challenge to get raw materials delivered during level 3 and early level 2, and the usual stock delivery expectation of 24 hours became anything from three days to seven days. However, he says, clients have been understanding.

“Workload is light and I worry this must have an effect on staff morale; I am staying positive and enthusiastic, and I’m very appreciative of the Government wage subsidy.”

Longer-term changes he sees the company making include better system and processes, and more accurate costing and quoting functions, along with a greater importance given to marketing.

“We had a number of staff meetings during the lockdown using Zoom video and I have been overwhelmed by the support and loyalty shown by staff during those meetings and since. There’s a real determination to not only survive this epidemic, but grow stronger from it.”

Working together as a team

Raglan Food Co’s Tesh Randall saw a loss of sales under lockdown, but not enough to qualify for using the wage subsidy.

That saw her and partner Seb Walter dip into savings and pay ‘special leave’ to team members who had reduced hours during Level 4 to help top up their hours.

They restructured the team into separate crews to minimise interactions and create work bubbles, and held all meetings over Zoom with no-one working from the office.

Tesh Randall and Seb Walter.

She says there was a challenge in managing their own stress and anxiety levels and working with their other leaders on setting a positive tone for the team.

Also challenging was their new factory build being put on hold for six weeks. And with cafes closing, she says they got stuck with food service tubs they could no longer sell, all of which got donated to charity. However, there were upsides. “There has been more closeness than we had before in many ways, more frequent catch-ups and communication,” she says.

Supplying Civil Defence with yoghurt via a Bidfood catering contract was one lockdown highlight.

Level 2 came as a relief. “It’s so much nicer, it almost feels back to normal! It’s nice greeting people on the streets of Raglan again, being able to pop in and out of the office, and have team meetings in person. We’re back to doing team birthday cakes and after-work drinks on a Friday.

“Sales have stabilised – they were really up and down over Level 4 with people stockpiling and then avoiding going out.”

They have decided to maintain the two-crew model so that staff don’t overwork. “We have put a new standard work week of 30-35 hours in place for everyone – the maximum anyone can work now is 40 hours. Pre-Covid we had some very busy weeks with some team members working 50-60 hours – and even though they enjoyed the higher income levels, we think it’s best for everyone’s long-term wellbeing to limit the amount of available shifts.

“We’re very grateful to our team for showing up and getting the job done over lockdown even though there was a lot of uncertainty and worry, especially in the early stages when everyone was afraid of getting sick. We’re also grateful to all our customers who purchased yoghurt over lockdown and kept us in business.”

Taking heart from the community response

Volunteering Waikato’s Heather Moore says during the first months of Covid-19 they have seen a significant increase in the number of people putting their hands up to volunteer. “Our website has been very active, and it has been great to see many businesses encouraging their staff to volunteer while they were not able to return to work.”

She says the shift to Level 2 saw many of the organisations they support returning to work, which also saw an increase in the number of volunteering opportunities being listed on their  website.

Moore says they have realised that they can be far more inclusive if they hold a workshop or network meeting via Zoom, with many of the organisations they work with around the region unable to attend functions due to distance.

“Our recent online network meeting was attended by lots of people who would not normally attend. Although meeting in person is important, we may alternate physical and online meetings, and training workshops.”

“We also travel around the region frequently, but see that some of this travel could be reduced, and online meetings increased. This would save travel time, and fuel costs, and reduce our footprint.”

“We have been heartened to see the response of our communities during this time. So many people have come forward to volunteer, to give their time to help others during this unprecedented time. We acknowledge and thank them all.”

Mobilising a local community

Fashion designer Annah Stretton says with so much of her company’s daily business coming from 10 retail sites, they pivoted to selling face masks online during the lockdown, and that allowed them to drive their internet base.

“In level 3 we were able to sell our clothes online and we were well geared up to go with some of our more casual gear. However, the AS label has its heart in events and weddings so there is still a journey to go to activate the core business and sustainability.”

Annah Stretton

Annah Stretton

She says successes included providing a large charity with 6000 fabric masks, along with helping other charities and community organisations.

“Success has also been in mobilising a local community to work with us to make the masks, to dust off infrastructure that we had (destined for the dump) and use fabric and trim that we previously had little use for that had accumulated over 28 years of our operations.”

She says they have added four more jobs at the Morrinsville headquarters and changed the HQ cafe offering, from Cafe Frock to Most Wanted Cheese, which supports work they do in vulnerable communities through RAW.

“Being able to support community has been at the heart of Stretton work for many years and we have truly had the chance to activate and extend this as well as pivot into other areas of design.”

They have also looked at their prices and margins, she says. “We are aware that many New Zealanders are experiencing a real financial struggle from the Covid fallout and this uncertainly and difficulty will continue for many months, if not years, where discretionary ‘fashion’ spend becomes a last cab off the rank for many.

“However, we also know that a fabulous new dress does wonders for morale, and people are committed to spending and supporting local brands, so our focus is to extend the availability of our collection by reducing our margins so we all share in this economic fallout and eventually drive business success together.”

‘The massive impact of a common purpose’

Community and Enterprise Leadership Foundation (CELF) chief executive Tania Witheford says the Covid-19 pandemic response shows the “massive impact” of a common purpose, and the power of a collaborative approach – demonstrated by the way in which community organisations mobilised alongside the business community.

“We all have a front seat to observe and experience a range of leadership: what leadership or what do our leaders need to do to build back better and stronger, to lever out of these challenging times, and propel us forward?”

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