Kiwis firms 'scared' of Asia

FIONA ROTHERHAM
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
Sameer Handa
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
SAMEER HANDA: "I've met people in the South Island who haven't even been to the North Island, let alone overseas."

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Sameer Handa is a man of the world.

He was raised and did his schooling and first university degree in engineering in India. But after working for a couple of years the big, wide world beckoned and he left India at the age of 24 to take up a job in Oman, in the Middle East.

He then did an MBA in Sydney, Australia where he met and married his Mexican wife and they shifted to Fiji for three years.

Once they wanted to start a family, the couple chose New Zealand as their future base, mainly on the basis it was a great place to raise children and that it was right in the middle of both of their home countries - a 15-hour flight to Delhi and the same to Mexico City.

Handa lucked into a job almost straight away in New Zealand, originally working as an engineering services manager for the privately owned Patton Group, which manufactures and imports refrigeration and air conditioning products.

Within four years he'd ended up as chief executive, aged just 32. Since 2001 Patton has been part of the NZPM co-operative (owners of Plumbing World) and has grown to nearly 200 staff and a $73 million turnover from much humbler beginnings.

It now has 30 offices spread around New Zealand, Australia, and India along with Thailand where it has also set up a manufacturing base to supply the Asean countries it is targeting.

Growth has been slower than Handa originally hoped when he first launched the company overseas in 2007, but he does have big ambitions. His goal is to turn Patton into a $250m company within the next five years.

He's critical that a Kiwi manager would not have the same level of ambition and appetite for risk that he does.

"Most Kiwi businesses are SMEs (small-to-medium-sized businesses) and a lot of the owners I come across in New Zealand have the bach, boat and BMW and are very complacent and comfortable. They don't want any more than that because life is pretty good.

"If you go to Silicon Valley you meet people there who talk about taking their $10 million turnover company to $100m and their $100m company to $1 billion. There's energy, passion and ambition and generally I don't see that here in New Zealand."

Persuading his Kiwi-dominated board to back his Asian expansion plans was no easy matter, Handa said, and he thinks it's one of the biggest problems New Zealand companies face - a lack of comfort in dealing with Asia.

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"There's a lack of knowledge about Asia, an ignorance. People don't know what to expect and often don't want to travel there. They think it's very poor and dirty and don't want to venture into it. I've met people in the South Island who haven't even been to the North Island, let alone overseas."

Some smarter New Zealand business owners are starting to catch on to the scale of the opportunity Asian countries offers due to their faster-growing economies, but there was still a long way to go, he said.

The free trade agreement with China had shifted the dial enormously in the past five years though, he said.

FACT FILE

Who: Sameer Handa

What: CEO of Patton Group in Auckland

Where from: Born and raised in India.

What else: Is a member of the Institute of Directors, and on the board of Bank of India (NZ), the trust board of Refrigerant Recovery NZ Ltd, and an executive member of the Indian New Zealand Business Council. -

Brought to you in association with NZ Asian Leaders.

- Sunday Star Times

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