Vision for hi-tech campus

ALAN WOOD
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2012
Tait Communications village
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ

VILLAGE PLANS: Tait Communications managing director Frank Owen, left, finance director David Wade and staff members look at an expansion plan for Tait village.

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Tait Communications has committed to a "collaborative" campus on the western edges of Christchurch, strengthening the hi-tech sector in the surrounding area and exciting those wanting to see progress with the city's earthquake rebuild.

Wairakei Rd has been home to Tait since the early 1980s, but in recent years some of its 630 staff, working in leased space, have been split by the busy road from the main buildings.

Tait – which manufactures radio communications sets and networks for emergency services clients around the globe – was formed in 1969 but based on work founder Sir Angus Tait had been doing since the late 1940s.

The company now focuses mainly on the manufacture of radio communication handsets, bases and networks to allow those that work in emergency services – ambulance, police or fire or utility areas to communicate. It has been busy on a contract to replace 10,000 handheld and vehicle mounted radios for Victoria's Country Fire Authority enabling a response to bushfires.

Managing director Frank Owen and finance director David Wade say that Sir Angus, who died in August 2007, would have been 100 per cent behind a modern campus on 10.7 hectares of land. "Angus ... was interested in building an industry, not a business," Wade says.

They want to create an area that is more parkland than office space and that will allow Tait Communications, some of its 600 suppliers and other hi-tech companies to collaborate more easily.

Owen and Wade have been working on the campus, which still requires a Christchurch City Council rezoning of rural land into a "low impact business zone", for some time having purchased two blocks of land between Wooldridge and Stanleys roads to give the campus substance and space opposite Nunweek Park.

One parcel of 4 hectares was used by a market gardener, and the other, tying together two 2ha parcels, was used by Mainland Tomatoes that had glasshouses damaged in the quakes. The campus that will set up in their place will include more than a dozen low rise buildings, including a central town square and cafe open to the public.

The buildings – which could add up to 50,000-60,000 square metres of floor space – will be separated by green corridors, pathways and access lanes for vehicles although most of the parking will either be under the buildings or in a single carparking building.

A waterway-lake will run through much of the width of the site, providing visual appeal, water re-use and as a heat sink to help with more efficient heating or cooling of the site. This will fit in with other green systems including solar panels on the buildings.

Tait has let the council know it would open up its facilities for public use. Carparking could be opened up to users of Nunweek Park, including a growing hockey facility, during the weekends or evenings. "The concept here is a park with buildings and not buildings with a bit of park," Owen says.

Neither Tait nor Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend can see a problem with the two-stage project getting the required zoning consent, with Townsend saying the campus is an "exemplar" of what is needed in the Christchurch rebuild. Owen said the 10.7 hectare project will happen in two stages.

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The purchase of the land parcels plus the development of stage 1 including six buildings will cost around $30m. The second stage could add a further eight buildings down the track.

When completed by the end of 2013, stage 1 on the eastern side of the site will include the town square area and a possible two or three-storey building for a potential anchor tenant.

They have already done work around stormwater, sewerage, traffic and geotechnical requirements, and a rezoning application "hit the council" last week with positive feedback so far, Wade says.

"We want to be up and running really very quickly with this ... with a view to being able to move into these buildings at the end of next year," Owen adds.

While the campus had not been prompted by the earthquakes, it had taken on "another dimension".

"We recognise that we're privileged as a company, of course with our size and our technology related focus, to actually be in a position to make a difference to the community here."

While the company was also looking forward to the release of the CBD blueprint, led by the Christchurch Central Development Unit, on July 27, "we're making our commitment and putting our step forward here," Owen says.

Townsend says the campus would be good for the city and complement future development of the central business district.

"Taits is an icon company for Christchurch and this is just another commitment they're making for the city ... it's indicating the confidence in the future of Christchurch and also is going to be an exemplar of how a new development occurs in the city post earthquake."

Townsend sees the Tait campus in Burnside as strengthening the hi-tech spaces nearby, including Canterbury Technology Park based around Sir William Pickering Drive.

Tait is already in talks with a potential "data centre partner" that could bring 100 staff to the site and sees its suppliers and other like-minded businesses being attracted as tenants.

"We're in dialogue with the data centre about it. They're looking at alternative sites, they like what we're thinking about, and they've engaged a designer to come back and confirm the feasibility," Wade says.

The new campus will ensure Tait continues to thrive in global markets.

Wade says annual revenues – now north of $200 million – have been rising at a compound rate of about 15 per cent per year. While that growth had dipped slightly at the half year, "we're growing about two to three times our industry average and gaining market share in all the markets we compete in."

The campus itself is a collaborative process.

Sir Angus Tait set up the export manufacturing company in a trust, meaning annual profits can be distributed to beneficiaries including the wider community and education facilities such as the University of Canterbury.

Following the February earthquake,Tait played host to 200 school of engineering students "busing in and out" for the semester after the February 22 quake and also hosted 10 quake-hit businesses at one point.

While the company has 630 employees in Christchurch, it is seeking another 50 which would take its worldwide total to around 1000.

It has a large sales and distribution hub in Houston with 100 staff based in the Texas city but with a web across the United States to take in customers such as San Francisco-based utilities firm Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

"We've grown to 20 per cent market share in that electrical utilities-related area in the United States," Owen says.

But it remains committed to its home town, where it grew roots in Bedford Row and Manchester St before moving to Burnside.

Tait's main circular building sustained some cracking in the concrete block work but had "a few million" spent on earthquake strengthening, taking it to more than 70 per cent of the current seismic code – above the 66 per cent requirement.

The spend also included the installation of a backup diesel generator for electricity.

Tait sees 800 of its own staff being based at the campus by the end of 2013 and 2000 people in total when the campus accommodates other businesses and reaches its full size in three to five years.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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