Future bright for fire alarm firm

Last updated 05:00 14/04/2014

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David Percy's former work colleagues considered him "mad" when he set up fire alarm company Pertronic Industries but its subsequent success brought them to their senses.

The Wingate-based firm was established in 1982 after Percy, who holds an engineering degree, left his job at the Post Office designing fire detection systems for automatic telephone exchanges.

"I think my colleagues thought I was mad but a few years later a number of them were made redundant while I was still employed."

The company has grown from Percy working alone out of one site to now having offices in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, along with its Wingate HQ and an office in Auckland.

It also had a distributor in Malaysia with offices in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Percy said.

"South East Asia is our export focus beyond Australia. But, having said that, we also sell quite a bit of product in Papua New Guinea and Fiji."

Pertronic has 73 employees in New Zealand, and just under 30 in Australia, and an annual turnover of around $21 million designing and manufacturing automatic fire detection systems for commercial buildings.

"We are talking about office blocks, shopping malls, hospitals, and hotels."

The high NZ dollar in relation to the greenback was "nasty" for Pertronic as it made US-manufactured equipment relatively cheaper.

"There is some natural hedge because a lot of the electronic components that go into our products are sourced in US dollars."

Of what the company sells by value, 60 per cent is made locally, with the remainder being the resale of imported equipment.

Percy said smoke detectors were imported and sold as part of the system, mainly because New Zealand would not compete in the manufacture of "high-volume, relatively low-cost" items.

"But we can compete in niche manufacturing, and fire alarm equipment supply is very much niche manufacturing because it is customised to the building it goes into."

Whether a commercial building must have a fire alarm system, or a system linked to the fire service, is dictated by the Building Code which is focused on the preservation of life rather than buildings.

Percy said the real danger was what was known in the industry as the "sleeping risk".

"If you are going to die in a fire you are most likely to die in a fire that occurs when you are asleep.

"That is why there have been very few fatalities in New Zealand - in fact I believe zero in the last 50 years - in an office fire. Bluntly, if you are upright and sober and awake you'll get out."

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Percy said losing a building to fire - such as the Kilbirnie storage unit blaze earlier this month - essentially forced a business to start again from scratch.

"Our building is equipped with sprinklers, a full automatic system, and a brigade connection. None of those things are required by the law.

"We're doing it for the protection of the business, not for the protection of the building."

The future looks bright for Pertronic as the Christchurch rebuild moves from infrastructure to commercial building mode.

"The alarm contractors we work with in Christchurch have got some quite good forward orders on board."

Percy last month picked up an Institution of Professional Engineers Supreme Technical Award.

In 2010 Percy was inducted as a Fellow of the Institution.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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