In praise of widget makers

21:06, Mar 06 2014

You could never describe life here at Fairfax Magazines as dull.

Stylish Life & Leisure and House & Garden girls mingle with manly Fishing News and NZ Trucking types. Cuisine magazine has a collection of cookbooks that would put a library to shame, and once every couple of months the boardroom smells like a brewery as it conducts its regular wine tasting. TV Guide has a big screen which is useful when things like the America's Cup are on.

In this environment inspiration comes from surprising quarters. I could claim the following concept as my own, but in truth kudos goes to the editor of NZ Gardener. When discussing the idea that New Zealand manufacturing is doing a whole lot better than anyone gives it credit for, she said, 'oh, so widgets are sexy'.

That, in a nutshell, is it.

Kiwi manufacturing takes a pummelling from the likes of opposition politicians who delight in putting out alarmist press releases about the reportedly imminent death of the sector. According to them, manufacturers are shutting their doors at an unprecedented rate and exports of fabricated goods are plummeting.

We'll get to the figures in a moment. First I have a proposal. We need, as my gardening colleague points out, to promote the attractions of widget makers - a national campaign to champion the denizens of Penrose, Gracefield and Blenheim Road, if you will.

'Where there's muck there's brass' might be a little strong, but it is fair to say there are innumerable Kiwi companies out there in unglamorous industries growing and exporting and employing people quite nicely, thank you very much. We just don't hear about them because they are often (a) privately owned, (b) offshore-focussed so not too worried about publicity at home, and (c) making products that aren't exactly alluring.

I give you Rotaform Plastics, a south Auckland maker of materials handling bins that companies such as The Warehouse and Cavalier Bremworth use to transport goods. It also makes spa pools.

One of the family-owned firm's many design initiatives has been to invent a rotational moulded folding bin - most are injection moulded and nowhere near as strong - that is about to be made under licence in the United States.

May I also present A-Ward, a designer and manufacturer of bulk materials handling and recycling systems, and inventor of the world's first container tilter. A-Ward has operations or distributors in 30 countries. Founder Simon Ward backs a motorcycle racing team which competes at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah each year - think The World's Fastest Indian.

I will also mention Greenlane Biogas, a designer of technology turning gases from waste products into biomethane. New Zealand is behind the eight-ball in the use of alternative fuels so few Kiwis would know that the firm built the largest biogas plant in the world, in Montreal, Canada.

This is but a small sample of New Zealand manufacturers engaged in innovative, export-earning activities.

And as it happens the numbers are nowhere near as gloomy as you might think. Yes, there were 315 more deaths of manufacturing enterprises than births in the year to February 2013 (the latest figures available, so they're getting out of date), but until the GFC impacted in 2008 the trend was very firmly in the other direction.

The latest Business New Zealand Performance of Manufacturing Index shows the sector has now been in expansion mode for 16 consecutive months.

Believe it or not manufacturing is New Zealand's second largest economic sector representing almost 15 per cent of GDP, making us one of the more manufacturing-heavy economies in the OECD.

Our manufacturers may not be Brad Pitt, but as your mother told you movie star good looks only get you so far in this life.

*Maria Slade is editor of Unlimited magazine.


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