Fast growing firms adding staff

EMMA RAWSON
Last updated 05:00 12/11/2014
Jason Dorday

I Love Ugly founders, Barnaby Marshall and Valentin Ozich.

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Caroline Dewe (front, centre) says Alphero’s internship scheme has aided growth.

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The Christchurch rebuild may be a significant driver of employment growth in New Zealand currently, but the 2014 Deloitte Fast 50 list of the country's most rapidly growing companies shows gains are being made beyond the building sites of the quake-ravaged city.

The number of jobs created by this year's crop of Fast 50 firms has shot up. While in 2013 Fast 50 companies had created 886 new jobs in the preceding three years, in 2014 that figure is 1119 – an increase of over 25 per cent.

This year's list reveals firms in the consumer and IT sectors are also hiring at a steady clip.

Although New Zealand's unemployment rate is dropping Kiwis are still reluctant to open their wallets following the global financial crisis, BNZ chief economist Tony Alexander says. Consumer-based Fast 50 businesses are expanding, however. It might just be because the price is right, Alexander says.

"When we look at New Zealand's spending numbers, nationwide the areas of strong growth tend to be areas where prices are falling, ultimately because people want a bargain," he says.

Menswear chain I Love Ugly Ltd comes in at number five on this year's Fast 50. Launched in the thick of the GFC, creative director Valentin Ozich agrees price point plays a part in the brand's appeal.

The company started four years ago with just Ozich, co-founder Barnaby Marshall and one other employee but now has 18 full-time staff and 13 part-timers between its head office, warehouse and five retail stores. "Our average product price is around $140 and even during the GFC people still had that sort of money to spend on clothing. Maybe if you can't afford a brand new car, you are still likely to spend that kind of money to make you feel good," Ozich says.

Fast 50 companies in the technology, media and communications sectors created the most jobs this year, at 446. Grant Straker, founder of cloud-based foreign language translation service Straker Translations (number 18), says the company has gained by using technology to operate on a global scale. The tyranny of distance and time zone are no longer a constraint for the firm, which generates 90 per cent of its revenue from exports. Straker Translations has grown from 12 to 44 staff in three years and has offices in Auckland, Barcelona, Australia and the US with a pool of 5000 freelance translators.

"This was an industry that was ripe for disruption. We operate 24/7, and our key differentiator is we deliver translations quickly because we have production centres around the world," Straker says.

App development firm Alphero (31) has a focus on the domestic market, but the company's co-founder Caroline Dewe has seen increased demand for its services as corporations turn their attention back to developing mobile-based business.

"When the GFC hit you had a lot of big banks and other big enterprises around the world suddenly freezing their big projects [such as app development]. Their [focus] became finding the right clients and reducing costs."

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Since its launch in 2011, the company has grown from three staff to 35. Being a tech firm in Wellington means there's competition for software developers, but employing summer interns has helped keep staff numbers at sustainable levels, Dewe says.

Meanwhile a shortage of labourers is a problem for construction firms doing business in Christchurch. Brent Te Kawa, director of Queenstown- based sprinkler installation firm South Pacific Fire Protection (37), cast his eye further afield two years ago when work began to dry up in the ski resort town. The company has opened branches in Auckland and Christchurch in the past two years and has grown from 10 to 45 staff, many of whom hail from overseas.

"There's a definite skills shortage in our area. We've got a bit of a United Nations happening in our office, and I've used staff from an agency in Ireland," Te Kawa says.

Providing on-the-job training has helped get unskilled workers up to speed and has also boosted staff retention, Te Kawa says. Due to wider construction labour shortages doing business in the Canterbury rebuild has been trying, however, particularly as the company works at the end of the construction fit-out, he says.

Geological engineering services firm ENGEO (19) has also made big gains in Christchurch, and has grown from 25 to 58 staff in three years. An employee ownership scheme and competitive wages are some of the ways managing director Matt Wiley has tackled the problem of staff jumping ship. 

Alexander says that staff loyalty will become a widespread issue in the next few years. While pay increases have remained relatively static to date, he advises firms to keep their eye on salaries.

"At the moment job preservation is more important to people than getting maximum income as most people are worried about being last in, first out. But that will change maybe in the next year or the following.

"My message to the business sector is try to keep ahead of the game in terms of staff thinking they are worth more."

Avoiding putting all your eggs in the Christchurch basket is another strategy, Alexander advises.

"The Christchurch scene is strong, but it's very volatile," he says. 

"I know plenty of people who are being careful about over-exposing themselves to the Christchurch goldfield because the business environment is changing so, so quickly, and a few people have been badly burned."

Wiley has been wary of the unpredictability of his Christchurch business and in the past 18 months ENGEO has expanded into Auckland and Wellington. "What we don't want to do is come next year when the peak drops off in Christchurch, is to be letting good folks go," he says.

"We are focused on hiring in Auckland and Wellington and diversifying our services. We have got a bit of capacity in our other offices, and we send staff down to Christchurch when we need to."   

- Unlimited

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