Lower Hutt businessman Paul Nielsen has been lighting up Kiwi homes with SolaTubes, skylights and roof windows for 20 years.
The SolaTube daylighting system captures sunlight in domes on the rooftop then transfers it down through reflective tubes that can be up to 15 metres long. It is then diffused into rooms in the house through 25-centimetre diameter lenses that can be dimmed.
He first started importing the Australian developed SolaTube system in 1992 after buying a $25,000 exclusive licence for the product with his then business partners, Malcolm Hughes and Bill Wilcox, whom he bought out in 1996, changing the business name to HomeTech.
"When I was first told about this skylight from Australia, I thought it was quite boring really.
"I said it was not of interest but when I found out the details, it was quite revolutionary at the time. It had been on Beyond 2000 [inventions television show] and taken Australia by storm."
He found the first customer in Waikanae, set up a branch in Auckland in March 1993, and by the end of 1993 had a nationwide network of installers.
SolaTube was promoted through word of mouth, advertising on television, and in local newspapers and the Yellow Pages.
The parts for the SolaTube and its other items come from several international sources, including Australia, America and Poland, and are then assembled at HomeTech's Alicetown head office and warehouse. The firm books all appointments nationwide from its call centre based there.
In 1995, it started installing SolaTube in commercial properties. It is becoming more popular in industrial and office buildings as companies look to be as sustainable as possible.
Cadbury, the National Bank and Air New Zealand are among its clients. "There is huge potential in retrofitting," Nielsen said.
SolaTube, which Nielsen said was the only Branz-approved (Building Research Association of NZ) skylight, launched a range of decorative fixtures in July with "good" uptake so far.
While SolaTube continues to make up about 50 per cent of its business, HomeTech is growing to become a broader installer, to include ventilation products and heat pumps. It recently bought a heat pump installation business in Christchurch and has a website - HomeImprovement.co.nz - that sells a range of installed residential products.
HomeTech tried forays into solar water heating and burglar alarms in the past but ultimately has kept the business more focused. It gives a portion of SolaTube sales to the Skylight charity, having donated close to $100,000 so far.
Nielsen said business had been weaker in recent years with the downturn in building but was on track to pick up in 2014.
"Margins are certainly not what they used to be, with higher compliance costs," he said.
Turnover, at about $12 million a year, was down from several years ago but he imagined the business would become a "bigger player" in heating installation.
"This recession has just gone on and on. The Christchurch rebuild will make a big difference to a lot of companies. I think 2014 is going to be a golden year for building, it's all going to happen."
7000 installations a year
Licence for SolaTube $25,000
Turnover about $12m Employs 30
Wellington is one-sixth of its market
Auckland one-third of its market
- © Fairfax NZ News
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