A fourth generation family sea anchor business in Motueka has made a big splash with one of the world's most influential business thinkers, Tom Peters.
The American author of the bestselling business bible, Search of Excellence, listed WA Coppins, a Port of Nelson-based business that has been working with the US Navy producing para sea anchors, as one of New Zealand's most impressive companies.
Peters said WA Coppins was an example of how Kiwi SMEs can follow the lead of Germany's Mittlestand (medium sized enterprises) to drive economic growth.
"WA Coppins is a class of company that can be aspired to by many Kiwi firms," Peters said.
"Coppins-like firms can be an economy's driver that compare to Germany's Mittlestand.
"They demonstrate that you don't have to be in software or biotech to be ‘sexy'."
The company, run by Motueka local Bill Coppins, employs 18 staff in peak season, and has become the world's leading maker of underwater parachute sea anchors. The technology stabilises large vessels as heavy as 240 tons in stormy sea conditions.
WA Coppins has picked up several contracts with the US Navy, working with two American research companies, SRI International and Oceaneering International, to produce anchor technology that allows vessels to manoeuvre at low speeds in order to transfer heavy freight from one ship to another.
The company also works closely with Auckland-based marine suppliers QCD Ltd, and Lower Hutt performance textile company W Wiggins to produce its sea anchors. W Wiggins is New Zealand's eldest private company, and the relationship between W Wiggins and WA Coppins dates more than 100 years.
It was WA Coppins' success working with local SMES such as W Wiggins that impressed Peters.
"The cool thing about the US Navy contract is that it is three ‘Mittlestanders' teaming up. Each is a modest-size super-specialist in one area," said Peters.
WA Coppins managing director Bill Coppins, who has never met Peters (who owns a holiday home in Golden Bay), said that he was "quite pleased" to hear the business guru's encouraging comments. The company has been making sea anchors for 35 years, first identifying a need for the technology from the New Zealand squid industry. At the time, fisheries were demanding equipment that secured a vessel in a particular spot and prevented drifting.
WA Coppins has been working with the US Navy for seven years and has several other "highly classified" contracts for military equipment. It also has confidential contracts with international defence supplier BAE Systems.
Coppins said his company's ability to produce technology quickly and efficiently sets it apart from overseas competitors.
"Coming from New Zealand we've got to do everything on a budget, and we achieved their needs on a budget - even when they told us it wasn't possible.
"Larger overseas companies go through research patterns to get the knowledge required to design technology like this. But we knew what we needed to achieve and just went out and did it.
"What would have taken overseas companies two or three months, took us two or three days."
WA Coppins' story is one of learning to adapt to changing markets and finding a niche. Established in 1898 by Bill Coppins' grandfather, the company began as a saddlery and moved into canvas making and fabrication in the 1920s, producing fruit picking bags. To this day 98 per cent of kiwifruit picked in New Zealand is collected in a Coppins fruit bag.
"We always look to a market that nobody else is working in and having better designers in that field," said Coppins.
"Because we are in New Zealand and so far away, with the sea anchor business we really have to be the best in the world so people are prepared to pay a little more for freight to get it to where they want it."
WA Coppins is now working with Norwegian company Miko Marine, to produce the sea anchors and deployment systems for its new Sea Arrestor technology.
Sea Arrestors are a safety mechanism that is helicoptered to stranded or distressed vessels to stop them drifting or capsizing at sea.
The technology can prevent ecological disasters such as the Rena shipwreck in Tauranga harbour in 2011.
Bill Coppins will celebrate his 50th year in the company next year, and his son Ryan is the company's factory manager and is the fourth generation working in the business.
"My grandfather was a fairly proud man and I think he would be impressed with what we've achieved for a small company in New Zealand," said Coppins.
- Sunday Star Times
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