Helping hospital to get X-factor

Staff at Bell Block company Howard Wright Ltd are donating their labour to help ensure Taranaki people get state-of-the art equipment in the region's new hospital.

They will work several Saturdays - free of charge - to make products, likely to be the firm's hi-tech hospital beds.

Details for the project are still being firmed up, but the goods and services in kind is likely to add up to the cost of about 18 of its beds.

It's no small gesture. The local company, established in the 1950s, is one of the top three suppliers of hospital beds in Australasia.

It designs and manufactures its own product on site with about 75 per cent exported. Chief executive Bruce Moller is in Europe this week helping to develop markets.

In person, Moller goes to great lengths to point out the team environment he and his staff work in. He's polite and engaging but cautious. He's not too keen about a photo in the paper. In the company office he doesn't stand out. Clad in a black polo shirt with the Howard Wright emblem on, he could be anyone: a designer, office worker, member of the manufacturing team.

The company's Bell Block headquarters exudes the same discretion. From the outside it resembles a large grey warehouse. Signage seems non-existent. The main office isn't obvious until a sculptured piece of driftwood with the word "Reception" etched into it is spotted.

Inside, with a north-facing wall of glass, the office is airy, modern and warm; white walls, polished concrete floors, an open plan layout and environmentally friendly in design. The factory is contained within the same building.

Moller says the donation of equipment to the hospital came after the Taranaki Health Foundation approached the company.

As well as products, money will be donated although Moller prefers not to reveal how much except to say it's at a major partner level.

The foundation aims to raise $10 million to help fit out the multi-million hospital overhaul. TSB Community Trust has already committed $4.5m to the children's ward, the biggest grant in its 25-year-old history.

"We're thrilled to be able to support the foundation. We will have a brand new hospital and the foundation wants to give it that bit extra - like the X-factor, if you like."

Moller is a foundation trustee, having gone to a steering group meeting and been co-opted on.

"I think the thing in Taranaki is we always get in and make things happen for ourselves. We are not in a community that waits for things.

"Our view is that all of our staff and their friends and families, at some stage, are going to be interacting with the healthcare system. If we can support the foundation, which is in turn supporting projects of the DHB, that's a great thing.

"In the end if we can have the best healthcare system for our size of community in NZ, that has to be a great thing and it's another great reason for living in Taranaki."

Thirty-four staff work at Bell Block and five are based in Australia. Local staff don't have to take part in the weekend work but many will. Most will be out the back in the factory: for example designers might be welding, office staff assembling and it will be all hands on deck to get the equipment ready.

Moller says the company's external brand is Howard Wright Cares.

"The staff here really want to make that [phrase] authentic."

Greg Jones works in research and development and is one of four design engineers. Giving up Saturdays to work on the hospital equipment is a pretty unique chance to give something back, Jones, who's been with the company 5 1/2 years, says.

He and his partner had their first child several months ago and they got to see first hand the ins and outs of part of the hospital. He noticed, for example, how difficult it could be getting on and off a hospital bed. An insignificant detail to some, but fundamental if you are trying to hold a baby and parts of you are in pain.

"We're a local company and I guess we want to make sure our local hospital has the latest technology to make patients comfortable and help make the job of nurses and doctors easier," he says.

Involving the whole staff also means it's not just one group taking responsibility, Jones says.

"It will be appreciated by the factory that everyone is coming out to help. It creates a tight relationship."

Karen Horo is a long-time Howard Wright staffer, having starting working there 13 years ago. She's production supervisor, with 14 staff under her direction. Horo acknowledges the company contribution to the hospital will be a team effort.

"It will mean people doing a job they don't normally do."

She's worked in the hospital kitchens and has a sense of how important cutting-edge resources will be.

"Anything new that's going into the new parts will be great."

Moller says there's another aspect to the DHB/Howard Wright relationship.

"Howard Wright is very much design-led so our R&D team work closely with clinicians and other users of the beds to essentially make sure the designs are really intuitive.

"We have a saying - simple, smart and human. That's the filter we apply. At the end of the day I think our products are well liked because of that. You want to be able to go up to one of our products without having to look at a manual and just use it."

Asked to describe his product's point of difference, Moller says they take a good industrial design approach and then apply really good engineering principles.

"It's almost like something says 'lift me' and it communicates that to you visually."

An initiative will make Howard Wright staff more readily able to access DHB facilities for research, trials and evaluations.

Protocols will be followed for the "deepening", more formal relationship.

"I think you can do research by asking people and you get a certain level of knowledge but you get an even deeper understanding through observation. Observation is often more powerful."

Fine-tuning the company product is a constant to keep growing the business.

At the moment it's focused on growing business in Europe. It has distributors there and is looking to expand its range of products beyond a well-established one - the Pacific Shower Bathing Trolley (a shallow tub on wheels that patients can shower or bathe in.)

Internationally, the company has also been at the forefront of developing electric medical stretchers, says Moller.

To questions about how the company maintains its competitive edge in an arguably isolated region, he says: "I guess part of it is having to. The scale becomes more and more important and the more specialised . . . to be world-class at anything you have to be quite focused and the flip side is you have quite a narrow market . . . and to get volume you have to get into more and more markets to give you scale.

"We went into Australia and now we need more scale and you have to build that into your business."

That's the company strategy. Specialise, be committed to excellent design and gain volume. They're a lean team at Howard Wright but they exude a generosity of spirit that's set to benefit regional healthcare.

FOUNDATION AGENDA The Taranaki Health Foundation trustees include local business and healthcare leaders who say they're passionate about supporting health care in Taranaki.

Foundation is embarking on community fundraising programmes and likens itself to Starship Foundation in Auckland.

Fundraising to date includes support from the TSB Community Trust, Howard Wright, the Taranaki Daily News, more than 20 Project Maunga contractors and more than 20 Taranaki schools.

Within its current programme the foundation has two main projects: "Improve Your Stay" and "Connected Health".

"Improve Your Stay" is a public campaign aimed at improving patient and visitor comfort and experience. It will include things such as a mobility garden, enhanced landscaping and furnishings.

The "Connected Health" campaign involves corporate leaders and aims to help make health information securely and more readily available.

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Taranaki Daily News