Brave staff show their mettle

02:51, Jun 20 2011
The owners of Prometal Industries, John East and Mike Owens, with their laser cutter
The owners of Prometal Industries, John East and Mike Owens, with their laser cutter

'Come into my tree house," Fran Maulgue beckons. Maulgue is pronounced Mulgay. Her parents are French.

She's referring to her office on the first floor of Prometal Industries factory in Wickham St and the shaking each time a big truck rolls past - and that's fairly regularly.

This is one part of Christchurch's manufacturing heartland, industrial Bromley in the eastern suburbs. Most of the staff here live and work on this side of town. They don't have a full house today, about 10 of the 35 employees are away but that's not bad considering how much of a hammering the east is taking with liquefaction.

Fran Maulque, administrator at Prometal Industries.
Fran Maulque, administrator at Prometal Industries.

Those absent are knee- deep in mud and silt, clearing it from around their homes or their neighbours'. It's at least the third time they've had to do a back-breaking clean-up.

The walls of the offices at the front of the factory have the cracks we have become accustomed to now. Little bits of white plaster on a blue carpet are telltale signs of Monday's two big aftershocks.

"It's exhausting and emotionally draining," Fran says. She's taken up smoking again since September's first big shake.

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Owners John East and Mike Owens are thankful for small mercies. This time there was less movement of sensitive machinery. And they learnt lessons from February 22. Stacking shelves were reduced in height and other equipment was well- anchored to the ground.

However the 14-tonne turret punch jumped more than 7cm across the floor and rather than bring in large cranes to haul it back they have moved all the ancillary equipment to it.

After September 4 Prometal's buildings were examined by engineers and green-stickered on the Monday, after the Saturday 7.1 magnitude quake. Prometal was back in business on Tuesday.

East says the issues back then were more about damage to staff homes including his own on the edges of the Travis wetlands.

The engineering firm which specialises in sheet metal fabrication and offers laser cutting technology has some bite-the-bullet decisions ahead.

"February 22 was the killer," East says.

The company's two buildings were seriously damaged. The second up the street and across the road is probably uneconomic to repair and those decisions are still be negotiated with insurers.

"We are going to have to do a full relocation."

He and Owens had been looking at a site in Francella St nearby because most staff, including themselves, live on that side of town.

They have also looked at a site near The Press on Logistics Drive, near Christchurch Airport, because they thought it would take staff only about 15 minutes to 20 minutes on the ring road travel time but the lease costs from Environment Canterbury which owns the land were far too high for their business - $200 a square metre to buy the leasehold, and they need 10,000 sqm, so the bill for the leasehold cost would be $2 million plus another $60,000 a year rent.

But Monday's shakes and another round of damage and liquefaction in the east have put paid to staying there. It confirmed their decision after February 22 to shift to a new site, but not in the east.

"After what happened on Monday I thought 'this area is stuffed'," East says.

The building next door and one of Prometal's walls are being propped up by wooden bracing anchored by large weighty concrete cubes. Some businesses left after February and others are likely to. All along the street are piles of silt and sand.

"This is going to become a ghost town," East says.

East and Owens are looking at land around Sockburn and Hornby and other parts of the south, west and and north west. They expect to shell out about $1.5m for a new site and spend up to $4m on a new larger factory.

"The banks are supportive. We have a strong business, strong cashflow and we have strong growth."

Their turnover is a little under $5 million a year. Insurance money and the repair and sale of one of the buildings will provide some equity but Prometal, debt-free for three years, will have to borrow now.

They are nervous at the likely cost of insurance after a similar business in the area has had its insurance policy excess lifted from 5 per cent of the sum insured to $500,000 and that was before Monday's aftershocks.

East hopes the staff will stay and says some may shift because they are in the suburbs such as Bexley which appear unlikely to be rebuilt on. Some will drive the greater distance to the new location because they need employment but may take other jobs closer to home when they come up.

"But we have resigned ourselves to the thought we have to relocate," East says. "They can see we are doing our best to create something out of this. But they need to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel themselves."

They know what they want to do, and would move ahead and buy land, but need others such as insurers to tick boxes before they can. "We are used to being in control."

Since February to keep its business alive and customers supplied, Prometal has been contracting out its laser-cutting work to an Auckland competitor and has shouldered freight cost.

It has been waiting for a state-of- the-art laser cutter, paid for by insurance, to be installed by the Swiss manufacturer. That was completed over the weekend and that part of the business was poised to return to normal when Monday's two large aftershocks turned it all to custard.

When the first aftershock struck East was at Procope Cafe in Victoria St owned by a friend having lunch with the main receptionist Lynn who had been unable to get away on holiday to Thailand that day because of ash cloud grounding Jetstar flights. Luckily they were under the table when a light fitting crashed on to their table. He then phoned the office to make sure staff had evacuated safely.

"Staff can't move on till decisions are made by others, EQC, the Government, insurers"

Coming to work helped provide a diversion to sitting at home not knowing what the future held and it provided the much-needed income.

"The difference this time is people are notably fatigued and stressed."

February's was bigger but staff had thought it was all over after that. "Mentally it's harder for them to cope this time. They thought the biggie has been and gone then they got this on Monday."

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