Professionals attracted to Christchurch

Professionals attracted to Christchurch

Last updated 09:45 10/11/2012
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CITY BOUND: Wynn Williams Lawyers partner Kent France.

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The latest labour figures show there are now 8000 more lawyers, accountants and other professional service staff in Canterbury than before the September quake. MICHAEL BERRY and MARTA STEEMAN canvass the suburban warriors.

Wynn Williams Lawyers partner Kent France misses the liberated convenience of central city business life.

Spending hours of a day sitting in traffic is an Auckland gig, and is a far cry from nipping out on foot for several appointments like the good old pre-quake times.

Nowadays, a car is needed to get anywhere and it's a daily punt on traffic and medium range statistics to arrive on time.

The firm's post-quake headquarters is at Homebase, Marshland Rd; a long way from the company's former home in the BNZ Building, Cathedral Square.

"I spend so much time in the car these days, which is a huge time consumer when you used to be in town," France says.

One day last week he spent 2 1/2 hours on the road, using his handsfree phone constantly to make at least some use of the time.

Most of the inner-city professional services crowd is in a similar position: Spread wherever they could score space in the great suburban flight of the quakes' aftermath.

So it comes as some surprise that Statistics New Zealand counted 8100 more of those jobs within the region than before the September 2010 quake. The September quarter labour figures show there were 43,000 law, accounting, scientific, technical, marketing and support jobs in Canterbury, compared with 34,000 a year ago. In September 2010, there were 34,900.

Those numbers seem a bit far-fetched when casting an eye over the desolate CBD. Is something growing in the offices dotted around the city?

France says Wynn Williams had been growing strongly before the quake. The tremors had created headaches with relocations, business interruption and teething problems, but had not stopped the expansion, France says - a steady stream of jobs being created and filled, he says, with the company now sporting 77 employees, including the Auckland office.

Graduates from the University of Canterbury were taken on, as were mid- level lawyers both from rival firms in the city and around the country, he says.

Those experienced lawyers were traditionally hard to find in the South Island, but many inquiries had started to filter in from Australasian cities - especially from lawyers with commercial property backgrounds. Eight more people would be taken on before February. The businesses professional services support are more resilient than the now- decimated city centre which was its overt symbol, he says.

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Outside the central city, and even beyond its boundaries, the growth is significant, he says.

Agribusiness and dairying, manufacturers in the south- western areas: Those businesses had kept rolling and it had been up to the service industries to relocate while still assisting that unaffected bloc, he says.

That led to an "explosion of technology" as the lawyers and accountants did everything possible to stay functioning and keep those clients, he says.

Fitting out a building for a modern business is expensive, especially when you have to do it twice, he says.

Digital phonelines and computer systems linking employees together like a spider's web become more of a bane - but also more necessary - when the net spreads between suburbs, he says.

"Everybody was in one high-rise building wired up to deal with that. Then, all of a sudden, you've got geographically spread out sites that aren't up to that infrastructure and you end up running miles of cable that doesn't come cheap."

The technological "explosions" happened all around the city as firms moved into any space they could and geared them up, leading to a higher technological ability than before the quakes, he says.

"The capacity to operate remotely went up several notches. I can now do my job from anywhere in a much more seamless way than I could have two years ago."

Video and voice conferencing made working from the suburbs easier, but there were some tasks that require more substance, he says.

"It still doesn't change the fact that face-to-face meetings still rule for some things. You can't nail a deal unless you're face to face."

In about a year, the firm will take two floors of an office building replacing the former St Elmo Courts on the corner of Hereford and Montreal streets. That will give enough space to put all the firm under the same roof.

"We're really looking forward to getting into our building next year - another year to go."

Other businesses are not coping as well, business consultant Wayne Ormandy says. He advises several businesses and believes some law and accountancy practices are struggling, with several buyouts and restructurings going on.

"We seem to be losing more companies in Christchurch than we are gaining."

The post-earthquake scene among the professions had been very collaborative and innovative, but some of the big practices had staff spread across several sites, which was harder to manage, with the past year one of the toughest, he says.

Cavell Leitch managing partner Julian Clarke says staff numbers had shrunk across the legal industry after the quakes through layoffs and sinking lids.

"One year ago it was probably at a four or five-year low point. It has probably rebounded, I would think, rather than necessarily ballooned."

Cavell Leitch, which has 16 partners and 80 staff in total, was now hiring again on the back of strong workloads, he says.

The firm had shifted to new offices at the Hazeldean Business Park, leaving the temporary premises battles behind.

With many of the big firms operating from temporary premises on the outskirts of the city, they were removed from clients and in an inconvenient position, he says.

"There are law firms out there that are really struggling to deliver service. There still some firms working from three-bedroom homes, two partners to an office.

"Only about now are most firms really getting back up to speed."

They had not found it too difficult to attract people because of the quality of the offices, he says.

"I don't think I know of anyone who is absolutely out there desperately hiring people in the professional services area - not like in the construction area."

But he believed some accounting firms were very busy and struggling to find staff, especially mid-level professionals who tended to be younger people.

The city did not offer a lot of nightlife or variety of entertainment and social life.

One silver lining from the quakes was staff were more open to open plan - more efficient use of space - which made firms more competitive.

"Just as when we are driving around town we expect to come to a closed road with some cones, similarly within the office you can make more autocratic decisions as long as people see, yes, it is for the genuine benefit of the firm," he says.

The combination of the recession and earthquakes had been a catalyst for changes of behaviour in staff.

"People now having sat for six months on a trestle table sharing it with two others, working in an open-plan environment is now quite fantastic, but if you suggested that five years ago they would have told you to take a running jump and they would go and work in another law firm if you took away their magnificent office with a fantastic view," Clarke said.

The new environment meant certain things, such as cost-cutting, had been able to to be done, more easily.

Duncan Cotterill Lawyers also has the relative luxury of one site for all its staff, on Sir William Pickering Dr, Burnside.

Its staff numbers have risen 15 per cent to 95 since the February quake and their exile to the suburbs. Including head office staff based in the city, the number rises to about 125.

Partner Paul Calder says the firm can't wait to return to the city.

"On a day-to-day basis it's perfectly adequate, but what we miss most is the interaction with the our clients and other businesses and organisations. When you're in a central business district you just bump into people, it's not quantifiable, but it's important."

Despite that, people were attracted to Christchurch for the professional opportunities the rebuild represents, he says.

Expat Cantabrians from Britain and Australia, as well as lawyers from New Zealand cities were attracted by the rebuild, he says.

"Christchurch has always been a great place to live - and still is - and a particularly good place to raise a family."

Calder's area of expertise was commercial property law and the future looked bright, he says. Apart from a difficult recruiting time immediately after the quakes, it was now easier than it had ever been to entice lawyers to the city, especially as the rebuild begins to solidify, he says.

Accounting firm Marriotts was lucky enough to retain its central city home on Victoria St. Managing director Graeme Marriott says others in the profession were not as fortunate.

"So we still have a positive mental attitude maybe compared with some accountants who are working out in the wop-wops of Addington or by the airport."

The firm is advertising in Britain and across the Tasman, trying to lure expats through the Institute of Chartered Accountants, with some success, he says. A former Christchurch accountant in Sydney and one in the Netherlands would be winging their way back soon to start around the new year while he was also employing two more support staff.

"Virtually all accountants are struggling to find staff," he says.

He wondered if some of the experienced staff had been lured to other big organisations such as the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and insurance companies.

"Compounded on top of that we are very busy."

Many of his clients were buying up weaker businesses that were struggling or restructuring to get involved in the rebuild, he says.

He was surprised at the stats showing a big jump in the number of Canterbury professionals.

"I just can't honestly think where are all these people."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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