Businesses conquer the chaos

23:26, Mar 11 2011
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Cabinet maker for Red Furniture Corey Wells busy making furniture for Harcourts Grenider's new office space.

When John East surveyed the debris at his laser technology and engineering business in Wickham St in Bromley he almost didn't have the heart for the recovery.

"It was 24 years of your hard work suddenly lying in tatters." Chunks of concrete from the roof had smashed, light fittings littered the floor, racks carrying 50 tonnes of fine sheets of metal had toppled, a 1.8-tonne machine worth $1.3 million was dead on its side and another, a turret punch, equally as hefty had jumped 45cm.

"If someone had been hit by that machine they would be dead," he says.

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ProMetal co-owners (L-R) Mike Owens and John East are pleased to be back up and running after a massive clean up effort.

The building was literally thumped up and then dropped with the incredible force of the earthquake centred only about five kilometres away in Lyttelton.

"It was like some mad driver driving at 100 miles an hour right into the side of the building. I can't describe it any other way."

When the Press dropped in this week, a crane and engineers were helping make structural repairs recommended by engineering experts Beca Consulting.

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Prometal, owned by East and partner Mike Owens, is a specialist in laser cutting, turret punching and sheet metal fabrication.

"It's been like having to re- install all your equipment." East marvelled that no-one in the factory had been injured bar a few bruises as they dashed out of the building during the 6.3 magnitude seismic shock. If one of the paper thin sheets of metal had toppled on to an employee it could have cut him in half, he says.

"It would have been easy to say too tough, but we would have let ourselves down and our employees.

"We've got 34 staff. The last thing they would need now is to have their employment gone."

He and Owens decided that if the staff were with them they would give it a go. He shot mountains of photos for insurance purposes and forged on with recovery work. "If you wait for the insurer to eventually sort it out your business is gone."

"We've put a lot of investment into getting up and running." He expects his insurer will come through.

They expect to be back in operation again on Monday as they wait final sign-off from engineers on the main building.

East says staff have been tremendous. Some have shattered homes, others have personal tragedies. A couple have left for Auckland and they were a loss to the business.

"The next four to five weeks are going to be incredibly chaotic."

With one laser-cutting machine out for the count, Prometal is waiting on the arrival of a machine from Switzerland. It normally takes three months to build and reach here but the supplier, Bystronic, is sending its demonstration machine. While they wait, the company will try and run its other machine for 24 hours.

East says it may have to contract out some work to a company in Auckland which has the same machinery as Prometal.

Wickham St appears to be one of the severely impacted industrial areas on the eastern side of the city. After the quake a thick silty sludge from liquefaction blanketed the road and invaded factories in parts of the street. Power poles were thrust sideways and holes in the road appeared. There are still mounds of sand to negotiate in places but the holes have been filled.

Some businesses have abandoned damaged buildings. Total Packaging, along the road, has half a dozen huge concrete blocks anchoring bracing to keep the building up. Next door to Prometal is Canterbury Spinners, which makes yarn for carpets. It is closed .

Manufacturer of garage doors for domestic and commercial buildings, B&D Doors, is on its feet having cleaned up and had engineering checks done on its main building.

New Zealand operations manager Paul Dryden says there is a lot of catch-up work as orders kept coming in. Customers have been understanding that the company needed a couple of weeks to recover.

Constant communication with customers had been the key to protecting the business from competitors in the North Island. He communicated several times a day with them over details - truck movements, restoration of power and water supplies and equipment returning to operation, and all the small steps along the way that showed progress.

The Australian parent's support has been critical too.

"That was one of the major messages to staff. We are committed to Canterbury. We are not going to pull out.

"It was a huge relief for employees who were worried the company might retreat to Australia. And all have been paid in the three weeks since the quake struck.

"It's been great from a team point of view."

Staff turned up on the Monday after the quake to shovel sand and silt from the premises. Dryden says it was humbling and some had to be sent home to their families.

He got to know his business neighbours much better, sharing machines and equipment and even a portaloo with Prometal across the road.

At the top end of the street, Red Furniture, owned by Brad Mawson, is working with staff on a fit-out for Harcourts Grenadier's new offices. Since power was restored a week ago they are able to get onto the job of making a shop counter, couches and armchairs. He's chuffed the work has to be done speedily for the real estate agent's office to open in a week. It came through an interior designer who wanted the work done fast.

His direct wholesale furniture business was coming right after the recession but then the quake struck.

"Hopefully in six weeks time there will be certain parts of Christchurch that have gone back to normal."

Next year when Canterbury reconstruction gets under way it could bring amazing business but the next six months could be terrible, he says.

Over at New Brighton, where power was restored on Tuesday, a handful of retailers have opened their doors - a furniture retailer, a pharmacy, a couple of dairies and a few food places.

The shopping centre was deserted until the power was restored and it's brought a few of the locals out to wander and chat.

Switch Espresso is a lifesaver for the traumatised suburb's coffee lovers, among them local MP Lianne Dalziel, a resident of the neighbouring Bexley suburb where her constituents have been without power, water and sewerage for 16 days. She has been lobbying on their behalf and is exhausted and frustrated at the lack of portaloos and other amenities, though full of praise for the efforts of electricity company Orion and its chief executive, Roger Sutton.

Switch Espresso owner Hamish Evans is having a great day as locals stream in. The Government's six-week support package of wage subsidies is "the best thing ever" for helping him retain his 15 staff.

"It gave us the confidence to hold on for a couple of weeks till we could open again."

It will also support the business until it reopens its roastery and cafe in Madras St near the Christchurch Polytechnic in about six weeks, he hopes.

"I feel for all the business owners out there. There's a huge amount of stress."

Business owners will continue to need support, he says.

Another in the food business, Burwood Bakery, owned by Sothea Pich, is enjoying unexpected good trade after the quake. The roads are dotted with all sorts of roading vehicles, and workmen clearing silt and repairing holes are flowing in steadily on lunch breaks, as well as locals.

"We are about the only ones open," says Sharleen Williams, one of the counter staff. "People round here have no power and no water. They are coming in for their food because they can't get hot food anywhere else."

Pich has racks stacked with freshly baked pies and sweet treats. He says some ingredients are in short supply at the wholesalers but he's making do.

He had power back a week ago and is having to use water from tanks coming into the area. His takings are up about 20 per cent.

"We don't increase the price. We just keep it the same."

While he is happy about the extra business, he says: "I feel sad about the earthquake too and all the people who have lost their lives."

The Press