Firm going strong in electrical services

ELECTRIFIED: Des, left, with Jim Spillane (with Callum McDonald working in the background) at Sullivan and Spillane.
ELECTRIFIED: Des, left, with Jim Spillane (with Callum McDonald working in the background) at Sullivan and Spillane.

The business ushered in the age of colour televisions with a waiting list to buy the then modern gadgets - decades later the market is flooded with TVs and the consumer flooded with large retailers to buy them from.

Business reporter Emma Bailey talks to Jim Spillane about Sullivan and Spillane, the electrical business which went back to basics allowing it to survive 40 years.

How did the business start?

Peter Spillane and I worked for Temuka Electrical Services but it was brought by the South Canterbury Power Board in 1972 so we set up Sullivan and Spillane Electrical in Temuka.

We started with two staff but quickly grew to eight as there was a bit of a local boom in Temuka, with building and also farmers still getting subsidies, it was a fools' paradise, really. We started doing a lot of (electrical work on) dairy sheds and irrigation too, the dairy boom was just stirring and lot of farmers were setting up irrigation, it was in its embryonic stage.

We were also doing the (electrical) work for three wool scours, two flour mills and the linen flax mill near Geraldine. They no longer exist.

We went into retailing and had a store in Timaru, Temuka and Pleasant Point and at the peak had 40 staff. We were selling colour TVs and had waiting lists for them as well as automatic washing machines.

The Warehouse was the death of the retailing side in the early 1990s, it was the nail in the coffin, really, and we just did not have the economies of scale to compete.

We had to reassess the retail side and amputated it because it was not working, which meant we also dropped from 40 staff to 20 staff, the same number we still have today. You have to keep evolving, and in our case we just went back to doing what we had started out doing, electrical work.

Peter left the partnership around 10 to 12 years ago and my brother Des, who had been involved in the electronic side of the business, became my business partner.

We moved into our Timaru site (in Washdyke) about 35 years ago.

What sort of work does Sullivan and Spillane do?

We do electrical installation work, heating, and electronic work at schools and businesses with data points. We do a lot of work on fishing boats with their fishing and navigation equipment. The fishing industry is very fussy about how much fuel is being used so we set up energy monitoring equipment too. Fishing boats put in very expensive gear which we install and know how to service

We work for larger industrial companies like Fonterra, we did the electrical work for the addition to the Warehouse and also the Mitre 10 Mega building.

We have service technicians who work on small and large repair jobs. Now people don't bring in small appliances like jugs, toasters and irons unless they have sentimental value.

What are some interesting projects the company has worked on recently?

We have sent some guys to Panama, Spain and Portugal to work on fishing boats. Every job is interesting. I would rather be out getting my hands dirty that sitting on my backside here (in the office).

What are the biggest legal constraints your company deals with?

I am all for the health and safety as electricity will kill you, so I fully agree with the health and safety stuff.

The speed limit is our biggest legal constraint as we can't get there quick enough. The biggest government hassle is all the pay stuff, taxes, KiwiSaver and the like, we virtually have one staff member working full time on that, which adds to your overheads.

What has been the biggest change in the industry?

The computer has been the biggest change. When I started it was very difficult to get much speed control out of a motor. Now you can control the speed with a little box on the wall.

What have been the high points?

I enjoy coming to work every day as every job is a challenge that you have to solve, it can be a job that takes six minutes or six months. The thing I have enjoyed the most is working with the apprentices; we have trained 40 to 50 over the years. The bugger is they go out and compete against you. But you see them come out of school, train, get married and then have kids.

To be a good electrician you have to be naturally inquisitive and I always look for a kid who has had a practical hobby like model making. A kid that spends all day playing computer games is not what we look for as they won't get their hands dirty. You can be crawling under a house or in the roof or working in an effluent pond – it is not a glamorous job.

What have been the low points?

Having to close the retail side and admitting defeat.

Where to from here?

We have just got the contract to do the waste water project which will keep us busy for the next 12 months.

Best business tip?

Be honest with people. If you don't know the answer, tell them and then go and find out what it is.

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