Putting wind under company's wings
No-one knows better than vehicle and aircraft painter Fleet Image the contortions into which companies have to twist themselves to survive the long economic winter.
"Who'd have thought that a paint and panel shop would have someone on the road calling on customers?" asks Kris Browne, director and manager of the Te Awamutu-based company.
That "someone" is himself, and the new customer service goes with trying to stay in business in a very ugly time for the commercial transport sector, Browne says.
Fleet Image is the company doing the hard graft behind Hamilton's new Aviation Painting Services, the only dedicated aircraft painting operation in the country.
Getting the APS contract early this year has been a big morale boost and has helped "recession-proof" the business, Browne says, "but we are not out of the woods yet".
Fleet Image, established 36 years ago in Te Awamutu by Browne's father, Roy, and mother, Pam, has stared down a scary time or two in the economic crunch.
Like many businesses in the pre-global financial crisis boom, Fleet Image went out on a limb, building a $2 million workshop at Te Awamutu.
While mainly handling trucks, boats and cars, its staff had prepared and painted a few helicopters and small planes so the APS invitation was "too good an opportunity to miss", Browne says.
The contract has meant building a new specialised crew of six fulltimers and a couple of temps, who Roy Browne supervises at Hamilton Airport's industrial precinct.
"Aviation painting is a different kettle of fish. APS is the only [Civil Aviation Authority]-approved operation and everything has to be documented and audited.
"There are tens of thousands of rivets on an aircraft and if you sand one of them it can cause problems, so a lot of care has to be taken."
A hugely exciting prospect is APS' plan to expand its facilities to take big aircraft, which means it could "crack into the Australian aircraft market", Browne says.
But he's philosophical. "Like anything else, it could take a couple of years, everything is a bit of an unknown these days."
Fleet Image, which is owned equally by Roy and Pam Browne, Kris Browne and long-time employee Glenn Tervit, has been forced to lay off staff and sell assets as a result of the economic squeeze.
But by refusing to give up, and "taking each day as it comes and knowing costings", it is emerging a better business, Kris Browne says, with 31 staff spread between Te Awamutu, Hamilton airport and a big workshop in Te Rapa.
Annual turnover is more than $3m.
By working smarter, the company has retained customers who have been coming to Fleet Image almost since it opened its doors, Browne says.
Dairy giant Fonterra has been a customer for 12 years. When Fleet Image opened in Te Rapa 10 years ago it decided not to paint cars because there were too many others doing so in the city.
Browne, 35, who joined the company from school as an apprentice car painter, says the downturn has been particularly harsh on businesses associated with commercial transport.
"There are guys out there just working for a wage and driving down the value of the work."
The return on insurance jobs is tightly dictated by that industry but workshops can't afford to turn this work away.
The transport servicing industry is also capital intensive – at least for the reputable workshops – and Fleet Image has continued to pour money into equipment to stay at the top of its game throughout the downturn.
It will take a breather on investment for a while now, except for training, Browne says. Retaining skilled staff has also been a strain.
In one year, the company lost three young trained staff to workshops in Australia, where they are paid $10 to $15 an hour more. One has gone across the Tasman this year and another has just advised he is off soon.
"We are bottom feeders of the trades.
"Plumbers and sparkies with a van and tools can charge $60 an hour but a painter can't do that. You can have $2m of equipment [in the workshop] but your price is still dictated."
The self-regulating industry needs to come under government rules "to get rid of the cowboys", Browne says.
"We have spent a fortune [on equipment] and there are guys still painting in their backyards."
He thinks these are disappearing and predicts workshops with five and fewer employees will give way to shops with 20 and more staff.
And the company's five-year business plan?
"To still be here," Browne says.
"Now it's time for consolidation, to get the aircraft side going and getting a steady stream of work. We haven't set goals in stone; we are concentrating on being more efficient and getting productivity up."
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