Small towns, big hitters

Matt Philp
Small towns, big hitters

They’re the provincial breakout stars, innovative New Zealand businesses making waves internationally despite being headquartered outside the main centres.

Sure, they have to deal with a few logistical challenges, but the pros easily outweigh the cons, and the absence of city distractions means they can focus like a laser on building a successful business.

As one small town company CEO says, “It’s so much faster, simpler and more efficient than in a big, crowded city.”

These ‘big hitters’ would certainly agree.


Frogparking, Palmerston North

You’re driving to the mall in downtown LA. Your Frogparking mobile app has told you where the closest available parking is, and now it’s guiding you to that space. Once parked, it will let you know the best entrance to take, and the day’s discounts. Quite possibly it will have organised a flat white to pick up en route.

Well, that last is fanciful, but the rest is standard issue for Frogparking, a world-beating parking management firm headquartered not in LA or Berlin, but in Palmerston North.

Frogparking’s reputation as a global leader in innovative parking solutions was assured in 2010 when it devised the world’s first solar-powered occupancy sensor, initially deployed in an on-street parking system that also featured electronically monitored enforcement. (Parking wardens were alerted as soon as you outstayed your welcome.) Since then, the company has developed a suite of cloud-based products for off-street parking, including guidance to direct drivers to available spaces.

This brave new world of parking is a boon for the average driver – well, apart from those enforcement tools, perhaps – but it’s really the carpark owners whom Frogparking is chasing, with a pitch to “turn you parking asset from ‘just a car park’, into a smart, agile, small data collecting machine”.

Among its customers is that aforementioned LA operator, who in 2016 became the first to use Frogparking’s new ‘dynamic pricing system’, which adjusts the price of parking based on how full or empty the carpark is at any moment. As a result, that particular carpark’s revenue has climbed steeply.

According to Managing Director Shareena Sandbrook, 90 percent of the company’s revenue now comes from exports, with healthy business on the East and West Coasts of the US, and a major distribution deal signed in 2016 with Austrian-based giant Skidata that should extend its reach to 90 countries.

In fact, the firm is currently raising capital, she says, because “we’re experiencing such rapid growth we can’t take advantage of all the opportunities in front of us. We’ve unearthed a monster!”

So what’s the secret of Frogparking’s success? “We have a great vision of the future of parking and what technologies will be used. And we are very, very good at innovation.”


Escea, Dunedin

“We get annoyed when people say everything should be made in China – actually, no, it shouldn’t.”

So says Nigel Bamford, CEO and co-founder of leading New Zealand fireplace maker Escea. When in the early 2000s, Bamford spied a potential niche for gas fires that weren’t just powerful and efficient but also stylish, it was Dunedin, not Shanghai, that appealed as a base.

“It’s one of New Zealand’s oldest manufacturing towns, with a lot of infrastructure from its manufacturing heyday,” he says. “There are a lot of contractors who can make parts – some have been here for a hundred years. And it has a stable workforce. It was the perfect place to start a manufacturing business.”

Escea launched its first headturning fireplace onto the market in 2005, and immediately hit the mark, featuring in the Deloitte Fast 50 list for the following few years.

The key was that combination of form and function. Previously, consumers had to choose between fires that looked great but didn’t put out much heat, or highly efficient fires that looked like the back end of a bus.

“What people wanted was not to have to compromise beauty for efficiency, or efficiency for beauty. We paid attention to both.”

The company also made waves with its innovations, including the world’s first gas fire that could be turned on remotely with a cellphone.

But it wasn’t just about the product, says Bamford, who reckons there are probably ten things you must get right in business. “For us to be successful, we had to put a lot of attention into all ten, from our design to our manufacturing process, to our pricing strategy and web marketing.”

While a foray into the US ultimately didn’t pay dividends, Escea has made strong inroads into the Australian market, with a 50/50 split of domestic and export sales. In 2009, the operation moved into a $4 million purpose-built factory in Green Island to keep up with rising international demand, and the staff has since grown to 85, including a design team of ten.  

And no, there are no plans to quit Dunedin. “I can send my guys into town to pick up from the screw supplier and they’re back in ten minutes. An Auckland factory does that, they’re back in four hours. There are so few disadvantages.”


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