The earthquakes that claimed lives and tested the economic lifeblood of Cantabrians have stirred the hearts of all New Zealanders. But only those who live in Christchurch and its environs can really know the heartache of the personal suffering, and be able to explain the reality of trying to run their businesses — or in some cases even save them. Dave MacIntyre looks at the reality of life among the liquefaction and rubble through the eyes of three PrintNZ members based in Christchurch, Bruce Bascand of The Caxton Pres, Kirk Martin of Fairfax and Jonny McHarg from McHargs
How printing companies in Christchurch have survived the ongoing terror of earthquakes, and continued to operate their businesses, is a story of resilience, stoicism, innovation, at times heroism and occasionally being prepared to flout the rules.
It is a story of being denied access to buildings, not being able to lay a hand on work records or computers, arguing with the authorities, being prepared to break the cordon and go into your building even when it was declared a no-go zone, of seeing your historic building demolished, of downsizing and starting to rebuild work again.
Business in the red zone
Bruce Bascand, director of The Caxton Press, whose historic building in the CBD was lost entirely as a result of the September and Boxing Day quakes, describes the effect as if it were, “almost our brand gone.”
For two months after the horrific quake of February 22, The Caxton Press was situated in the CBD Red Zone, with managers and staff unable to access the premises. Bascand comments that the people at Civil Defence HQ had absolutely no idea that business existed. He says, “Fortunately, we managed illegally to get through the cordon in the first days and get our servers out. Without that we wouldn’t be in business. The printing presses have had to be repositioned four times. In February they moved 650mm. There are now six-inch (150mm) steps in our factory floor which didn’t exist before February 22.”
But the greater impact was on the ability to actually run the business and pay staff. He continues, “The whole experience has left a scar in our DNA. It financially affected all staff and the company also had big losses. Thank goodness for the Government’s $500-a-week Employers’ Earthquake Subsidy Scheme.
That’s all we could afford to pay staff, while we were locked out, because our business interruption insurance did not cover us for earthquakes. Unfortunately, we had to make some redundancies. Three staff also left Christchurch. We managed to stay in business by contracting out, and I want to thank those printing companies and customers who helped.”
There is, however, a silver lining after the resilience shown by The Caxton Press to keep going in the face of adversity. Business is rising from the ashes. Bascand says, “Since then, we have taken on three people and are now advertising for another (a graphic designer). Today, we are going well.
It has taken time. The printers and presses are printing really good-quality work. And the work is coming in the door but the building looks like a war zone inside and outside.
“We are very fortunate to have built up a lot of goodwill with our customers. We also have a group of excellent people inside the company. We’re all in the same boat. All paddling fast together and I think it will pay off. There are some decisions coming up about our future, which is exciting.”
Over at McHargs, managers and staff also faced the trauma of physical damage, lost work and being excluded from the workplace.
With its premises located in the middle of the city, the McHargs staff witnessed some horrific sights during and after the big shake in February. Johnny McHarg personally helped rescuers recover bodies from a bus in Colombo Street and says the memory will stay with him for the rest of his life. He says, “The physical damage to our building was relatively small. Our front windows blew out and our back roller door remained up for the eight weeks while we were unable to work from our premises. We had damage to two folders and work in progress at the time as they were left open to the outside elements of dust and rain.
“Running a business while in the red zone for us was extremely hard. We had no access to machines except for a half-hour period where we managed to get out our computers and small Wiro machines. All work which was to come our way had to be diverted to other print finishers in Christchurch and the North Island.”
He says staff morale has been relatively good considering the circumstances. He says, “We had constant meetings during our enforced time off to indicate what was happening and the likelihood of job losses. It was a tough time for most and we have a number of employees including Stu McHarg who will lose their houses as a result of the earthquakes. Stu and I spent hours and hours cleaning the factory, organising engineering reports and trying to get power reinstalled before we allowed our employees back into the building. At the end of the day we have laid off two staff members.”
Now, McHargs is also fighting back but the real challenge of working from within the CBD remains and at the time of writing the back entrance to the premises was still regarded as being in the Red Zone. Johnny McHarg says, “Getting work in and out has been a constant headache but you do what is needed to keep your customers happy. Work flow is slowly starting to increase and we are positive about the future.
McHargs has been in Christchurch since 1893 and we have no intention of leaving just yet. I believe if the shakes do start to slow down, business will come back into the city. The shakes on June 13 really knocked a lot of people back but with areas in Christchurch now fully evaluated and people understanding what is happening to their houses we should hopefully see a positive momentum swing.
“It truly has been an experience which we will never forget, from watching buildings disintegrate around you, to the large piles of liquefaction down endless streets. But our deepest thoughts are always with the people who have lost loved ones from this terrible natural tragedy.”
AT the new Fairfax Media plant in Logistics Drive, Kirk Martin, print centre manager, feels the decision that was made to vacate the old premises in Cathedral Square in the heart of the city a couple of years ago to build the new plant, saved the company and its staff from serious damage. Nonetheless the wider repercussions for the company, its publications and its staff were severe.
He says, “With the amount of concrete we have in the foundations, all we sustained to the building was superficial cracks but it was not threatening to us. The February earthquake only delayed our press run but from there we had to change our focus a lot. We had to drop a lot of the community runs for a week or so.
“There were no commercial inserts and pagination was reduced for a week while Fairfax focused on staff wellbeing and relocation. The production goal was to make sure that we just got a paper out every night in order to keep our subscribers and the general public informed. We were conscious of staff moving heaven and earth to be on site. We appreciated the fact that the staff continued working even when earthquakes were happening. At the same time I would say that the staff appreciated having a place to go to, something to focus on during all of this time. Now I think the staff are relieved that they have a stable job to come to in a building that has survived relatively unscathed. We have several staff who were affected by losing their possessions and houses and we lost three staff entirely who just decided they didn’t want to be in Christchurch any more. There has been a lot of emotional issues to be aware of.”
He adds that, as far as the morale in the city is concerned, the after shocks in mid June really knocked the stuffing out of a lot of people. He says, “Prior to that, there was a belief that things were getting back to normal and people were moving ahead. But then in June there was a very pronounced drop in morale. Now opinion is divided as to the future of the city, but I would say the majority of people believe that things will come right.
“For the printing industry it is as if a whole new market has to be encountered. A lot of things have changed because some companies have been forced out of business or have given up and shut down, but then others have found an opportunity to press ahead, so it is very much about regrouping and determining what the future market is going to be like.”
For Fairfax, however, Martin is sure about the future. He says, “From our perspective, things are pretty much back to normal. We are back up to 100 per cent of our pre-earthquake production along with additional commercial work being printed as well. Certainly, we have a future in Christchurch as well as the South Island.”
Bruce Bascand shares Mcharg and Martins’ optimism about the future. He says, “Generally, business in Christchurch has shrunk, but it’s still there. The quakes are going. As a city we’ve become pretty resilient, and also pretty realistic about making do at the moment and getting on with it. Everyone has taken a hit in some way. Everyone has reassessed their life. We all have our own story of where we were, and what happened to us, and how we are. And the same applies to The Caxton Press. We have experienced dramatic events and survived, and now we are reorganising things.
“Believe me, for starters, business survival was a major achievement, and I want to thank a lot of people. The earthquake year was our 75th year, so we’ve done well. And now we’re looking ahead. “
PrintNZ Support Role
In the days following the 22 February earthquake, with a membership base of almost 100 in Christchurch, PrintNZ undertook to provide as much support as it could for the membership. In particular:
• Contact was made with all members to ascertain the status of their employees and their businesses. A list was circulated amongst the members listing their status so that everyone could see who was operating and who wasn’t
• This exercise was repeated a month later once businesses had had a chance to regroup and repair, and the cordon on the red zone had been narrowed
• Co-ordinated and passed on offers of help from other printers around the country which were generously given to support the members who weren’t operational were co-ordinated and passed on to the relevant businesses
• Employment advice was given to members who had to deal with staffing issues that arose from staff unable/unwilling to attend work, and businesses unable to open
• Information about assistance and relief packages were circulated
• PrintNZ worked with the Department of Labour to discuss the effect on our member businesses and how we can co-ordinate the lessons learned
It is PrintNZ’s intention to work with members and our insurance advisers to put together information about some the lessons learned from Christchurch so that we can help the wider membership review things such as disaster recovery plans and insurance cover.