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NZ company overcomes odds after Hurricane Katrina

New Zealand company overcomes the odds after Hurricane Katrina

11 April 2006: From crisis comes opportunity is a lesson Whangarei-based company Specialist Marine Interiors has learnt from its experience last September when Hurricane Katrina wiped out the New Orleans part of their business.

SMI, a company specialising in marine design, refits and interiors, had a dozen staff working in New Orleans on a contract with Trinity Yachts to install interior work manufactured in Whangarei when the hurricane hit.

SMI’s Managing Director Grant Willis says for the staff it was a frightening time, being evacuated only half an hour before the US military closed the airport. And for the company, the work looked like it had disappeared, literally, overnight.

But, says Mr Willis, they were fortunate the company had another contract pending. “We were able to put the guys to work on another major project as soon as they came home”.

SMI was established by Mr Willis and Tracey Barnier Willis almost six years ago. Through NZTE’s support of the New Zealand marine industry, SMI has established a profile at expos in Monaco and Fort Lauderdale, providing their entry on to the marine industry’s world stage. SMI is also part of NZTE’s Fort Lauderdale marine beachhead helping to grow the New Zealand industry.

Now SMI is busier than ever with 75 staff manufacturing in Whangarei. After the hurricane, Trinity relocated to a new purpose-built site at Gulfport, Mississippi. SMI now has a team of eight working there, with plans to have up to16 staff by the end of the month.

While Mr Willis puts SMI’s success down to “being in the right place at the right time”, he sees its real strength as being a focus on building strong relationships with customers, backed up by a commitment to a total quality product.

“We saw a gap in the market for a total package to the marine industry,” Mr Willis says, adding that while there are plenty of separate businesses offering design services, refit teams and skilled interior craftsman, there were few offering SMI’s style of one-stop specialist services within the super-yacht industry.

Grant added that while the lower dollar does help the company to compete because “pricing is global”, SMI aims to differentiate on other factors.

“We want to make sure that our customers get real enjoyment out of the experience of outfitting their boats,” Mr Willis said.

Mr Willis’ confidence in the high end marine industry expanding, and SMI’s work continuing to grow, is borne out by the company currently having two years of orders waiting.

General Manager Jake Jacobson also puts SMI’s success down to the integrated nature of its service.

The business is a combination of craftsmanship and custom furniture making, integrated with a manufacturing process. To build the interiors in the volume required the company has had to adopt a number of complex manufacturing processes.

Once the consignment is complete, every piece of furniture, and there may be up to 8000 pieces in total for some 400 items of furniture, is individually wrapped, packed, labeled and packed into specially constructed cases, freighted to its destination, and unloaded by the team of installers who then fit it to the waiting yacht. The process is one of precision that leaves no room for error.

The company specializes in boats over 50 metres or over 500 tonnes. With four orders on the go at the moment, SMI staff numbers have increased from 35 in October 2004 to its current 100 plus, including designers, manufacturers, polishers and installers.

By the end of 2006, the company expects to be employing 150 people in its Whangarei yard, in addition to the teams of 10-15 staff carrying out installation work in Gulfport Mississippi, and in Taiwan.

Please note 13 April is my last day with NZTE.


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