Abby Stewart visits the small businesses thriving in Manawatū-Whanganui and learns how Vodafone is keeping regional New Zealand connected.
Content created in paid partnership with Vodafone.
The staff at MacBlack in Whanganui make their primary industry timber yard seem like an artisan workshop. The younger staff, in blue jeans, five panel hats and black t-shirts folded at the sleeves, look like they could be working in an Auckland advertising agency if it weren’t for the sawdust covering their clothes. Their older colleagues treat their work with the precision of architects.
Just a couple of blocks from the banks of the Whanganui river that carves through the centre of the city, the team at MacBlack are busy processing their sustainably harvested timber. Their wood has become so popular they are building an additional 320 m2 shed to keep up with demand.
MacBlack is part of a vibrant emerging Whanganui economy, a key element in a resurgence that is quickly attracting new residents to the region. In October the population of Whanganui hit 48,100 – its largest ever headcount – and is set to reach 50,000 for the first time in its history in the next two years. As the pandemic has revealed that many of us can work from almost anywhere, and living costs in the major centres have forced a reconsideration of the quarter acre dream, Manawatū-Whanganui is among the regions that are being seen in a whole new light.
Thanks to a thick covering of native bush, forestry and sawmilling were an essential part of the Manawatū-Whanganui region’s 19th-century settler economy. MacBlack is a distinctly modern revision of this early timber industry. The company utilises a long list of apps and programmes to manage their projects, complete their timesheets, pay staff and communicate with an ever-growing number of clients. Owner Richard Thompson loves wood and is an advocate for its role in a more sustainable future for New Zealand.
One of the key sources of MacBlack’s supply is the Papaiti forest owned by Thompson’s family. “We started planting over 30 years ago and now are starting to get some really lovely trees,” he says during a tour of the MacBlack timber yard.
At 3pm a bell rings across the yard and the staff all head in for a smoko. The crew chat easily over coffee. Thompson is proud of his MacBlack team, his company and his town.
“Whanganui has got the sense of a city that’s had a bit of a renaissance. The fact that there are people coming to live here creates economic development which creates jobs, and that creates more opportunity for people to come in,” he says.
“There’s a lot of young people who have moved here and a number of our employees have come here looking for somewhere to live that’s not in a big centre and somewhere where they can afford to buy a house. These are people that have lived around the world and they’ve got some really amazing skills and they bring a lot to the business.”
One of these people is MacBlack employee George Wright, who moved here from England two years ago and fell in love with Whanganui. Ask him what keeps him here and he doesn’t have to think long.
“The people. The drive they have to make this place something special. The sense of community I’ve found. Those two things combined just make me excited to be here and feel a part of something moving in such a positive direction. It’s a real hidden gem,” he says.
To allow the regions to embrace this opportunity their infrastructure needs to keep up with the growth. That’s why Vodafone is fast tracking its investment into its phone and internet networks across regional New Zealand. The Manawatū-Whanganui region was the first to get upgraded and earlier this year Vodafone switched on 5G in Palmerston North and Whanganui.
Digital infrastructure investment needs to stay ahead of the region’s growth to ensure it can reach its potential, explains Vodafone’s head of small to medium enterprise, Annaliese Atina. “It’s like roading, if you don’t build more highways and roads as the population increases, you get traffic jams. If we don’t invest in internet networks, we’ll get digital traffic jams.”
In 2020 data use on Vodafone’s networks increased by 56% as New Zealanders relied on mobile technology and digital services to work and live under the demands of Covid-19. That growth is set to continue as part of the digital “new normal” – and it’s also allowing places like Whanganui to thrive. Additional communications infrastructure is essential to ensure the regions can embrace the way tech is changing how we work, says Atina.
“Telecommunications keep our customers connected to their customers and give them the mobility to work from wherever they choose. Not everyone wants to work in a big city.”
A year and a half ago Genie De Wit and her husband Kelvin made that move, inspired by friends’ passion for their life in Whanganui. They packed up their business (and their rabbits) in Auckland and moved to Whanganui. Now the couple run Monster Illustration and Design from their home office. De Wit’s popular Instagram account Bunny Eats Design chronicles her work as a home cook, food stylist and photographer. Her food photos are created on the floor of her villa, using the daylight coming through the french doors, in a setup so simple it’s hard to recognise the lush final results.
Her Instagram feed also portrays a working from home idyll. Ducks glide through Virginia Lake while cherry blossoms bloom. Her lifestyle in Whanganui gives her access to something she was always chasing in Auckland.
“People in Whanganui have time,” she says. “Everything’s so close, and all the people we’ve met here are really creative.”
The majority of the De Wits’ clients are Auckland based, and the couple were concerned they would lose work by moving so far from the city. But every one of their clients has remained loyal, a clear tribute to Genie’s talents. She does the design, creates the recipes, photographs the food. But while it’s possible for her to do this all from the floor of her Whanganui home, it relies on good digital infrastructure for it to become a successful business.
“Connectivity is key and has really changed the way people can get income. With connectivity, our small business can reach more people across New Zealand,” says Atina.
Vodafone wants its technology and communications infrastructure to allow innovative businesses to function and thrive from anywhere in the country. The power of 5G has the potential to change the business landscape for Manawatū-Whanganui, says Atina.
“It’s giving our business owners what they rightfully deserve. It’s about tripling mobile capacity and increasing coverage and speed and reliability. As businesses grow they need network reliability because our time poor small business owners can’t afford disruptions. We have to lay the foundations for the future.”
An hour down SH3, Palmerston North is the homebase for mobile catering company Crafted and Co and its small fleet of food trucks servicing the lower North Island. Owner-operator Kelly Melody was born and bred in Palmerston North. She describes the city as a “family town” with a “really positive vibe”.
“We love being Palmy based, our customers are super supportive and always happy to support local. Local businesses support each other and we love the central location which gives us great access to the rest of the lower North Island,” says Melody.
Crafted and Co tapped into the rise of the food truck movement and now cater all types of events. In 2015 a friend asked Melody and her husband James to cater their wedding. Six years later the bookings haven’t stopped and their trucks roll up at weddings across the lower North Island. Despite the uncertainty of Covid-19, wedding season has just begun and Crafted and Co is booked solid. As well as weddings the company hosts events, and are a part of the popular monthly Block Party Street Festival in Te Marae o Hine at the heart of the city. Organised by Crated and Co employee Agnieszka Witkowski, the event brings in a DJ and a “cool little community” of food trucks.
Melody is quick to shout out the role her staff – Agnieszka, Tia, Emily, Kim, Will, Jess, Elise and Melody’s own mum – have played in the company’s success. Technology plays a major part in their operation too. A Vodafone customer, Crafted and Co relies on connectivity to coordinate its fleet and the team. They use social media to keep customers informed on where their trucks will be and when, and a range of digital tech to streamline their work.
“We try to automate as much of the basics as we can. We have an app for everything,” says Melody.
When Kirsty Porter was looking for a venue to host exhibitions, gigs, workshops and markets for the local community of artists and musicians, “we didn’t see a place for us in Palmy and so we built it.” That was seven years ago. Porter – an artist, activist and educator at Te Manawa art, science and history museum – helped create Snails: Artist Run Spaces with the financial support of the Palmerston North City Council. Snails features artists’ studios, a gallery and twice-monthly gigs, workshops, markets and open days. The space is simultaneously expansive and cosy with red leather booths, a bar covered in lamps and art, and a stage with a velvet backdrop.
“I wish we had a Snails in our town,” is a comment Porter says she often hears from touring bands. But what is it that she thinks makes Snails so special?
“We offer manaakitanga,” she says.
You can feel the generous intention behind the venue as soon as you enter. They’ve created a welcoming and inclusive place, revolving around a community in which Porter is active. She’s especially passionate about helping Palmerston North’s young and emerging artists.
“The gallery is really a space for people who want to have a first show. We take photos and give them some internet presence so they’ve got something to give to the next gallery.”
Social media has been essential to the success of Snails. It’s a platform to showcase the work of new talent, and is used to promote events and broadcast exhibition openings on Facebook Live.
Back in Whanganui, technology is providing a connection between traditional tikanga Māori and a new audience and clientele for artist and musician Tom Carroll (Ngāti Maru, Hauraki). Carroll makes taonga pūoro, hand-carved Māori wind instruments from native timbers and foraged materials such as shells, crafted using traditional and modern methods.
He has a similar “old meets new” approach to selling his pieces. Although he’s been carving taonga pūoro for 10 years, it was when he started using Instagram to promote and sell his work that sales really took off. While he also sells his taonga pūoro through Masterworks Gallery in Auckland, social media has become Carroll’s primary market place. It helps that his Instagram feed features gorgeous photos of his work by his partner, photographer Tess Charles, who he lives with in the seaside suburb of Castlecliff.
Carroll left Whanganui for Melbourne after high school and returned home a few years ago. He’d been told the city had a new vibe, he says, and a greater interest in culture – especially in arts and music.
“I’d heard that Whanganui had changed a lot and had developed a lot. I felt like maybe this is a cool place to base myself as an artist and maybe cheaper too,” he says. “On a wider cultural level I love the fact that my work is going towards a greater movement, within Māori music, or within taonga pūoro.
He’s also found a lifestyle he couldn’t get anywhere other than a place like Whanganui. “I love the fact that I can work my own hours while doing something that I really love doing… while being able to play golf sometimes,” he says with a smile.
This lifestyle is proving appealing to more and more New Zealanders. That doesn’t surprise Atina, who sees something special in the parts of the country beyond the big cities. And it’s why she – and Vodafone – are so invested in their success.
“Regional New Zealand is the heart of Aotearoa. You can cruise into a place like Coromandel or Taranaki and it feels good. People are genuine, people smile at you.
“Our hope is that other big organisations continue to invest in the regions so they can keep growing, and be even more prosperous than they are today. We’ll keep building the phone and internet networks, so that businesses and people can thrive.”