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Sunshine from the mainland

01 Mar 2007

Finding the time to take advantage of the high sunshine hours, a plethora of outdoor pursuits and recreational snapper fishing is a huge problem for Nelson-based business system specialist Active Unlimited. This month founder Iain Currie talks about the challenges of running a regional business. How did it all begin?Like many service businesses in New Zealand it developed out of a small self-employed consultancy service.While exiting from a financial management role in a Nelson manufacturing company I was increasingly called upon for my technical and strategic skills in implementing business systems -   especially by manufacturing companies.  I soon found I had a growing list of clients asking for assistance and an opportunity to build up a business of my own.Active Unlimited was formed in 2005 with my life and business partner Donna Currie in admin support.Based in Nelson and targeting the Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast areas we quickly found that without the density of industries available in the main centres we had to provide a range of options for customers.  It simply wasn’t possible to grow the business without access to, and competency in, a larger range of business system products. Passage Software, distributor of the Sage Pastel range, was able to provide the most complete range of products from a single distributor.  As our market exposure grew other system providers were added.  This has been done in line with our business plan to be a provider of customer choices – not a provider of the suppliers favourite product.What’s your core business?We’re here to provide and support business systems that work for customer growth.  With our cross industry experience we provide diverse ideas and solutions for business systems and we try to have fun doing it.  We range from financial accounts to payroll, MRP manufacturing to managing customers databases using  CRM – even customised add-ons for specific industries.Business systems are diverse but not as diverse as the customers expectations.  Our speciality is being able to provide top rate systems across a range of budgets and requirements.  We cut through the marketing talk and give honest opinions on what will work for the customer.  Who are your clients and what business challenges do they face?Operating in a provincial region we can’t focus on a narrow target market  - so the client range is diverse and of course so are the  business challenges.  We focus on  the medium to large size businesses but still work with a number of small businesses looking to grow.  We continue to have strong skills in manufacturing and MRP systems but even this area is diverse; from light engineering to dietary supplements, beauty products to electronic navigation systems.  The biggest business challenge for our customers is regulatory compliance,  it’s a huge issue for all of our clients - and us.  What challenges do you face operating outside of a metropolitan area?With less businesses compared to a metropolitan area there isn’t the critical mass of prospective customers to allow us to specialise in only one or two systems – much less grow in size.That’s  made us stronger. We implement and support a wider range of systems than our city peers and have learnt to step outside the square to meet a customer’s problem.We have better staff retention than metro areas but less of a resource pool to find those skills in.  We’re finding success employing by attitude, motivation and background learning ability rather than trying to find the exact knowledge skills.  Metropolitan peers are also surprised at how long the decision-making period is in our market-place.  The quickest you can expect a regional company to contemplate and decide on the purchase/implementation of a system is three months.  The average is six months while 12 months is not uncommon.What technology is hot right now?Nothing is really smoking. Continual improvement and features happen across most products,  while better mobility and more robust mobile tools for trade customers continue to appear.Software providers that don’t provide thin client applications that are accessed over a web browser in the future may be compromised.  Terminal server setups are the norm when external or multiple location access is necessary but those systems enabling simpler web-based access to a company server (or externally hosted server) have some advantage.What’s not?Getting mobile hardware to work correctly on Telecom and Vodafone’s lesser specced provincial networks.What’s the best thing about your location?For business, not much.  The market charge out rate is lower, conversion rates slower, while the knowledge requirement and training is wider.But then we don’t have significant road density issues, the weather is great and we have a very good wireless broadband supplier.What’s the secret to your success?Hardly a secret - understanding what the customer needs and providing solutions that work.We’ve been fortunate to learn by our mistakes, ensured we have access to good products and developed the ability to apply them across many industries.

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