Focus on Waikato

Posted by The Icehouse on 28/03/2023 12:00:00 AM

“We spent five years in Auckland before moving ourselves to sunny Hamilton in 2005. I had a moment of clarity while stuck in Auckland traffic one day. Half my customers come from the Waikato, so I asked myself, ‘Why am I in Auckland?’ and we never looked back,” says Mike Williams, Founder and Director of Hamilton-based MWDesign and an Owner Manager Programme alumni.

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It's a familiar story. Mike is joined by Sleepyhead, Saito, and numerous others – big companies leaving Auckland and relocating for the Waikato region's commercial, business and lifestyle advantages. They join many of NZ’s most-recognised organisations such as Gallagher, and prestigious international firms, including Tetra Pak, who call the Waikato home.

Hamilton and the wider Waikato is experiencing a unique ‘moment in time’ where the “traditional” primary and goods-producing, manufacturing, and construction firms, so synonymous with the region, are being met by a new wave of globally ambitious businesses specialising in “non-traditional” sectors including real estate services, food and beverage, and ICT.

There’s also a digital boom taking place. ‘[The Waikato region is also] one of our country’s fastest growing tech sectors, with agri-tech, in particular, continuing to grow at an exponential rate,’ according to

Business confidence is robust post-Covid. The Waikato region accounted for more than 8% of NZ’s GDP in 2022 – $31,004m as of March last year – and up 5.0% from the year earlier (Infometrics).

The end to lockdown has also seen a rise in tourism (think Hobbiton and Waikato River-based activities), and professional and education services (the University of Waikato is one of the region’s largest employers and has welcomed back its international student body) are returning to a new normal.

Conjoined with the July 2022 completion of the Waikato Expressway – accelerating accessibility along one critical side of the ‘golden triangle’ (Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty – which accounts for more than three million of the country’s labour market), it seems like the region is moving in the right direction.

Tainui Group Holdings is the wholly-owned commercial entity of the Waikato-Tainui iwi and doing fantastic things to further develop and promote the region’s ecosystem. Top of the list is the stunning Ruakura Superhub, which opened in September 2022, complete with an inland port, logistic hubs, industrial spaces, wetlands and local road networks, further stimulating the buzz and the growth of the key point in the triangle.

During Covid, businesses faced challenges around shoring up the skills gap and attracting available expert talent. As Justin Daly, Operations Manager of Hamilton-based automotive specialists SD European, told The Icehouse in 2021, “One of the challenges we face is finding high-quality mechanics – a constant issue in our industry. Mechanics don’t really move around much once they find a good firm to work for and tend to stay there for a long time, so we’re working hard on recruitment at the moment.”

Today, our alumni are still voicing those concerns. However, there’s a flow for businesses to jump into innovation, diversification and international expansion to attract top talent.

“Since my OMP experience we’ve been up and down to be fair, because we’ve been so focused on the NZ dairy sector which has an erratic three year cycle,” says Pam Roa, Managing Director of Hamilton-based Longveld Limited.

“We’re more diversified now and have finally created a senior leader commercial role dedicated to diversify us globally beyond dairy. We’ve invested heavily in developing our people and building our reputation as a great employer.” 

Longer-term challenges echo the ‘moment-in-time’. Many long-established businesses are facing up to natural shifts in ownership and leadership.

More and more alumni are seeking greater clarity and expert advice on succession, exit planning, and funding growth, explains Anthony Gold, Customer Growth Partner for the region at The Icehouse.

“Succession planning. It’s the first thing that comes up at regional events and talking to the network. There are so many successful inter-generational family businesses here, the very fabric of Waikato society, asking for guidance on how it can work for them.

“Organisations are asking what resources are available to take those first practical steps in preparing for succession and exit. Does that involve upskilling your incoming? What does that look like in terms of optimising the value of the company? 

“Naturally, succession planning and funding growth go hand-in-hand. So, again, we’re getting asked, what information is available. ‘What does funding growth look like?’, ‘What are our options for funding growth?’, ‘How can we scale our business?’, ‘How can we expand our markets?’, ‘What strategy do we have available to us?’”

Waikato-based Icehouse coach Kim Hill believes this is an excellent time to be a Waikato business owner. ‘We’re booming and thriving as a region. Business confidence and resilience are growing, despite the fact we’re catching some of the wider country’s economic headwinds.

“We’re seeing more younger owners and emerging leaders building their skillsets and coming through, and across a wider range of business sectors than ever before. As with all owners, they’re mindful of the current financial narrative, and how that impacts high-level planning and growth, but these are exciting times for the region.”

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