April 28, 2019

Sun, surf and cheap houses turn Gisborne into NZ’s new tech hot spot

Via stuff.co.nz

By Bonnie Flaws

Sun, surf and cheap housing is helping Gisborne transform itself into an unlikely technology centre.

Cloud-based translation company Straker Translations opened a regional office in Gisborne last year, with initially just two staff which has grown to nine and is expected to more than double to 20 by the end of this year.

When Parmpreet Singh took a job with Straker six years ago after immigrating from India, he had never heard of Gisborne.

Software architect Parmpreet Singh with his wife Sandeep Kaur Chhina, Agampreet Singh Chhina, 6, and Sehajpreet Kaur, 2. The family are relishing the open spaces of Gisborne after the claustrophobia and expense of Auckland.

But two weeks ago, along with his wife and two children, Singh made the move to the east coast, joining the small team of tech professionals.

Singh, a software architect, had been living just three kilometres from the old Straker head office on Auckland's North Shore. One day it took him an hour and twenty minutes to drive home. The move to Gisborne was partly in aid of a more relaxed life, he said.

"In Auckland there is so much traffic. At 3pm you're stuck in traffic, at 5am you're stuck in traffic. Here it's really nice, you can go anywhere anytime. Everything is five minutes' drive."

Straker opened the Gisborne office last year after some staff said they would prefer to work in a regional office over a move to a new head office in central Auckland. And while Gisborne's relaxed lifestyle may have been a big drawcard, the other key factor was cheaper housing.

Gisborne could not have attracted Straker without the necessary digital infrastructure.

The median house price in Gisborne is $380,000, while in Auckland it's $856,000, according to the latest Real Estate Institute figures.

Jiro Sasamoto, development team leader at Straker said he could not afford a house in Auckland but had finally been able to buy one in Gisborne. Sasamoto spent 14 years in Auckland before moving to Gisborne in January.

"It's a small town, you know, but there are enough shops and cafes and activities." Asked if he missed Auckland, Sasamoto replied "not much".

Straker founder and chief executive Grant Straker said: "It's been fantastic to see some of our staff have the opportunity of home ownership which was out of reach in Auckland".

Straker farms out translation work around the world through an online platform. The company raised $20 million through a float on the Australian stock exchange last year.

The company, which employs 144 people globally across 14 locations, was able to move its Auckland office to the centre of the city because it no longer needed as much space after some staff took up the option to relocated to Gisborne.

"We are really happy with our move to Gisborne and it has been an exciting and worthwhile exercise for Straker. It also shows that global companies can be based in the regions of New Zealand," Straker said.

​Today Sasamoto cycles to work in less than 10 minutes and enjoys surfing "the best waves in New Zealand." And while he said that work was just as busy in Gisborne as it was in Auckland it was his leisure time that has changed dramatically.

"After work it's completely different. I have lots of time to do whatever I want to do. Even before work. That's quite different to Auckland."

Gisborne has some of the best surfing waves in the country.

His wife and children like it too because Gisbornians are so welcoming, an experience that Singh and his family have also found.

"Our son is going to Gisborne Central School. He is loving it. The people we have met so far are very very friendly."

Gisborne District Council and its economic development arm, Activate Tairāwhiti, have plans to expand the region's digital infrastructure and reach, with a 10-year digital strategy to not only attract businesses to the region but also ensure local talent is fostered. 

Activate Tairāwhiti's general manager of economic development, Steve Breen, said that there was an increase in interest in the region after the news that Straker had opened an office there.

"We're also seeing [other] regional businesses showing more interest in setting up here. Businesses are seeing that they're losing their talent to the region, and your seeing some businesses trying to get ahead of that and set up a regional office."

While the Gisborne region has been gifted millions by the Government's Provincial Growth Fund for development infrastructure, business and transport, historically it has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country. The combined unemployment rate for Hawke's Bay and Gisborne is at 5 per cent, compared to the national rate of 4.3 based on the most recent data.

Technology is seen by the council as an avenue away from the primary industries that have stifled aspiration and opportunity in the region.

Activate Tairāwhiti established a co-working space called Launch in 2018 and councillor Shannon Dowsing, along with soon-to-retire mayor Meng Foon made a research trip to Ireland last year to look at how tech innovation had impacted European economies.

Grant Straker said move to Gisborne had been worthwhile for his company.

It is hoped the success of businesses like US space company Rocket Lab, which has a launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula, and Ruatoria commercial cannabis company Hikurangi Enterprises, will catch on. The latter employs 20 local staff, including a team of scientists.

"We've had between 35 and 40 people through and using Launch since it was opened. That equates to 25 businesses. Some of them are new and some of them are existing businesses that have started in the last three years," Breen said.

Straker started its foray into Gisborne at Launch but had moved into its own office, leaving space for other companies to move in, Straker said.

The National Broadband Strategy that was put in place under the previous government had been key to the company's decision to open an office in Gisborne. Without the high speed internet connectivity, it would not have been possible, he said.

Dowsing said the conversation the strategy had generated had been even more important, however.

"It's put us in a landscape that is technology friendly and people are seeing it as a real opportunity."

The fibre optic roll out in the region is scheduled for completion in 2021, but is already complete in Gisborne. The council is encouraging local enterprise to think about how to better use technology to run their businesses.

"That's part of what Launch is there to do. A physical demonstration of how businesses can be using technology to either create a business or to grow the one they've got," Breen said.

Gisborne District councillor Shannon Dowsing said technology offers Gisborne a path to economic diversification.

The other advantage to building a tech hub in Gisborne was the support it provides to surrounding hospitality and retail businesses.

"It adds a breath of life back into the CBD, where growth in the traditional economy here doesn't do that," Dowsing said.

There were jobs at Straker currently based in the US and Asia that could work well from Gisborne in the future, Straker said.

"Our aim is to continue to offer Gisborne as an office location for new and existing staff in New Zealand," he said.

But for Singh and his family, the move was already a good one. After spending the first couple of weeks getting settled, they were ready to start their hunt for a home.

"Not a shoe box but a house."

Did he think Gisborne might get boring after so many years in the big city?

Singh was quick to reply: "It has everything that we need."