Leadership, good networks and determination

The key to business recovery for EPL

As incoming president of the Manufacturer's and Exporters Association, Tom had a very wide network.

EPL is a large polymer and rubber extrusion company with facilities in Christchurch and Thailand.

EPL custom-designs elastomer products for use in almost every industry, including construction, automotive, appliance, electronics, marine, agriculture and medical industries.  EPL has been built-up over 40 years and has succeeded due to its 'can do' attitude and constant innovation opening up new and diverse markets.  EPL products are sold through product distributors in New Zealand and internationally.

Tom Thomson (managing director of EPL) was in Thailand on Tuesday 22 February 2011.  All of a sudden his phone lit up with messages from home such as "the business is gone, no deaths".

It took some time to determine that there had been an earthquake - this time right underneath EPL's main factory in Bromley.  Tom knew he had to fly back immediately.  On arriving home Tom discovered that a family member was in the collapsed CTV building and his own house was heavily damaged. 

Despite this, Tom arranged a meeting on site with his management team at 8am on Friday.  The factory looked like a bomb had exploded.  It quickly become apparent that they would not be able to secure an alternative 5500 m2 of space to relocate the factory, so they had to make their damaged building serviceable. 

The managers came up with a list of things needed (water, power, forklifts, engineer etc) and set to work.  Tom, in particular, began contacting his wide network. As incoming president of the Manufacturer's and Exporters Association, Tom had a very wide network. 

Through the Association, his other business networks and social networks Tom quickly secured power, a civil engineer, water tanks, 40ft containers and forklifts and most importantly toilets.  Many of these items came from EPL's competitors.  By Sunday evening a retrofit for the building had been designed and some of the associates and maintenance staff had set to work welding bracing for the stabilisation of the building.

On Monday morning Tom called a meeting for all his staff.  The staff were somber.  He asked the staff if they wanted to continue or not, knowing they would have to work in the damaged building.  The staff unanimously, enthusiastically and emotionally agreed to stay. 

From then, it was all hands on deck to clear the damaged buildings and re-establish production

Meeting customers' needs

Concerned customers were now calling the management team hourly looking for updates. The pressure was coming from all directions.

Within 48 hours they had power, water and security to control people moving in and out of the site.  Eight days after the 22 February earthquake, their first machine was up and running and staff worked long hours bringing in another process centre every 12 hours over the next couple of weeks.

They met all their customer orders.

Most staff lived near the factory and they in turn suffered from lack of basic necessities. Business owners and management put lunch on every day for 4-6 weeks.  They set up facilities for staff to cook and wash with.  Most of the appliances for this facility were donated by grateful and sympathetic customers.  Staff counselling was set up to overcome conflict within the team arising from issues such as staff taking time off to deal with family stresses.  For Tom it was really important that the team all worked as one and unity was actively encouraged.

Eight months later, EPL was still in survival mode.  Dust storms from liquefaction silt were wearing staff down - so a temporary office block  was set up. Continuous aftershocks and snowstorms introduced more challenges and damage to the site.  Getting engagement from insurance loss adjusters felt like a continual battle but publicity over the case helped in focussing the need for payments to be made.

There were also some challenges with customers during the recovery.

Local customers had their own operations affected and this impacted the demand for EPL products.  For national and international customers there were challenges with perception of EPL's capacity.  One of EPL's major customers felt that the risk of using EPL products was too high and they were looking for alternatives.  

Tom convinced the customer to fly down to Christchurch and see the factory.  If they weren't satisfied then they would tell five staff that they would no longer have a job.  The customer was overwhelmed with what he saw and threw their weight even more behind the company. They did not cancel their contract with EPL.  This highlighted, for Tom, the need to communicate with customers effectively and to keep up appearances - if customers sees damaged or neglected facilities they are likely to look elsewhere.

Despite all the challenges, Tom never felt that leaving following the earthquakes was an option.  He was and is responsible for the major income stream for over 150 families and he feels a huge responsibility to staff.

The staff are loyal too.  On average EPL staff stay with the company for 16 years.  In fact, EPL's loyal staff has been a key ingredient in EPL's survival.  And Tom noted that the earthquakes have also drawn out some of the natural leaders within his staff.

In the years since, EPL has taken the opportunity to invest in a new state-of-the-art building. 

The building is seen as a chance to step forward.  With unstable markets and declining demand from some customers, EPL is looking at getting more into high-tech industries such as medical equipment.  EPL is not stopping at a new building as they look to entice the medical market: they are actively supporting staff members to stop smoking and manage stress through exercise and other practical outlets.

Take home messages

  • Have strong leadership
  • Maintain diversity in products and customers to reduce risk
  • Strive for constant innovation with an eye to future market opportunities
  • Develop good networks - people (including competitors) you can call when the chips are down
  • Provide the basics for staff during / following a crisis - food, accommodation, washing facilities, counselling etc.
  • Have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and sell it to the staff
  • Keep enthused and celebrate success at every moment
  • Have a 'one team' spirit
  • Keep up appearances - customers judge a company on appearances
  • Communicate effectively with customers- they need to know you are operational and will meet their needs
  • Keep staff working environment comfortable
  • Encourage practical outlets like exercise for stress management