Hamilton a headquarters haven: Big business, Govt organisations, beating a path to Waikato

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Hamilton City councillor Ryan Hamilton, Hamilton City Council city growth general manager Jen Baird, and key accounts manager Mike Bennett are convinced the city has a prosperous future.

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/Stuff

Hamilton City councillor Ryan Hamilton, Hamilton City Council city growth general manager Jen Baird, and key accounts manager Mike Bennett are convinced the city has a prosperous future.

Rabobank, the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology, and the Criminal Cases Review Commission have all arrived or are on their way to Hamilton – and more major entities can be expected.

But while Hamilton and the wider Waikato are increasingly attractive as a place to be headquartered, there are some challenges in making the city attractive to firms and Government organisations elsewhere.

David Hallett, the co-director of Hamilton software firm Company-X said the recent additions showed Hamilton was “coming of age”.

“We now have a population size here that provides the facilities and infrastructure that bigger organisations want.”

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Company-X director David Hallett: "My advice is not to sell Hamilton as such, try and sell the entire Waikato."

Christel Yardley/Stuff

Company-X director David Hallett: “My advice is not to sell Hamilton as such, try and sell the entire Waikato.”

But those pitching the city to those organisations needed to be mindful of keeping a regional focus.

“My advice is not to sell Hamilton as such, try and sell the entire Waikato.

“There are so many things that make us attractive now. It’s about the lifestyle. There’s walks and mountain-biking and the beaches out at Raglan. There’s the Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton … a lot that we can show our clients when we do have clients here.”

There were some detractions: “Hamilton as a city name might be past its due date … there is a real cow town perception of Hamilton that really is out of date.”

The issues of pitching Hamilton to outside organisations were highlighted in a briefing to Hamilton City councillors by senior staff last week.

While the city’s economic oracles were loudly preaching about how Hamilton had, in recent years, become ideal place in the country to headquarter a business or large organisation, the volume of their sermonising was not quite powerful enough to reach those in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere.

Key accounts manager Mike Bennett said the problem with Hamilton was that to non-Hamiltonians “we are a blank canvas, and they don’t even know about us”.

He spoke about his experiences pitching the benefits of Hamilton to emissaries from the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology earlier this year.

Institute bosses announced in May that they would headquarter the new entity – which merges all 16 of the country’s institutes of technology and polytechs, including Waikato’s Wintec, into one national body – at the Wintec campus in Hamilton.

”Before they stepped foot here, we were ‘the middle of the pack’. They spent less than a day here and right away we were right at the top.”

Shamubeel Eaqub: "You can’t pretend that you can offer the same thing. You have to be able to offer your own niche."

Chris McKeen/FairfaxNZ/Stuff

Shamubeel Eaqub: “You can’t pretend that you can offer the same thing. You have to be able to offer your own niche.”

The Hamilton pitch had included an emphasis on building relationships with Waikato-Tainui and a lunch at the Gothenberg restaurant.

”We ended the day at Te Wananga [o Aotearoa]. They told us: ‘There’s so much more to Hamilton than we ever knew’.”

But the NZIST anecdote contained an important lesson, Bennett said: Unless people actually came to the city, they did not realise how good the city was.

“The solution is not a snazzy marketing campaign. It needs to be facts-defined.”

Bennett’s briefing to councillors was a precursor to a future discussion at a meeting of the council’s economic development committee – established my mayor Paula Southgate soon after her election.

“We are still finding a framework. We don’t want to unnecessarily duplicate the work that Te Waka, the [Waikato] chamber of commerce and the business association are doing,” committee chairman Ryan Hamilton said.

Rabobank NZ chief executive Todd Charteris has no regrets about moving the organisation's headquarters from Wellington to Hamilton.

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Rabobank NZ chief executive Todd Charteris has no regrets about moving the organisation’s headquarters from Wellington to Hamilton.

“We want to identify two or three key things we can achieve.”

Southgate agreed.

“There are more opportunities than we can actually get involved in. We have to identify the best win-wins.

“Hamilton is in a fantastic spot,” city growth general manager Jen Baird told the assembled politicians. “

Just our geographic endowments alone mean we are in a great position for long term prosperity.

“We have the youngest, most well-educated population, the fastest growing tech sector and three amazing tertiary institutions based here … and we are just a 90-minute drive from half the population of the country.”

She had recently spoken to younger Hamiltonians who had recently relocated to Hamilton from overseas, and they had told her they were extremely happy. This raised the question of how Hamilton could become a more palatable option for their ilk.

“How do we create a younger person’s city? I’m not sure we are cool for teens to 30-somethings.”

Cr Martin Gallagher added: “We want a place that will be the coolest place for the kids that live in the poorest households.”

Cr Ewan Wilson, who was attending the briefing via audio-visual link from Canada chimed in: “We need to position Hamilton as the head office of everything.”

He also urged the setting up of an endowment fund, “so we can be in an agile position when people come to us with projects.”

Rabobank NZ chief executive Todd Charteris said he had no regrets about the decision last year to move the bank’s head offices to Hamilton.

“We did our own assessment and Waikato was the best fit for us. You have to maximise the benefits to all your stakeholders and Hamilton proved to be the best for a number of reasons.

“The developers were all incredibly welcoming and Fosters, who are doing the build for us, are a great local company. We have had no great frustrations or challenges at all.”

NZIST chairman Murray Strong said a powerful commitment by Waikato-Tainui to technology and learning had helped win his organisation’s panel over, and a significant investment in infrastructure – such as the road to Auckland – had also helped.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub, whose consultancy firm Sense Partners has offices in Wellington and Auckland, agreed Hamilton had a problem when it came to attracting younger businesspeople in particular, but it was an issue that could resolve itself in time.

“Places like Hamilton and Palmerston North have pretty strong growth, and now there is growth in the people aged 25 to 35.”

“If you are looking at trying to emulate Auckland you are looking in the wrong direction. Hamilton is a refuge for people fleeing places like Auckland, but the job opportunities are not the same as the jobs in Auckland. You can’t pretend that you can offer the same thing. You have to be able to offer your own niche.

“Hamilton has a reputation as the city of the future, but it is a future that never seems to arrive. Maybe it is starting to now … but what you really want to avoid is catching the Auckland disease of high house prices and congestion. You have to be able to offer an alternative to that.”

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