Ups and downs

Smart Lift co-owner Hazel Brightwell-Guy on staying resilient through tougher times

If anybody could be called experts in dealing with ups and downs it would be owners of Smart Lift, Paul Guy and Hazel Brightwell-Guy. As Dunedin’s specialists in tight access cranes and lifting equipment since 2007, they are well practiced in helping clients manoeuvre out of a tight spot, and in 13 years have been through a fair share of good and not so good patches for the local and global economy.

Smart Lift was started by Paul Guy to address a gap in the market for mini spider cranes that could access and operate safely in tight spaces including interior height work.

From his original red UNIC tracked mini spider crane, Paul has steadily built up the company’s fleet to meet the growing needs of customers. As well as several different cranes, Smart Lift now has scissor lifts and spider tracked cherry pickers (EWPs).

Hazel was handling the books from the outset, putting her accounting background to good use while the company was getting off the ground. In 2013, she was able to officially join the team when the business grew big enough to support a full-time admin role.

Over the years Smart Lift has experienced both the busy times where they would be scrambling to add staff and equipment just to meet demand, and leaner times where making any profit seemed nearly impossible.

One thing that rings true through either end of the spectrum is to get the right information to make good decisions. Another is knowing when to simply back yourself. “Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and go for it. Other times it’s about having the courage to   admit you need some help.”

A health scare a few years back made it clear that the business was not sustainable while it relied almost exclusively on owner, Paul, for keeping it going. A change in staffing to help spread the responsibility was introduced, and the business is far better for it. The same was done in the office.

“We have three people now doing what I was handling on my own, and none of us are twiddling our thumbs” says Hazel. “I look back and wonder how much I was missing when it was just me.”

When a tightening of Health and Safety regulations brought additional overheads to the work, the company were faced with a new challenge. Traffic management measures became mandatory for a wider range of operations. Essentially, everything that encroached on a road or diverted pedestrians off a footpath now required the use of professional traffic management services. Something as simple as erecting a sign on a building façade suddenly became a lot more costly. The business could only absorb so much of the hire cost for this service themselves, and putting it all on the customer just made the smaller projects too expensive. The workflow was affected too as project timelines were at the mercy of subcontractors’ availability. “With many other industries affected by the rule change, the demand (for traffic management) was sometimes so high you could be waiting weeks for an opening” remembers Hazel.

 The solution for Smart Lift was to diversify into Traffic Management, and in 2018 STMSNZ was created. It was a bold move, but one that was needed. The new arm to the business served to keep the work inhouse and reduce the overall project cost – both for them and the customer.

With expansion comes greater complexities in the management of a business – in its operations and its finances. Although Hazel was no longer on her own in the office, the accounting side of things had been outsourced for a while now, she could see the company needed more than what its current accountants were providing. “Like a lot of businesses do, we went through a string of ‘small’ ‘cheap’ accountants where we got the basic compliance covered but nothing else.

“We made the decision to surround ourselves with professionals last year” says Hazel. PKF were chosen to provide a more comprehensive accountancy service across the two companies, Smart Lift and STMSNZ.

“Getting Paul to talk about money is no easy feat. I think it helps that Paul likes Peter” says Hazel, referring to PKF Director Peter McCormack.

“Peter is one of the few people I’ve dealt with who, after you arrive and sit down, he will ask; “And how are you?” Hazel adds; “The fact that you can be a bit vulnerable and talk about more than how great business is. It makes a big difference.”

Being able to continue with their existing accounting software was another factor in choosing to go with PKF. We have been using MYOB since we started” says Hazel. “When Xero came out everyone was on about it” remembers Hazel. “But MYOB went online 3 years ago with their platform and by that time it had caught up with Xero. It’s also what we know.”

At 3PM on the afternoon of 23 March 2020 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand was at Alert Level 3 for the Covid-19 response, and that the whole country would be placed in full lockdown under Level 4 in just two days. No business could have fully prepared for the swiftness of this, and the forced closure of all but essential services for seven weeks has taken a heavy toll on some.

Smart Lift were among those who had to cease all operations and wait it out. “There was huge uncertainty about the future and whether we could survive as a business” says Hazel.

Paul and Hazel took advantage of the Business Partners Programme for Covid-related services. They used it for both businesses under the 100% funded criteria, wanting to do what they could to get themselves and their staff through this crisis as best they could.

The Government allocated additional funding to the NZTE Regional Business Partner Network to support New Zealand businesses and service providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 Business Advisory Fund available through the RBP Network targeted businesses seeking initial advice during Alert Levels 4-3. PKF was already part of the extensive network of businesses who were registered with the RBP to provide training programmes and converted their training to work across a digital platform to fulfil this need over lockdown.

“We attended two of the PKF webinars live during lockdown and listened to most of the others from the online recordings” says Hazel. Hazel remembers there was a business continuity plan that came with the training, which comprised a spreadsheet with all the things to go through. “Looking after yourself was the first thing. I think that was a good reminder to just take a breath and be mindful of your mental wellbeing.”

Hazel also liked the fact that there were ideas around what you could do. “It was laid out as a checklist, but it went deeper, giving you some ideas on how to do it – not just a simple; “look after yourself” and leaving you to figure out how.

‘Look after your team’ was the second thing on the checklist. Operating lifting equipment on commercial sites is not exactly something that could be done at home, so with the help of the wage subsidy, all of Smart Lift’s staff were retained for the duration of the lockdown.

With the help of another team member, Hazel and Paul made sure everyone was kept up to date with what was happening with the business. “We divvied it up with Barbara as to what we could each do between us. We contacted the staff every day to start with – made sure to reassure them we were doing everything we could to ensure they still had an income, then checked in regularly after that.

“There were some excellent resources around mental health that Tara from the Otago Chamber of Commerce sent through as part of the Business Partners stuff. We sent this out to our staff too” Hazel adds. “The human factor is just as important as the economic factor, and we really felt supported.

“Breaking it into chunks that you can get your head around, was easier than trying to cope with the whole thing. Going through the cash forecast, I was able to see that yes we can do this for this period of time.”

Hazel remembers Ben at PKF saying, ‘okay when you get to this point we can look at what else you might need’, including assistance with finance if it came to it, whatever. “It was reassuring.” Hazel thought it was also kind of reassuring that when she  Zoomed with Ben and he was in his bedroom. “It felt that, yeah we’re all this in this together.”

Like a lot of business owners, Hazel and Paul tried to use the time in Lockdown productively. “Lockdown gave us the time to look at what was working and where we could improve the businesses – how often do you get time to focus on things?” laughs Hazel.

“We identified some redundant plant that we could put up for sale and are concentrating on the core things that work.”

Hazel felt that the team did it the hardest because they obviously couldn’t work from home. “At least we were able to still have jobs for everyone out the other side. The work resumed as soon as the levels dropped to two. People were just poised, waiting to get back into it out of lockdown – we were  lucky. “We were lucky it only lasted as long as it did.”

Looking forward, Smart Lift and STMSNZ have confidence in the professional support they have in place, and how much it means now, knowing someone is there with the right information and support when it counts the most. Rather than be deterred, they have actually hired three staff post-lockdown.

“Yes it was a bit of a pause, but we are now back on track with where we are taking the business.”

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