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Room to recover

Mon 1 Aug 2011
FYI, this story is more than a year old

In the aftermath of a disaster, some people panic; others talk about what they can do to help, but don’t know where to start – and some people get stuck into helping out in whatever way they can.

Melanie Morris, who runs the companies Training & Beyond and Bookkeeping & Beyond, is in the last category. Having recently moved her businesses into new premises before the February earthquake, she decided to open her doors for businesses needing temporary use of space and facilities to get their companies back up and running.

"I think it’s a very Kiwi thing to ask yourself: ‘Why wouldn’t you help out if you can?’ I’m one of those people who can’t help start new things. My building was not harmed by the earthquakes, so I was just being practical, thinking of what I could do to help out, and then acting on it,” she says.

Her business location in a new industrial complex on Opawa Road on the outskirts of central Christchurch has meeting and training rooms downstairs with room for up to 40 people, supplemented with a well outfitted computer room, plus a series of offices for her staff upstairs. Facilities are available for video conferencing and WIFI internet access.

As her business is still rather new, the facilities are not used all the time, and it was this extra capacity she decided could be put to good use. The Business Recovery Centre was established by early March, offering earthquake-affected businesses free use of meeting facilities and IT equipment.

"Initially, people would use our facilities either to have somewhere to meet up with staff, clients and customers – or simply to have somewhere safe to go, where they could make a cup of coffee and gather their thoughts on how to move on,” she explains.

While some smaller companies, and also several major corporations, were keen to use the meeting room, many were simply wishing to use a computer in the pc room, where they could access data, send emails and call their customers.

A few companies have also used the facilities to run their call centre temporarily.The Recovery Centre was initially intended to help service companies from the CBD, such as accountants and legal professions, but it turned out to be used by many different industries from all across the affected parts of the city and suburbs. Morris says ‘hundreds’ of companies have used the centre’s facilities to a smaller or larger extent.

Free worksops

The second phase of the centre’s offerings has been a series of free workshops, which were designed around data rescue and the use of online and cloud solutions for bookkeeping and other business functions. These regular workshops have attracted on average eight people on each day they were offered.She says she has had great support for the Recovery Centre from a number of corporations.

Xero, the supplier of online accountancy systems, has been the main supporter of the centre, but many other companies have joined in and have supplied material and facilities free of charge to use by affected businesses.

At first Morris was surprised to find that the centre was very quiet, with only a few companies taking up the offers of the centre in the first weeks of its operation."It took a while before people started showing up and requesting the use of our facilities. It turned out that those who really needed the centre were primarily concerned about people. They were also generally rather shell shocked for some time."Now, more than four months after the biggest earthquake, people are finally starting to feel ready to start rebuilding their businesses, and the centre has gotten busy,” she says, and adds that this is also her general impression of the situation for the Canterbury business environment.

Not in competition

She insists she is not trying to compete with other companies, who rent out meeting facilities, but acknowledges the centre can have a marketing effect for her existing companies."This initiative is simply meant to help other businesses through a hard time.

The supporting companies have helped with funding and facilities, but the overheads have been covered by my own companies. I agree that running the centre can have a marketing effect, as many will have heard about my companies through this initiative, and somewhere along the line it might generate some business. I guess it has in a way put my companies on the map,” she says.

Her initially intention was to run the centre for three months, but because the need wasn’t immediate and many have only just started getting back to their businesses, the centre will be open for at least a further three months, after which the need will be re-evaluated.Many of the visiting companies have been keen to draw on Morris’ own experience with virtualisation and running a small business via cloud computing tools.

"We run our business mostly via cloud computing, and all of our own documentation is already digitised. We have been able to share our experience in this field with a lot of small companies, which have been struggling to find a way to operate without their physical archives.”

She found that many companies using the centre found their servers damaged in the quakes.

"Retrieving data and company records has been crucial for many, as insurance companies often required financial statements. This has been a real challenge, as some companies had lost years of data. Often people didn’t have backup, or they simply didn’t know how to use it.”

The main lesson she has learned from the companies using the centre is: "Think about how you manage and protect your company’s data. Disasters are bound to happen again in some way, so think about contingency plans.”She says she has had wonderful feedback from the companies and business owners who have used the centre."It has been incredibly humbling and gratifying to make a difference in getting other companies back in business.

"Yet, for most it has only just begun. Now the long term recovery begins.”

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