By David Porter – Bay of Plenty Times
Paul Symes is back in start-up mode.
After almost two decades building his previous CAD design firm 4D into a global company with 200-plus staff, he sold his stake and last year relocated from the Philippines to Tauranga to look for a different lifestyle and new opportunities.
There he connected with Tauranga realtor and boatie Lex Bacon, who had come up with an idea for an electrically-powered trailer boat loader. After rigorous due diligence on the concept, Mr Symes became the majority investor in Balex Marine, which is developing and marketing Mr Bacon’s invention as the Automatic Boat Loader. Industrial design firm Locus Research has also taken an equity share in the company.
The ABL prototype won the Hutchwilco NZ Boat Show Innovative Product Award earlier this year, and Balex is currently engaged in an $800,000 series A fund-raising round with angel investors.
“I miss having my old executive management team of 10 people who were absolutely fantastic,” said Mr Symes.
“It’s difficult not to have those resources available, so that’s a change and a challenge. But I’m really enjoying it.”
Mr Symes grew up in Hawera, before going to boarding school at New Plymouth’s Francis Douglas Memorial College.
In the sixth form he took up a draughting cadetship with the local office of engineering consultancy Holmes Consulting Group, moved to the company’s Wellington headquarters, and later worked for his father’s company Valley Steel.
But the 1987 sharemarket collapse hit the construction industry hard and Mr Symes decided to go to Victoria University, where he got a BCA in accounting, commercial law and IT. To support his studies, he worked for himself. By the time he finished his degree, he had a staff of 15, so he decided to stick with the business and incorporated it as 4D.
He had met his wife Joanne, who came from Christchurch, as did two of his partners, so the business was rebased in the South Island city.
The business did well with New Zealand projects, and 4D also began working across the Tasman. The game-changer for the company came in the late 1990s. An Australian competitor offered the firm the opportunity to join it on the massive Olympic Dam Copper Project, if it committed to investing in the expensive CAD design programme XSteel (now Tekla), which had become available for the first time on PC.
Mr Symes and his wife were forced to turn to family and friends to come up with the $150,000 cost of five of the only 2000 software licences available worldwide.
“It was a ridiculous amount of money to find at the time,” he said. “But everything we achieved resulted from that.”
The software enabled 4D to develop highly-detailed 3D designs for steel structures, down to the nut, bolt, washer and weld placements, which could then be fed directly into computer-controlled machinery to cut, drill and punch out the steel components for the build.
“We started getting involved in mega projects in Australia and were then approached by a company in Nova Scotia, Canada, to work on projects in the USA.”
Over the next decade the company became 90 per cent focused on the North American market. But it was running into increasing problems getting skilled staff. After evaluating China, India and Indonesia, the company settled on the Philippines for an offshore site and opened an office in Manila in 2006.
“The thing with Paul was that he really took the time to try and understand the way things worked in the Philippines and the culture of the Filipinos as well,” said Richard Cullen, now managing director of Te Aroha-based Cullen Engineering, who was part of 4D’s Manilla management team in the early days. “They really respected him.”
But after the firm expanded its Manila office, the global financial crisis kicked in around 2008, forcing a massive restructuring.
“We had come off the back of some massive projects that had tied up a lot of people, then we found ourselves with nothing to do and a really bleak outlook,”said Mr Symes.
The Christchurch office was wound down, and the business based in Manila with total staff cut by 30 per cent to less than 90. The restructuring cut costs by 55 per cent and led to the company growing by 100 per cent over the next two years, with staff eventually building back up to 215 last year.
Meanwhile, 4D Global Group was merged into Australian company PDC Group in 2011, and went on to win a number of significant steel design projects, including the World Trade Centre 3 – which used 30,000 tonnes of steel, equivalent to one-third of New Zealand’s annual steel consumption – as well as the new Google headquarters. Mr Symes was eventually bought out in March 2013.
Michelle Malcolm, a partner with business adviser Crowe Horwath in Tauranga, said Mr Symes knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go.
“His past expertise in growing businesses and taking them to where he has, shows in everything he does,” she said. “I have total faith Balex will be a success because you don’t have too many people who have an entrepreneurial head like his.”
Easy fit for dedicated boatie
Getting involved in the Automatic Boat Loader was to some extent a no-brainer for Paul Symes, who is a dedicated boatie and keen beach catamaran sailor.
He was heavily involved during his stint in Manila with the Philippine Inter-Island Sailing Foundation, which runs regattas throughout the archipelago. A member of Phinsaf’s board of directors in 2012-13, he chaired the 2010 Philippines Hobie Championships, and the 13th Philippines Hobie Challenge last year.
“And I went up and sailed again in March,” said Mr Symes. “I love tropical sailing.”
Mr Symes bought an 18ft (5.5m) Nacra catamaran when he returned to New Zealand but sold it again, and is in the market for something smaller that can be easily sailed by one person.
He and his wife Joanne have two daughters, Alannah, 17, and Danielle, 12.
Outside help had a major impact
Paul Symes said that one of the critical moments in his business career came in 2005, when he learned the lesson of working “on not in” the business.
He engaged the business advisory group at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Christchurch and worked with them to more effectively structure 4D’s governance, which included bringing in an outside chairman.
“I worked closely with PWC in terms of strategic planning, getting really diligent about it. And that was really instrumental in paving the way forward.”
Part of that process included looking hard at pressing issues of the time, such as the need to find skilled staff, and resulted in the decision to open an offshore site in Manila.
“And I don’t know how much the key to success is attracting the right people — I’ve had absolutely fantastic people working with me.”
Richard Cullen, now managing director of Te Aroha-based Cullen Engineering, who was formerly in 4D’s Manila management team, said Mr Symes was highly organised and motivated.
“He has the ability to motivate his team and to share the vision of the business with his team so that everyone’s going in the same direction,” he said. “He’s very good at dealing with people and very knowledgeable.”
Michelle Malcolm, a partner with business advisers Crowe Horwath, said Mr Symes was really well- informed and well-prepared. “His minutes for board meetings are probably the best I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Mr Symes paid tribute to the local business community for the support he’d received since relocating to Tauranga.
“They’ve put their hands up to help, which is humbling and refreshing,” he said.
“The secret of Tauranga’s success, when the rest of the regions are struggling, is that there’s such a vibrant group of people here that are absolutely passionate about making this a successful business community.”