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By Aaron Watson

On 22 February 2011, Christchurch shook. Around 6,000 people were injured and 185 lost their lives. Five years on, three chartered accountants talk about the “new normal” for business and their commitment to re-invigorating their shattered city.

Curtis Mitchell CA was studying towards his chartered accounting qualification and – in a strange twist of fate – was due to take possession of a new family home the day the quake struck.

He soon learned his twin sister had been badly injured – pelvis broken in five places and head injuries that left her with short-term memory loss – in the collapse of the Canterbury Television building, in which 115 people were killed. She had shielded her two pre-school children from debris and Mitchell waited anxious hours at the hospital to find out if she would survive.

As aftershocks continued to terrify the city, Mitchell admits that he considered leaving. But he stuck it out. And his commitment to chartered accountancy helped him do it. “I needed something to drive me forward,” Mitchell says. “I ended up going pretty hardcore and studying. Digging down and finishing the qualification was the driver.”

Now qualified and working as finance director of a group of design and advertising agencies, Mitchell is committed to Christchurch and to bringing up his young family there – in the house they took delayed possession of months after the February quake. Life has settled into a ”new normal”, he says, of roadworks, construction sites and business caution in the face of uncertainty. But the city is starting to look up. And he believes Christchurch can come out of the trials of 2011 a better, stronger city.

Working together
After the quake, Michael Hooker CA of Hooker Associates moved his business into his games room, and commandeered one of his kids’ bedrooms. There was little to do but pull together and try to keep going in a period of uncertainty and nerves rattled by frequent aftershocks.

“It is such a variable environment – in those early years anyway. You have to be talking to people and advisers and you have to be adaptive,” Hooker says. His firm was based in the CBD before the quake and has been in the suburbs since. This distance – combined with ongoing roadworks and construction – has caused a change in business culture, he says. It tends to slow down even simple things such as organising a meeting.

“Before, it was easy to catch up with solicitors or bankers or other accountants. Everyone is a bit more spread out now.”

Hooker Associates is a little leaner these days, in part through the adoption of new technology, and focused more on advisory work than before.

“That is probably a natural change in terms of technology – being more cloud based. We are employing roughly the same amount in our business but we are doing more work.”

He says there is a sense of optimisim in the city these days. “Some of our clients have done very well out of the earthquake – we have been involved in a lot more tax planning and in the other side of earthquake outcomes – how are clients going to scale back their businesses or are they going to get into something else? Some have made a lot of money – is it time to sell their businesses?”

Mike Medlicott CA agrees there is a cautious sense of optimism in the city. His firm, Marriott’s chartered accountants, operated out of homes and garages for ten weeks after the quake.

“We were quite fortunate to get back into our building and it has now been brought up to 100% of code. We have had builders working around us for about 12 months in order to do that,” Medlicott says. “One day we were sitting there and they had taken half the wall out by crane for about an hour – then dropped another one in. Everybody just carried on working. There are things we get used to – road cones and what have you. It has got to the stage that people don’t even talk about that now. It is just part of what it is. And it is slowly improving.”

Medlicott says many businesses in the city are stronger than they were before. Marriotts has “probably grown a little bit”, he says. “It has been a good time to help businesses and advise them because of the challenges they have had. In some ways we have a closer working relationship with our clients.

“We have all had clients where, I was talking about it last night, where the professions have worked closely together – accountants, banks and lawyers – to help a business get through. Working with insurance brokers, clients and us crunching the numbers to see what the best option is – it has been challenging but we have ended up with good results.”

One thing Mitchell, Medlicott and Hooker all stress is that the resilience of their fellow citizens – in business and daily life – has been astonishing.

“It made people reassess what their priorities were in life, when everything got shaken up – for want of a better analogy,” says Mitchell.

While many businesses remain “hunkered down” still waiting for insurance claims to be settled, or for cash flow to creep up, the people who have stayed to live and work in Christchurch have turned things around for the better, he says. “The rewarding thing is seeing people coming right – my sister’s kids growing up and developing and coming to terms with what has happened. And to see my twin sister getting better.”

Medlicott says the disaster forced people to take hard business decisions: “In some cases they might have been decisions the business should have made earlier.”

That tightened focus has enabled some businesses to not only survive, but to thrive.

“What you don’t necessarily hear about is the opportunities that have arisen for businesses following the earthquake – particularly in the construction industry. I would say for every client who has been negatively impacted financially there are three or four who have had some sort of benefit.”

All three say that business survival is not something that can be assumed after a major disaster, and that it is in the response to adversity that people can find out who they really are.

“One client was in the hospitality industry in the CBD and their building was a write-off after the earthquake,” says Hooker. “They relocated to their home and re-established themselves. Then a couple of years ago they were flooded out. They have a very successful business now and it comes back to resilience. If people put their mind to it, they get through it.”

Future focus
Most in Christchurch expected the city rebuild to be substantially complete by the five-year mark. But that is not the case. It is progressing, says Hooker, but in residential areas there are still houses waiting to be demolished and in the CBD the work is really just beginning.

“It is heartening to see property owners or developers getting in there and putting up nice buildings, and people moving into them,” Hooker says. “By Christmas next year there will be 15,000 office workers in the CBD and that is quite exciting. There is still a long way to go but you see the new things – cycleways and other things – and you think this is going to be pretty good,” says Medlicott.

“It is going to take a lot longer than everyone thought – 15-20 years. It just all takes longer. There will be people who think it hasn’t been done quickly enough but the reality is that nobody envisaged what all the challenges were.”

Mitchell says it feels ironic to be enthusiastic about buildings going up as “on the day of the earthquake, all you saw was glass and steel falling on people”. “It’s going to take another five to ten years to get back to anywhere near where it was,” he says, “ but it has a positive future. People are invigorated.”

All three note that important big projects – a convention centre, a sports hub – have yet to be begin. It is these large developments that they anticipate will mark the true rejuvenation of Christchurch.

“It’s a unique time to live through and hopefully we won’t have to face it again,” says Hooker. “My kids will have a better city than what we ever had.”

Aaron Watson is the editor of Acuity.