A few of us can remember a time of punch tape and valve technology but Martin Lowe, co-owner with Paul Benge of BAL in Gisborne, goes back even further. He remembers a time when he had to modify the cogs of imported counting machines from a decimal base ten to cope with base 12, 20 and 240, which were needed then to work with the Imperial money system.
“In those days it was pounds shillings and pence," says Lowe. "The technology in those days was quite complex because everything had to turn over in quite a messy concept in those days. All machines that came into New Zealand had to be converted because most of them were made in countries that had the decimal system, like Japan, America and Europe, until 1967 when NZ turned over to the decimal system and it made that a 100 percent easier to work on."
Business Applications Limited is housed in one of Gisborne’s most recognisable buildings with its bright green facade and huge pink Ricoh sign. Martin Lowe, 63, started in the office systems business before he left school with a job sweeping floors and making tea at Armstrong and Springhall. He remembers a time when he was given 500 lines by his teacher. Using his own style of Kiwi ingenuity and knowledge of a new technology Martin wrote out one page then photocopied the rest on a Xerox Machine. The teacher didn’t notice. “I think I was probably the first guy in Gisborne to fool a teacher with no effort,” he laughs.
“I started off in 1965. I was an after school boy at Armstrong and Springhall. Originally I wanted to be a motor mechanic. My sister got the me the job and I realised what the guys were doing out the back, repairing office equipment. In those days it was typewriters and adding machines and duplicators. Then I left and worked for a company called Eric Upton and Son and did a five year apprenticeship working on office equipment.”
After the big conversion to decimal, Eric Upton sold out to Beechie and Underwood, which in turn was bought out by Armstrong and Springhall - landing Lowe back where he started. Lowe puts that take over down to the fact that Beechie and Underwood had lagged behind in the decimal conversion and lost a lot of business. Martin was lured to Wellington to join the sales teams there but he preferred the good life back in Gisborne.
He says the pace of technology now is growing more and more rapidly compared to the old days. “In the last ten years it’s rapidly snowballed, it really has. The first computer we installed was called a Litton 1230 and it had one kilobyte of hard disk storage. The hard disk would be as big as half a fridge.”
Lowe says the machines then were a marvel of mechanics. “In the old days you had to know why a gear was driving another gear and what it was doing it for. An old teacher said to me about new technology ‘don’t worry about how it works, just believe that it does.’ Today you just accept that it works. And if it doesn’t, throw it out.”
“When we opened this company in 1981, I knew every piece of equipment we had. We sold photocopiers, cash registers, franking machines, dictation equipment, business computers.They weren’t really known as PCs in those days. I could sell them, I could service them, I could demonstrate them and I could install them. Today I’ve got specialist guys that do each division.
Forty-three year old Paul Benge joined the company in 1986 and has equal shares. He says the next big revolution with cloud computing is not happening in Gisborne just yet mainly because of appalling internet speeds. “A customer I talked to just yesterday said they’re going to sit on the old technology because they said the cost for them to be able to access the cloud remotely with data charges and everything just prohibits them from going down that path. I do think they’re quite right really. Data charges are quite high for day to day access.”
“Our internet in Gisborne is terrible," says Lowe. "We have high and low peaks, school holidays the whole system comes to a grinding halt, anytime between 6pm and 8pm at night is just diabolical to try and get on and log in to work and do anything. All the kids seem to be on the computer while their parents are watching the news.” Lowe says Gisborne does not yet have the services that Tauranga and Hastings do.
Benge says the future for BAL involves focusing on its core products. “We’ve brought in all new services and new machines and I think we need one year of focusing on our core products.”
Lowe says his biggest problem is that people don’t realise BAL sells computers. “Office equipment is a computer. We have customers that say ‘I thought you only sold office equipment.’ Well it’s the same thing. And, yes we do.”