Steven Gregg is the owner of Piako Computers, a home-based business in Waihou, near Te Aroha, in the rural Waikato.
Scots-born Gregg has operated the business with girlfriend Petra for four years, having graduated in computer science in Britain, then worked as a programmer for GEC Ferranti and BEA Systems for six years specialising in helicopter radars, and then on telephone PABXs for Lucent Technologies.
The motorcycle enthusiast and Petra emailed all the motorcycle dealers in New Zealand for work, and ended up spending a working holiday with EconoHonda in Te Aroha.
The couple returned to Britain, where Gregg trained as a teacher, hoping to teach on returning to New Zealand. However, he was unable to find suitable work, so he returned to EconoHonda as IT manager.
After six months with EconoHonda, the self-confessed gadget freak realised there was a local demand for a computer technician. He and Petra opened a shop in Te Aroha, but found being kept indoors was like being in a prison.
“People want you to go to them. They ring you and you have to get staff in to cover the shop. A shop made no sense whatsoever,” he explains. Thus, Piako Computers now operates from home, helped by a bright-blue 4WD pounding the highways and byways, around SH26 between Morrinsville and Te Aroha.
Half of Gregg’s 700 customers are dairy farmers, engineering firms, surveyors, small businesses, with a couple of schools; the rest are home users.
“If you are at all competent and charging reasonable money, there’s more than enough business,” Gregg explains.
“We concentrate on getting repeat business. We have to be honest serving small towns, since if you rip off one customer they will tell 20 people.”
This also means telling people if Dick Smith can provide a PC cheaper and hoping to pick up some income installing it for them.
“Most of our business comes from referrals. It’s very hard to advertise in a small rural town, not everybody reads the paper,” he says.
Yellow Pages covers too broad an area, but local phone guides are some use — as are school notices.
Most effective is the bright-blue 4WD, along with a sign by the house in Waihou. “I will go to a job and the neighbour will say ‘we saw you yesterday’,” he says. Gregg also gives out stickers for use on repaired PCs.
Piako Computers focuses on SMEs rather than larger businesses and does not have contracts or service level agreements with anybody.
“If they’re not happy with my service, they will use someone else,” he says.
His main supplier is Ingram Micro, with him praising HP, Acer Netbooks, and Toshiba, adding HP and Toshiba are excellent with their warranties.
Gregg says he seems to be one of the few who likes Windows Vista, saying it is very stable if patched well and set up with the correct hardware.
“I get a lot fewer callouts for Windows Vista. It just seems to fix itself. The biggest problem with it is people using legacy software and drivers or hardware,” he says.
Now, Piako Computers is looking at managed services, to provide support through software and onsite visits. PC-based PABXs also offer potential for work. And Gregg sees a need for him to come to grips with virtualisation technologies to make it happen.
But business remains busy, with him looking to take someone on soon.
“There’s a lot of misconception about the recession. Farmers are using PDAs, laptops, 3G mobiles.
“Increasingly they are having to use GPS for the spraying and have sensors uploading information about soil conditions. Over half my business in terms of profit is from farmers and there are very few IT operators serving them correctly,” he says.
While the Fonterra payout for milk solid prices has dropped, a falling dollar has helped and for farming IT is now a necessity not a luxury.
“If it needs replacing, they still do it,” he says. The secret of success in the country, Gregg continues, is customer service. “Be reasonable with prices, look reasonably smart, phone customers if you are running late,” he says.
“It’s not reinventing the wheel, but other IT shops might need to look at things from the customer point of view.” And he still finds time for his motorbike racing. He is a member of the Victoria Motorcyle Club, and plans to ride in the street races in nearby Paeroa next year.