Mountain views ease the hard yards in Queenstown

Mountain views ease the hard yards in Queenstown

ueenstown might be a holiday playground, but it’s a tough place to make a living in with IT, says Mark Jessop, owner of local reseller Big Bear.

Although the scenic Central Otago resort has a reputation for booming prosperity, this is drawing in rival enterprises, faster than the permanent population needed to support them.

Big Bear began in 1999 and was bought by Jessop in 2001, who describes his business as “a one-stop-shop for advice, knowledge, and experience”.

Jessop has been in IT since the early 1980s after leaving Canterbury University, trained in marketing and accounting, and eventually becoming the IT manager of Mt Cook Airlines.

His role progressed into senior management and Jessop also helped devise the online reservation and booking system for Freedom Air, before it was taken over by Air New Zealand.

After Mt Cook Airlines was bought out by Tourism Holdings in 1998, Jessop was attracted to Queenstown, where he had already invested in a bar called Winnebagos.

He has since sold that bar, but now owns three other Queenstown bar/restaurants – Tatler, Prime and 12 Bar, for which he has employed managers.

Jessop says he has always had an entrepreneurial side. His IT knowledge also gave him the foresight to see the merger between telecoms and IT.

Thus, he bought the former Rumble Telecom dealership and merged it with Big Bear – then a one-man-band IT services company.

Now, Big Bear has two technicians and several retail staff on a site on the edge of Queenstown’s central business district.

A site better than the high street, says Jessop, because the foot traffic would be “just price checking and wasting our time”.

Jessop says Big Bear differs from its rivals through its skills and experience, along with the combination of telephony and IT.

The business is not large enough to be brand-specific, but it is a Microsoft partner and it pushes HP, plus Asus and Sony laptops.

Customers are seeking laptops and Telecom cellphones, particularly the new handsets that have a high-speed data service.

As a Telecom store, the sale of internet connections and cellphones form half the business.

Big Bear is supplied by Ingram Micro, Dove, Vantex, Morning Star and Cellect IT wholesalers.

“We have to keep away from mass-market retailers. The town only has 18,000 people, but visitors don’t add to demand, you have to sell to the locals. Eighteen thousand is not a big market to be chasing,” he explains.

Queenstown businesses tend to be either motels with just one PC, or the hotels that are part of national chains, with IT looked after elsewhere, likewise with the banks or many other businesses.

“It’s very much small business, not even medium business,” Jessop says.

He describes the recent arrival of Dick Smith, Noel Leeming and Smith City as “a kick in the guts” to local operators like him. A Harvey Norman is set to follow.

“Many towns double our size don’t have all these retailers, but even with Queenstown’s fast growth, this is still a small town,” he says.

“Competing and survival is pretty hard as we don’t have the buying power of a large chain. We have a regular clientele and we give them the right solutions and information. We cannot compete on price. We do a better all-round job for the customer.”

Attracting staff is another issue, as the high cost of living in Queenstown often forces recent arrivals to leave. The township also attracts entrepreneurs. Jessop claims six technicians have left Big Bear and now compete against him, working from home.

The company has a few service clients, such as hotels needing wireless networks.

However, these customers tend to be loyal to the technician, rather than the company. So when the technician starts up by himself, he usually takes the customers with him.

“These customers are quite small, not very mature, so they jump ship. In the city you have mature businesses employing 40 or more and the nature of the size, means you have a better cemented relationship based on more business and sales.”

Then, there are the “astronomical rents”, which over the past three years have doubled to almost $100,000 a year “making the equation very hard”.

However, Jessop puts up with it because he, his wife and four children love the Queenstown climate, the views, the crisp air, and its lack of congestion.

Thus, to help the business, Big Bear has joined Orb Communications, a group that has 44 stores in New Zealand. The co-operative helps Big Bear focus on the business and Jessop is comforted being part of a larger organisation.

The convergence between IT and telephony has seen the company offer Sony car stereos, which now have Bluetooth connectivity.

Looking ahead, Jessop expects slow growth over the next few years.

“We have weathered the storm of the big players coming in. We have taken a hit but we have seen the worst and managed to soldier through.”

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