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Building success from the rubble of disaster

In February 2011, Ihaka Rongonui watched many of Christchurch’s buildings reduced to rubble as a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the New Zealand city.

He witnessed his family and friends forced to leave Christchurch en masse as they found their homes destroyed, schools and shops closed and the most basic of services unavailable to the residents of the ravaged city.

The earthquake’s epicentre was just 10km outside of the central business district of Christchurch and followed a 2010 earthquake which had done its best to rattle the foundations of the many of the CBD’s buildings.

It was from this uncertain grounding that Ihaka realised an opportunity to help re-build Christchurch while providing much-needed work for many throughout the country.

He founded Turbo Staff, a recruitment agency focused on sourcing staff for the construction sector, threw himself into the reconstruction effort and last year was named EY’s New Zealand’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Encouraged to enter EY’s (Ernst & Young) Young Entrepreneur of the Year by two of their senior managers, Ihaka said he was pleasantly surprised to be named the winner, especially in a field of such accomplished and impressive candidates.

And while he is more than happy to have such a title to his name, Ihaka insists he finds more satisfaction in the work he does than the titles and awards he may pick up along the way.

“Without being too sentimental, I really did have a sense of duty to want to do something to help people and to get things back on their and to do so on a large scale when I founded Turbo Staff,” the 33 year-old entrepreneur explained.

“I did also see a natural opportunity ahead of us after the earthquake. Recruitment has always been a game of opportunities, in booms and busts there is always a need for good staff.

“It’s not often in life you get the opportunity to do something you love and help people on a scale like that. Founding Turbo Staff to help with the reconstruction was a combination of motivations for me – to help people find jobs and to help re-build our city.”

Having previously worked to recruit fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers for the mining sector, Ihaka understood immediately that for Turbo Staff to be successful, especially in the early days of reconstruction, it needed to double as an accommodation provider.

“I’m sure I didn’t reinvent the wheel with FIFO into Christchurch, but what was unique was that the city lost a huge amount of homes from the quake and there was a massive influx of workers needing accommodation,” he explained.

“This created a bottleneck for demand and the workers who were needed to come and fix the houses couldn’t find a house to live while working, meaning the rebuild was hamstrung.

“Having a FIFO vehicle with reliable accommodation enabled our clients to get talent in fast and keep the momentum up.

“It was an extreme version of a candidate-short market. We definitely utilised local talent as well but our clients needed far more skilled staff than what was available locally. Even with our unique model, demand still outweighed supply so I would jump at any opportunity I had to diversify or tailor what we did to get more hands on deck.”

Ihaka, who has 10 years’ experience in recruitment and is a corporate member of RCSA, said competition for quality and qualified workers in the construction sector was especially tough after the earthquake so he had to be creative to attract the right staff.

“My goal was to be candidate focussed and adapt to the new market by doing more for the worker than my competitors were,” he explained. “It was obvious to me that most of my competitors weren’t acknowledging that we had gone from a post-GFC market place to the biggest construction boom NZ had ever seen overnight, and that the agencies who didn’t quickly adapt would struggle to take advantage of the situation.

“Rolling out the red carpet was how I used to refer to it; value adding in any way possible to bridge the gap to the talented staff the rebuild required.

“The people who heard the call for help in CHCH were relocating themselves into a situation where there were daily aftershocks, lack of amenities and a really testing environment emotionally to live in.

“Respecting that and acknowledging what these people and their families were putting themselves through meant that going that extra mile resulted in people applying to us first.”

Turbo Staff was named in Deloitte’s Fast 50 – 2017, as New Zealand’s eighth fastest growing company and the fastest growing recruitment agency in the country. And with strong growth expected in 2018 – for Turbo Staff’s Christchurch and Auckland offices – the search for staff continues to be the greatest challenge faced by Ihaka and his ilk.

“One of our biggest challenges in 2018 will be finding the right professionals to join our business and take advantage of what a future employer of choice has to offer,” he said. “We will need more skilled recruiters, but we are also looking for cadets to begin our Future Tradesman training program.”

Ihaka, who plans to expand the Turbo Staff brand internationally and is already working to cultivate a future portfolio career, has some simple words of advice for recruiters who want to forge their own success.

“Forget how recruitment is traditionally done,” he said. “The world is changing fast; treat you candidates like gold and be bold enough to demand your clients give you the scope to provide a quality service.”

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