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Serviceman's Log

Restarting after the earthquake

by the Serviceman

Items Covered This Month

• Restarting after the earthquake

• Do-it-yourself starter motor repair

• Optical drive fun

• LG RT-42PX1 106cm plasma TV set

• HP/Agilent 3458A multimeter

After re-reading my article on the Christchurch earthquake in the May 2011 issue of SILICON CHIP, I realised that the story ended rather darkly. At that time, we did not know what would happen next and were not at all certain that our business would survive the quake. Since then, I’m happy to report some positive progress.

Small businesses like mine (and for many others in the service industry) rely on cash-flow to stay afloat. It is the air we breathe and no cash flow equals no business. Unlike big business, we don’t have the resources to have accounts outstanding for months on end. That’s because we have to pay our suppliers and other outgoings promptly, regardless as to whether we get money in or not.

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In short, our suppliers rely on us paying them and we rely on customers paying us to keep the money-go-round going round.

After the quake, everyone was in shock and the city paralysed. After my initial inspection of the damage at my workshop, road closures meant that we could no longer even reach the building let alone get inside. When I closed the door on that day, the workshop was calf-deep in liquefaction and it was rising. In addition, large cracks through seemingly solid concrete floor slabs and wide-open “staircase” cracks up the concrete block walls meant the building might not be safe, so getting back in wasn’t at the top of my to-do list.

Because I thought that the workshop was ruined, the outlook appeared bleak. I had to keep reminding myself that people had died and that others had lost everything they owned under the rubble. We were alive with an intact house and contents and therefore were extremely fortunate.

Despite this, I was worried about my business and wondered how we could recover. There is nothing like a disaster to motivate people. Work crews toiling night and day soon had the roads and avenues cleared to at least one lane of traffic, while an army of students, farmers and other volunteers cleared thousands of tonnes of liquefaction and rubble from suburban footpaths and yards. Helicopter pilots donated flying hours and machines, while teams of chefs prepared donated food for free in order to fly hot meals in for the workers.

Similarly, rival power companies banded together and in just over a week had an overhead cable strung clear across town; a job that would normally take many months. And drain layers rapidly replaced shattered sewers with above-ground pipes in an effort to keep the waste moving.

Meanwhile, the government, in a rare show of actually doing something useful, offered wage subsidies to businesses unable to trade but having to pay staff. Although not normally being one to accept hand-outs, I nevertheless applied; we didn’t know how long we’d be down and I wasn’t about to forgo paying my employee. That relieved some of the financial pressure and although customers had already started leaving messages, we were initially in no position to help them.

Once the roads had been cleared, I was able to return to my workshop to further assess the damage. It’s all very well sitting back and taking “free” money from the government but that’s a short-term answer only. Our customers needed us and if we weren’t there, they’d call someone else. I wasn’t about to sit on my hands and watch all my hard-won clients go elsewhere, so I decided that we really had no choice but to get the business running again as soon as possible.

By now, I knew that the workshop wouldn’t fall on me, so I decided to try to clean it up and at least start answering the phones and booking in jobs. By that time, most of our suppliers had re-opened and power, phones and the internet were all restored, so I had everything I needed to start trading.

I called my staff member and told him what I had in mind, assuring him we could get the building declared safe, though if he felt it too dangerous to work there, I would understand. He replied that he’d been thinking about it too and knew we had to get going or we’d likely not recover, so he would be there first thing in the morning.

His loyalty and can-do attitude confirmed I’d made the right choice in hiring him. With two of us pitching in, we would soon be on our way.

Unfortunately, every one of our specially-designed test rigs and workshop machines were still sitting where they fell and were thus water-damaged and useless. Our server was also dead and our workbenches literally shaken apart. Even the overhead fluorescent tubes had smashed together and disintegrated into a million bits, adding noxious powder and broken glass to the sticking foetid mess on the floors and workbenches.

Because we needed to conserve our available capital, we couldn’t replace everything up-front, so we sat down and worked out what we’d need as a bare minimum. We then assembled what we could from our remaining stock and known good used parts, buying only when absolutely necessary. We built a new server and because one of the old server’s RAID drives was still alive, it was up and running in no time.

Within two days, we had a bare-bones but functional workshop up and running.

The landlord would have to sort out the building. However, because he is elderly and lives in the country, he usually operates according to his own unique time, which us townies would call “dead slow”. I impressed on him that unless the building was declared safe, we couldn’t trade and if we couldn’t trade, we couldn’t pay rent.

To his credit he was there the next day with a building inspector/engineer who went through and declared everything safe. The landlord also brought in a crew to clean the outside of the place up so that we didn’t have to tip-toe everywhere or wear gumboots to work.

The workshop still looks like a bomb has gone off in there but at least we are trading and slowly rebuilding. Earthquakes may break the hardest stone, but the human spirit is something altogether tougher.

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