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Get IT out of town: running a tech company in a regional area

Get IT out of town: running a tech company in a regional area

The benefits outweigh the drawbacks

Jeremy Attwood and Kannyn MacRae outside Belkin's head office on the NSW Central Coast, about an hour and 30 minutes north of Sydney.

Jeremy Attwood and Kannyn MacRae outside Belkin's head office on the NSW Central Coast, about an hour and 30 minutes north of Sydney.

Sterland Computing

What about the software industry? One company, Sterland Computing, has built a successful software business from the Central Coast without the need for big city office and sales staff.

A wholly Australian owned and operated organisation, Sterland Computing, started in 1981 and has established a client base of more than 400 businesses in Australia and New Zealand. Its core business is developing and selling business management solutions to the building supplies sector.

Sterland's general manager Greg Thomas said the company has around 30 employees operating out of it’s Erina offices across development, support, sales and administration.

Sterland has always been located on the Central Coast since it’s origins 40 years ago from Sterland Brothers Timber in Gosford.

“The major cost difference is in rent,” Thomas said. “We have always had modern and spacious facilities in our offices (certainly over the last 10 years) which means we can offer a comfortable and pleasant environment for our employees and visiting customers. In pure terms, comparing similar offices in North Sydney or even a little further North we are paying 50 percent less in rent.”

Sterland also has no problems with connectivity, but when it investigated hosting a version of its ProStix application it was not cost effective on the Central Coast because of limited hosting options and the cost of a large communications link. The SaaS version of its application is hosted out of Melbourne.

“For employees living on the Central Coast the benefits in terms of cost and lifestyle is enormous,” Thomas said. “Most of our employees live on the Central Coast although three (including myself) are based in Sydney. For us the travel to and from Sydney is, distance and cost wise, substantial; however, time wise there is little difference should we work in the city. It takes me an hour and 20 minutes to travel from Dee Why (on Sydney’s Northern Beaches) to the office leaving at 6:30am; leaving at 7:30am would take me the same time to get to North Sydney.

Air travel is a problem and the company is a heavy user of hire cars to get to and from the airports as it is the most cost effective and convenient method through the F3 freeway.

“Hiring is a problem, but retaining is not,” Thomas said. “The selection of technical staff is one of our core issues – we have used a combination of local papers, online and agencies and it takes a long time to find the right person and you have very few candidates.”

Sterland has been able to attract a few people looking for a “sea change” away from the city, but that is not something that is common.

“The trick in hiring on the Central Coast is to attract on lifestyle (stop travelling down the F3) and retain on opportunity and growth. I’ve found often when people join a company on the Central Coast after having worked in Sydney, they are almost in a semi-retirement mode and that takes a little while to beat out of them. Cost on average is around 25 percent less than Sydney although long-time employees are on equivalent salaries and conditions.”

In addition to recruiting, networking is an issue in the regional areas.

Thomas said the Central Coast has not developed as a regional business centre and “certainly not” as a regional technical centre.

“I look at areas like North Ryde (20km north-west of Sydney) and think 'why hasn’t that happened here' – it’s cheaper, there's a great lifestyle and it's not too far from the city. As a result, the ability to network with local business professionals is limited. There is a general feel that working on the Central Coast means you’re out of touch with the industry.”

Perception can also be a problem as “at times being out of Sydney or a major capital city sends a perception to the larger customer that we are not a suitable player for the market”.

“Alternatively, we have used that to our advantage when selling to the SME marketplace,” Thomas said.

“If regional centres take a leaf out of the US book and invest in the infrastructure, transport links (including Airports) and so on, places like the Central Coast would boom. I was approached by the University of Newcastle discussing employment opportunities on the Central Coast and highlighted to them the need for their support in growing a greater technical competency base in the region.”

Thomas said generation Y employees bring a completely new set of issues.

“We’ve found it very hard to keep the younger crowd as they demand unlimited opportunity and are less willing to put in the hard yards to achieve a base level competency,” he said. “As a result, I have an aging work force and I’m looking at means now to attract the younger worker.”

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