Business proud to be in Southland

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Fi Innovations owners Gareth and Melissa Dykes display their newest 3-D printer at their factory in Invercargill. Photo: Valu Maka

Being in business has taught Fi Innovations owner Gareth Dykes
resilience and perseverance. He talks to business reporter Riley
Kennedy about growing an award-winning business in Southland.

GARETH Dykes has faced his fair share of challenges, but he believes he is a better person and business owner because of them.

In 2002, Mr Dykes and his wife Melissa started Fi Innovations, a fibreglass manufacturing business in Invercargill making boat tops for nearby boat builder Stabicraft.

With one customer and one employee, it was a ‘‘very simple’’ business model, Mr Dykes said.

The couple bought the Stabicraft contract from Mr Dykes’ uncle, who was winding up his fibreglass business.

The business has since grown to 18 staff and, while it still produces fibreglass, it has expanded into resin flooring, cast urethane and 3-D additive manufacturing.

The company recently won the supreme award at the Southland Business Excellence Awards for the second time, something Mr Dykes was ‘‘blown away’’ about.

It previously won it in 2017.

On the morning of the awards, Mr Dykes told staff that just being a finalist was something to be very proud of and they should still hold their heads high.

‘‘But we got it, it was quite surreal, I’m still buzzing about it,’’ he said.

A born-and-bred Southlander, Mr Dykes struggled at school and started to get himself into trouble — ‘‘probably because I couldn’t comprehend the stuff that was put in front of me so as a byproduct of that, I used to, like, to play up’’ — including with the law.

‘‘For just very silly things, nothing major,’’ he said.

Despite not being able to officially, he left halfway through year 11.

His grandfather, who owned Invercargill fibreglass firm T.D. McIntosh and Sons, gave Mr Dykes ‘‘a good kick up the backside’’ and offered him an apprenticeship.

‘‘He gave me a chance.’’

Mr Dykes believed he came out of the four-year apprenticeship ‘‘a different person’’.

‘‘I found my purpose; I realised that I could make things with my hands and I was pretty good at it.’’

Wanting some experience overseas, Mr and Mrs Dykes headed to the Greek Islands, where he got a job as a fibreglass specialist at a boating tourism business.

The couple spent the next three years living on a yacht.

‘‘We would wake up every morning and dive off the back of the boat to wake ourselves up.’’

Initially, Mr Dykes’ role was just fixing fibreglass on boats, but after obtaining his skipper’s licence he headed out with visitors on the water.

After ‘‘such an amazing experience’’, the couple wanted to get back to reality in New Zealand.

They shifted home in 2001 and, soon after, the opportunity to buy the Stabicraft contract arose.

Stabicraft was going through a period of significant growth which Mr Dykes was able to capitalise on.

‘‘Ever since then, it has just grown from there.’’

It took on more clients and expanded into industrial flooring for the industrial sector.

Its clients included Fonterra and Alliance Group, Mr Dykes said.

With the rise in 3-D printing, Mr Dykes started to contemplate investment in that area.

For a few years, he researched and keeping an eye on what technology would be involved.

In 2019, Fi Innovations received a $370,000 grant from the provincial growth fund that allowed them to buy the country’s largest 3-D printer that will be a game changer for designing innovative and timely solutions in New Zealand.

The business now printed parts for sectors including aerospace, medical and prosthetics.

Mr Dykes was ‘‘extremely proud’’ of where the business had got to and he put a lot of that down to his loyal staff who had been the ‘‘making of the company’’.

‘‘Looking back over the years, we would have never have been able to do what we’ve done without them.’’

He also credited some of the firm’s success to its Invercargill roots.

The southern city, and wider Southland region, had always had a ‘‘certain stigma’’.

Although its base was in Invercargill, Fi Innovations did work throughout New Zealand and clients sometimes made fun of the city.

But as time had gone on, Mr Dykes had grown to be outspoken about his passion for Invercargill.

‘‘I’ve really come to realise that we can do our business from the bottom of the world and we don’t need to be in the bigger centres.’’

Fi Innovations could receive an order first thing in the morning for its 3-D printer and have it made in time for the overnight shipping deadline in the afternoon, Mr Dykes said.

‘‘We can get parts from one end of the country to the other overnight so it’s not really a
barrier.’’

He said it was a great time for Southland economically at present, particularly with projects in the region such as the new data centre and the Invercargill city centre rebuild.

While there had been a lot of talk about the closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, there were so many exciting developments in the region which meant it was becoming a much more attractive place to live.

‘‘We used to try and keep it a secret, but I don’t think we want to do that anymore,’’ he said.

Running the business had not come without its challenges.

Around the time of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, Fi Innovations’ staff numbers halved from 10 to five.

The business had been very reliant on certain customers at the time and the economic crisis hit them ‘‘really hard’’, which flowed on to Fi Innovations, Mr Dykes said.

‘‘We had to really regroup after that and look at what else we could do.’’

Because of Covid-19, last year had also been a tough one — not only for the business, but personally for Mr Dykes.

‘‘It was an extremely difficult year emotionally, it was so up and down.’’

With several lockdowns throughout the country and the continued effect of the pandemic on business in general, Fi Innovations lost quite a lot of work.

However, the biggest thing that Mr and Mrs Dykes and their staff had had to deal with was the emotional rollercoaster.

‘‘It was just an interesting time, things were changing all the time, and I guess it just takes its toll after a while.’’

Mr Dykes believed those challenges made the business stronger.

One of the biggest things he had learnt over the years was not to worry about making decisions.

‘‘Instead of worrying about it, I now just make the call and, if it’s right, well that is great, but if it’s wrong then we fix it.’’

While the country had gone into the Red traffic light setting and Omicron had started to spread nationwide, this year had a different feel to it.

Mr Dykes had taken some time off over the summer break to reflect and think about the year ahead.

When he came back, he was ‘‘that energised it wasn’t funny’’.

‘‘We aren’t going to let Covid slow us down this year.’’

Fi Innovations had bought and demolished the building next door to its premises at the end of last year, and construction on a new 600sqm factory would start in the next month.

There were also other ‘‘exciting’’ projects under way.

‘‘I bound out of bed every morning filled with joy, I’m so excited for this year.’’

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