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Third-generation takeover makes waves

By Deborah Hill Cone

Friday 7th February 2003

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Sleepy but profitable family-owned ferry firm SubritzkyLine has been revamped, revitalised and rebranded under feisty new management "skipper" Michael Moore.

Moore (38), who jokes "I get seasick in the bath," was wary of getting involved in the family's business at the start of his career: "It had the usual politics and constraints of a family company. I thought I'm going to do my own thing."

But after a successful career in which he became a partner in accountancy firm Horwarths and worked for a boutique merchant bank in Toronto, the Aucklander returned home on a visit for Christmas 1999.

"I looked at the lineup of cars waiting to go on the ferry to Waiheke Island, the Mercedes 4x4s and BMWs, and thought 'Wow, Waiheke has changed'."

It was good timing for the bright young accountant to take over at the family firm, with a third of the voting A shares in the company about to be vested in the younger generation from their grandfather's estate.

But one of the conditions of the estate was that the shares would vest with the children only if they worked there: "I had to decide whether to get involved in the business or not," Moore said.

His decision in April 2000 to come on board in charge of corporate and strategic management, with his cousin Brett Subritzky overseeing the seagoing operations, would mark the start of a new era for the Polish-family firm.

"When I started talking about brands and products the board looked at me sideways ­ they said 'but we're in boats'," Moore recalls.

SubritzkyLine was founded almost half a century ago and provides passenger and freight services throughout the Hauraki Gulf, including the only vehicle service to Waiheke Island.

The company was founded by Bert Subritzky and his wife Mona, who operated a ferry service in Northland's Hokianga Harbour before setting up SubritzkyLine in 1960.

It has terminals in Half Moon Bay, where the company was involved in reclaiming the land it later ceded to the Crown and in the central city next to the America's Cup village.

Mr Moore had more changes ahead.

"On my first day someone said to me 'Let me show you how to take bookings' and I said 'We're in trouble if I'm taking bookings.' I have to focus on the strategy."

A friend, Air New Zealand's chief operating officer Andrew Miller, warned that he must not lose passengers to the competition because "you will never get them back again."

Moore also admires the strategy of Auckland International Airport chief executive John Goulter who aimed to get his passengers to open their wallets.

Like Mr Goulter, Mr Moore's view was that with an improved range of services and products passengers could be encouraged spend more, rather than spreading the same spend further.

Sailings to Waiheke were increased from 39 per week to 70, which led to a "phenomenal increase" in turnover: "It's paid off."

Mr Moore will not divulge turnover figures but says the company has grown from 21 to 55 staff and is working on a new expansion initiative he expects to be able to unveil in the next couple of months.

"We're currently investigating another Gulf destination."

Moore has brought independent corporate directors ­ insolvency specialist Anthony McCullagh, marketer and former KPMG partner Gordon Campbell ­ on to the board to sit alongside family members and offer a fresh perspective.

"They don't know about starting a boat but they know about building a brand and about strategy."

Moore is scheduled to go to Harvard Business School to study financing of small businesses ­ the board convinced family members that although it was a significant investment it was worthwhile.

The move is a vote of confidence in him and the changes he has introduced.

Top of his to-do list when he took over was making the SubritzkyLine branding consistent and improving product quality, which meant teaching the staff to give customers what they wanted rather than what suited them.

"We had to see things through customers' eyes," Moore said.

For example, Mr Moore is passionate about having the best-quality coffee available and has hired a new food and beverage manager.

Moore was aware he needed to run the company as though he had competition despite being the only regular vehicle service in the Hauraki Gulf.

"I wanted to put us in the position where we weren't vulnerable," Moore said.

"People look at Waiheke and think they want to get into [the ferry business] ­ they don't understand the costs involved. You need to spend a fortune on standards, compliance, training and safety," Moore said.

"We've been doing it so long we know what we're doing."

Keeping the overtime costs under control was also important as well as investing in new boats and contracts with built-in incentives to monitor the boats' maintenance, so the less maintenance they need, the less they spend.

SubritzkyLine has also invested more in leveraging its sponsorship of the Waiheke Jazz Festival and in the Waiheke community, such as a competition for local schoolchildren to design the company's Christmas card.

"You invest in those people, they will remember you when they grow up ­ we never did that before," Moore said.

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