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Eastland Group 'well-positioned' to weather the storm

Despite being at the heart of Covid-19 economic impacts, the operator of Gisborne's airport, port and regional lines company owner, Eastland Group, says it is “well-positioned” to weather the storm — with no need for displays of “symbolism” such as voluntary pay cuts.

Chief executive Matt Todd said most of the company's business sectors — including Eastland Port, Eastland Network and Gisborne Airport — had felt the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. But overall, the company was well-positioned to weather the unprecedented situation.

“Most of our businesses have been impacted, but it's too early to forecast the extent of the impacts with any accuracy, as things are still developing day by day.

“Six weeks ago we thought the forestry sector and port would be the most affected; now it looks like these businesses may recover quite quickly.

“What we do know is that Eastland Group has strength through our sector diversity and, because our businesses are all essential services, we have been less impacted than many other companies.

“We have an agreed set of expectations around distributions to our shareholder, Trust Tairawhiti, and at this stage our view is that these will be met.”

Tairawhiti's forestry supply chain was one of the first local industries to experience a slowdown with a significant decrease in log exports to China that began in early February.

Exports of kiwifruit and squash were unaffected and continued as normal.

In the final week at Alert Level 4, Eastland Port was granted dispensation from the Ministry of Transport to clear logs that had been sitting at the port. They also worked closely with local and national stakeholders to develop safety protocols which have been adopted by ports across the country.

“With the move to Level 3, the forestry industry is getting back to work, and we have a steady stream of log ships booked over the coming weeks,” Mr Todd said.

“Coupled with increasing international demand for logs, this is extremely positive to see.

“It's been a tough time for everyone, but with one in four households in the region linked to forestry, the recovery of this industry will be vital for the recovery of the region as a whole.”

Lines company Eastland Network was an essential service and remained focused on keeping the lights on.

During Level 4, the duty controllers were operating and Eastland Network's faults team headed out as required.

“Now that we're at Level 3, Eastland Network will start doing some essential maintenance such as fixing defects, inspections, and some tree work. They're also getting ready to restart their pole replacement programmes and will be advertising the planned power outages — though they won't be doing anything that affects people at home for the next few weeks at least.”

Electricity demand had been slightly down on usual, with a slight move from the commercial areas out to the residential areas. The load has been more consistent so the peak has been flattened.

“We expect electricity demand to pick up again as more businesses open and we move into the colder weather,” Mr Todd said.

Eastland Generation, including its Te Ahi O Maui and GDL geothermal power plants in Kawerau, continued operating and generating electricity throughout Level 4. The move to Level 3 would see them undertake larger maintenance projects and other essential work.

Gisborne Airport's new terminal construction had also re-started.

“The aviation industry has been devastated by the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on travel.

“There are still no scheduled flights to or from Gisborne Airport at the moment, and they're unlikely to resume in the short term. A few essential flights, such as the air ambulance, have continued.

“We're pleased to have restarted construction work on the second and final stage of the new terminal building. It was originally scheduled to be completed in a few months, and this date will now be pushed out.”

Mr Todd said supporting staff during the period had been critical to ensure the future success of the company.

“Eastland Group has worked to keep all its staff employed and on full pay over lockdown,” said Mr Todd. “We believe our businesses are strong enough to weather the challenges that Covid-19 throws at us.

“While we understand the symbolism of senior staff taking a pay cut this only really makes sense if it is the difference between the business surviving or failing. Otherwise what we need as a national and regional economy is people spending money and paying tax.

“The world learned in the Depression that austerity measures actually made the situation worse not better, and it came through the global financial crisis far quicker because of fiscal expansion.

“A lot of small and medium businesses across the country and in this region are struggling to survive. As the alert levels continue to drop down from 4 to 3 and below, what Tairawhiti needs is people spending money at the local cafes, restaurants, retail shops and other businesses.

“This situation is challenging. However, as a community, everyone is pulling together. What is vitally important now is that we all work to support each other in Tairawhiti, and show leadership and collaboration to aid the region's recovery.”

See editorial page 10