Getting support from Helen Clark and product on shelves in Kathmandu and Mitre 10 was all in a year’s work for James Agnew, the inaugural New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA) Young Managing Director of the Year.
The 17-year-old led a team of six St Thomas of Canterbury College students participating in the Lion Foundation’s Young Enterprise Scheme (of which the NZICA award is a part), which sees high school students create, run and manage a real company and real product over the course of a year.
Following the first Christchurch earthquake last September, which left many of them without power and water, they decided to create a product that would help Cantabrians through future emergencies.
More than 20 prototypes later, the result was the Lion Emergency Power Generator, which produces electricity from waste heat to power cell phones, charge batteries and generate light. It was a case of the Kiwi No.8 wire mentality at its best; the entire design was produced by them in production director Sam Mackwell’s workshop.
The generator has also found favour in the outdoors pursuits market, which is now their primary target.
“When Helen Clark came to our product launch she said it would also have applications in third world countries,” says Agnew. “A lot of people don’t have access to electricity at night so they can’t study.”
Getting the ex-Prime Minister’s stamp of approval was a major coup, and one he says taught him the biggest lesson of all – perseverance. Going through her personal assistant led nowhere, but a simple Facebook message garnered a personal response.
“I never thought it would happen, but there you go,” he says.
“We wanted to send the product to one of our sister schools in Tanzania who don’t have access to regular and consistent power. Being able to get Helen’s support really helped … DHL obliged and ‘said we’ll get it over there free of charge’, so she was really the tipping point.”
Agnew has been involved with enterprise since intermediate school, including the Student Enterprise Learning Link programme and the YES scheme, which he says was good preparation for this year.
But there was still plenty to learn, from email etiquette to time management and handling a team, particularly during the three months that their lead teacher was away in England finishing his PhD.
So what’s next for this budding leader?
Agnew eventually wants to enter the police force, possibly using a degree in social science or social work.
But his first taste of commerce has whetted his appetite – in fact, he’s been offered a scholarship to the University of Canterbury to do just that.
“I’ve also found business quite fun – I could see myself running a small business, or if I majored in management I see myself running a medium size business,” he says.
“The opportunities are quite endless.”
Elle Scurr, 18
Back Black Enterprise, Mount Aspiring College
Product: Roll ’n Go Face Paint Compact, an instant application white and black striped face paint designed initially to cater for the RWC fan market
Scurr’s team took advantage of the Rugby World Cup in starting its business, taking heed from previous YES groups that had successfully capitalised on this niche. But as many, larger, companies found out, promoting product while playing by all the rules and regulations around the year’s biggest sporting event proved a headache at times.
Dealing with manufacturers in China proved another learning curve: “We heard a lot of horror stories about who paid and never heard from them again.” Doing due diligence prior to placing orders paid off, however; the company avoided any problems with overseas suppliers.
Business has always been an interest of Scurr’s, although she had no prior experience before signing up to the YES challenge. Next year will see her attending Victoria University to study law and commerce.
Tayla Forde, 17
The Little Cake Company, St Cuthbert’s College
Product: A cupcake decorating kit with book, icing nozzles, reusable piping bag, 200g fondant and cases
Baking was the one thing the members of Forde’s group shared, so designing and producing a cupcake kit was a logical step. The team wrote all their own recipes and went on to sell the packs for $20.
Until this year, NCEA Level 1 economics and accounting was the extent of Forde’s business acumen, and she says taking part in YES taught her valuable organisational skills and the importance of prioritising.
Scurr, who was also named YES entrepreneur of the year for central Auckland, is considering going on to study medicine – she has one more year of high school to get through first, though.
Emily Fry, 16
Le Lunch, St Cuthbert’s College
Product: A range of designer, reusable ‘snap-down’ lunch bags made of oil-cloth material and Velcro that compact down after use.
Seeing the amount of plastic bags littered all around school at the end of every lunchtime prompted Fry’s team to take drastic action. In their quest to create a reusable bag that teenagers would actually want to use every day, they focused on designing a beautiful product that they hoped the owners could be proud of. Fry says the end result will fit in any backpack, but won’t be crushed under other items due to the snap band that gives each bag its structure.
As company director, she quickly realised the importance of both forward planning and communication.
“I learnt to lead and have confidence in my decisions … One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognise a problem before it becomes an emergency, being one step ahead all the time.”
And it seems she succeeded; Le Lunch was named company of the year.
Like her fellow challengers, Fry had some theoretical experience in the business field but putting it into practice was something new. “One of the reasons for our success is not being driven by profit,” she says. “We really wanted the satisfaction of seeing the completion of our project.”
The experience has led her to consider pursuing a business degree.
“I’m a bit torn because I like the sciences as well; I’m still tossing the two up.”
Jaden Milligan, 18
Helpful Electronics, Christchurch Boys High
Product: H.E.L.P – the Helpful Electronic Locating Product, a touch screen all-in-one computer for retail outlets enabling customers to search for products within the store.
The Helpful Electronics group set out to solve one basic problem faced by consumers on a regular basis: the inability to locate products in a retail store. Doing so through an app was dismissed due to the level of smartphone penetration in New Zealand – instead they decided on building a self-sufficient hardware unit.
While many young companies struggle in getting off the ground, Helpful Electronics gelled from the start. Along the way, they’ve crossed paths with C-level executives and other high flyers, who were impressed by their professionalism.
“I’ve been really lucky in that I had an amazing team behind me,” he says.
Next year will see Milligan off to Canada to work for six months before returning to embark on a degree – most likely management and commerce.