Wednesday, November 26, 2008

South Canterbury Finance still going strong

The other morning, while driving down Broadway Avenue in Palmerston North, I noticed an office of South Canterbury Finance — the second-largest finance company in New Zealand, and one that has flourished during the recent turmoil in the finance sector.

I hadn't realized there was an office of the 80-year-old company in town, and made a mental note of its location. I thought I might invest some money there, after my deposits at Kiwibank reach the target total of $40,000.

"But is South Canterbury Finance covered by the New Zealand retail deposit guarantee scheme?" I wondered. In these uncertain times, I don't think I would put any money into an institution that wasn't covered by the scheme.

My question was answered by Aaron Lim in today's issue of Businessday. South Canterbury is, indeed, covered. Furthermore, it is raising as much as $100 million through a new offer of bonds that will return 8 percent a year — more than any bank is paying at present — until the maturity date of October 8, 2010.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A crazy schedule

As I write this, at the end of my 68th birthday, I am trying to remember everything I have to do tomorrow morning:

1. Get up about 5.25am and go to work.

2. Work from about 6am to about 8am — that is, until the deadline for the Manawatu Standard. (We have had to have this early deadline since the printing of the newspaper was shifted to Petone, near Wellington.)

3. Drive home, pick up my daughter and take her to Terrace End post office.

4. Collect the Cancer Society's mail from the society's box, and take this and my daughter to the offices of the Cancer Society. (My daughter has a full-time job there, from 9am to 5pm, looking after its accounts.)

5. Drive home and have breakfast.

6. Drive to work, and work from about 10am until 5.30pm on advertising feature articles for the Manawatu Standard.

A pretty crazy schedule, but an unsurprising one in these times of minimal staff levels. After all the "redundancies" in the editorial department during the past few years, workers are now a little thin on the ground.

Will I, too, be declared "redundant" in January 2009, after working like a maniac during the last two months of this year?

Monday, November 17, 2008

CEOs worth every penny they make?

One thing the financial meltdown should do, if it doesn't do anything else, is put paid to the claim, made ad nauseam until early this year, that corporate CEOs are worth their astronomical "remuneration packages".

How many times were we told that these economic supremos were so far ahead of us, in terms of financial expertise, that they deserved every penny they made? If we didn't pay them $5 million a year (or whatever), they would simply take their knowledge and experience elsewhere — and we would all suffer as a result.

I remember an incident in the 1980s, when my company's big boss briefly stood behind my desk in the editorial office of the Manawatu Standard and cracked a few jokes with the sports editor. He was there for only a few minutes, but I later worked out that he had been paid more for those minutes of jocularity than I was paid for a whole week of hard work.

When he went out for a run one day, and died of a heart attack, he was replaced at the trough by someone else, on an equally high rate of pay. But neither he nor his successors were able to reverse the steady loss of newspaper readers. In the end, all they could do to maintain profitability was make more and more people "redundant" — and thereby lower the standards they were charged with maintaining.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On culinary catastrophes

Hospitality Association of New Zealand (HANZ) chief executive Bruce Robertson today urged New Zealanders to travel within their own country this holiday season, to counteract the drop in the number of foreign tourists.

His call followed the release of Statistics New Zealand’s (SNZ) accommodation survey for September, which showed total guest nights at 2.2 million - down 5 percent from September 2007.

I'm not surprised by the fall. Tourism was bound to suffer as a result of the credit crisis/financial meltdown (or whatever you like to call it). And I'm happy to report that I have already made reservations for our upcoming summer holiday, which will see us travel to Wanganui, New Plymouth, Stratford, and back to Palmerston North.

I would be even happier if I could say I were confident of finding food of an acceptable standard at every stop. Two years ago, in Te Anau, one of the premier destinations for tourists in the South Island, the food was so bad that we stopped dining in restaurants and bought buns and rolls from a bakery.

Two years before that, I took my mother-in-law and her sister to the Duxton Hotel in Wellington for a couple of nights. For those who have never been to New Zealand's capital city, the Duxton is one of the poshest, most expensive hotels in town.

The dining room had a suitably refined atmosphere. The menu was also impressive, with lots of those almost incomprehensible French names for dishes. But the soup, when it came, was atrocious. It both looked and tasted like lukewarm gray sludge. And the rest of the meal was almost as bad. In fact, it was so bad that we didn't dine at the Duxton the next night. We went around the corner to the next hotel, only to find that the food was not much better.

I could go on. My list of culinary catastrophes in New Zealand is almost endless. Oh to be in Melbourne again, where we had excellent meals wherever we went - even in a rather prosaic food court.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

To hell with retirement!

Yesterday's feature article in the Dominion Post on Dargaville electrician Tom McKay, who is still working at 101, makes one wonder about the almost universal acceptance of retirement at the age of 65 - and death at some time in the subsequent 15 years.

When I started work at the Manawatu Standard, a daily newspaper in Palmerston North, there was a compulsory retirement age of 60. The thinking in the 1970s was that a person was both physically and mentally incapable, after that age, of doing a decent day's work. If they pressed on, they would be too slow, and too easily confused by the demands of the task in hand, to be of much use to their employer.

I remember my amazement, on being told by the editor that Reporter X was 70 - and had just been given a year's notice of termination of employment. How could one work at 70? The mere fact that he wanted to continue to work seemed to be evidence of advanced senility.

Of course, my thinking had changed by the time I reached the age of 65. But I retired anyway, mainly because I found the 5am starts intolerable. Getting up at 4am on a cold winter morning, driving through the predawn darkness, hoping the office computer system would be up, and then working like mad to meet the 8am deadline, wasn't my idea of fun.

But when, after four months of retirement, the telephone rang, and I was offered work at more reasonable hours, I couldn't wait to pack my little rucksack with my sandwiches. And nearly three years later, I am still going into the office nearly every weekday - and still having no difficulty in finding errors and illogicalities in the copy of our reporters.

I don't think I have taken a day off sick since the 1990s. Yet I occasionally get a letter from Southern Cross, my health insurer, that informs me that I have moved up into an age bracket in which, inevitably, people make greater use of health services, and that I must therefore pay a higher monthly premium.

Needless to say, I find these letters a little irritating.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A new broom in the office

Last week, my newspaper announced the appointment of a new editor - the eighth since I joined the company in 1972.

Only a few years ago, such an announcement would have left me feeling a little anxious, as a new editor almost always wants to "revamp" or "redesign" the paper and "reposition it in the market".

Sometimes, this exercise involves making one or two people redundant and revising the rosters/duties of those who remain. Then come the peremptory directives on style. Pictures must be of certain sizes, must be placed in certain positions on the page, and must have (or not have) overlines. The spelling of certain words must be "updated", and so on.

Then we go public with our "bright, rejuvenated" paper, which has "much more of the news you want to read" and "a finger that is even more firmly placed on the pulse of the community". The self-congratulatory ballyhoo is splashed all over Page 1, and may even be broadcast via local radio.

The funny thing is that, from the reader's point of view, nothing much changes. In fact, subtle tweaks in headline/caption/intro styles - issues that cause considerable angst in the editorial department - invariably pass unnoticed by the public.

Furthermore, if the general upheaval results in a demoralization of the staff and, during the ensuing weeks or months, in several resignations, the outcome may actually be a deterioration in the overall service to the community.

But eventually, of course, everything settles down again - until the editor resigns and a new, "enthusiastic" person of "vision" is appointed. Then the whole tedious process starts again.

If all this doesn't make me feel anxious any more, that's because I am now in the advertising department and am not directly affected. I can simply sit back and be a cynical spectator.