Global call centre and back-office IT support may be poised to earn New Zealand more foreign exchange than the wine and mussel industries combined.
Many New Zealand firms perform such roles for overseas organisations, but both industry and government specialists feel the country is rightly placed to make a killing.
They say New Zealand has cheap, skilled staff, is ideally placed in the time zones to serve Asia, the US and Europe, and English is our first language.
In addition, as the first country to see the sunrise, IT Minister Paul Swain says people are already working on the country becoming an early warning centre for computer virus attacks like the "Love Bug".
Worldwide contact centre company Sitel has just gone live with a service to a major US client, giving call centre support from Auckland in both English and Asian languages. The firm employs 450 people in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch.
Managing director Russell Just says US companies are moving call centre operations offshore as the industry there is saturated, with rising costs. The market in Australia is already mature, while developing New Zealand is still ripe for expansion.
India is a rival for call centre work, but Just says New Zealand is competitive, offering a better service with English as a first language.
Sitel is pitching to major American corporates and Just says firms are studying major opportunities "as we speak" that would also be large by New Zealand standards.
Sister firm Sitel Telebusiness, a systems integrator, has 22 Auckland staff performing back-office computer functions to London, Brussels and Detroit. It plans to open offices in London and the US shortly, to offer local Siebel CRM support to its clients and drum up more business for Auckland. At present the software services bring in $5 to $6 million, but Just says the scope is far more.
Sitel is working with Trade New Zealand's Call Centre Attraction department to bring in more work.
"It could be a significant foreign exchange earner for New Zealand. A centre with 2000 seats and 3000 persons will generate more than the wine and mussel industry combined - about $200 million a year," he says.
IT Minister Paul Swain says the government is for the first time in 15 years going out and pro-actively seeking businesses. It made a bid for Motorola and has had approaches from overseas about call centres.
Industry New Zealand, set up two weeks ago and headed by deputy prime minister Jim Anderton, will play a major role in government efforts.
Swain agrees New Zealand has time, cost and skill advantages and says "there are encouraging opportunities, not only in jobs, but for people starting up companies and generating more jobs."
Other Kiwi firms like Motherwell Software, Seranova (formerly Asimuth) and CyberElves perform work here for overseas companies, as do many big companies and multinationals.
Jim O'Neill of ITANZ says "hundreds" of workers perform such roles and it is good business for New Zealand.
ITANZ works with its sister overseas organisations, bringing work here from Malaysia and the Philippines.
Local bodies in Northland and Invercargill are also promoting their areas for call centre operations.