IT support could earn more than mussels, wine or both

Global call centre and back office IT support could earn New Zealand more foreign exchange than the wine and mussel industries combined.

Global call centre and back office IT support could earn New Zealand more foreign exchange than the wine and mussel industries combined.

Already many Kiwi firms perform such roles for overseas organisations, but both industry and government experts feel the country is rightly placed to make a killing.

They say New Zealand has cheap, skilled staff; is ideally placed in time zones to serve Asia, the US and Europe; and English is the first language.

In addition, as the first country to see the sunrise, IT minister Paul Swain says people are already working on New Zealand becoming an early warning centre for computer virus attacks like the "Love Bug".

Worldwide contact centre company Sitel has just gone live with its service to a major US client, giving call centre support from Auckland in both English and Asian languages. The firm employs 450 staff in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch.

Managing director Russell Just says US companies are moving call centre operations off shore as the industry there is too saturated, and has 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 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 (customer relationship management) support to its clients and drum up more business for Auckland.

At present software services brings in $5-6 million, but Just says the scope is for 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 2,000 seats and 3,000 persons will generate more than the wine and mussel industry combined - about $200 million a year," he says.

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.

Anderton 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 Azimuth) and CyberElves work for overseas companies.

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.

Northland and Invercargill local bodies are also promoting their areas for call centre operations.