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When Aspiring Walls went into liquidation in 2020, one of its longest serving employees stepped up to save the day.
Neil Macdonald talks to Rachel Helyer Donaldson about being a business owner and why he’s keeping it in the family.
Aspiring Walls is the largest wallpaper manufacturer in the Southern Hemisphere. A Porirua mainstay for six decades, at one time the company employed 400 people. It supplies 5,000 different patterns. Around 500 of them are printed on its two large presses, and the rest are imported. Customers include Resene, Guthrie Bowron, various independent shops, and 250 stockists in Australia.
In 2020 the business made it through Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Level 4 lockdown, only to go into voluntary liquidation in Level 3. Wallpaper has made a big, bold comeback in recent years but, as far as the owners at the time were concerned, that wasn’t enough to keep the company going. It was saved when one of Aspiring’s longtime employees, Neil Macdonald, decided to buy it.
In the boardroom, Neil sits under a gold neon sign that reads, “We love wallpaper.” News of the the liquidation came as a huge blow to the 33 staff, says Neil. “We were very shocked, especially after so many years.” Neil was Aspiring’s safety and manufacturing manager at the time. As the most senior staff member, he dealt with the Auckland liquidator, who was confined to Tāmaki Makaurau during Level 3. Neil suggested that the business keep running – it still had stock and keen customers – while the liquidator looked for a buyer. But after a month of trading, all the interested parties fell away.
The liquidator suggested that Neil buy the business. At first Neil, then 61, was having none of it. An electrician by trade, he first started working there as a contractor in 1974. He’s been an employee since 1981, in various roles. “I said, I’ve been here long enough. I wasn’t looking to undertake the challenges of running a business with a few years to retire.” Eventually, he relented. “It was really hard looking people in the eye and telling them there’s nobody to buy the business. In the end I was like, well if I have to, I’ll buy it.”
“We sat down and negotiated something that was realistic.” The previous owner is also still involved. “We have a coffee once a month, and they’re very supportive”.
Established in 1960, the company was one of Porirua’s founding businesses, and still operates out of its original premises in Mohuia Crescent. It’s had several makeovers over the years: Ashley Wallpapers became Pacific Wallcoverings and then Aspiring Walls. The days of hundreds of factory workers are long gone. Several other companies, such as ethical clothing manufacturer Little Yellow Bird, who produced Aspiring’s new staff shirts, rent out factory space. Wellington’s bus shelters are made there. “We’ve got a real community of businesses here, which is quite cool.”
Aspiring gives back to the local community. It provides premises for the Nest Collective, a charity that sources essentials for families in need. The business also supports Tanya and Neil’s middle daughter Teana, in her youth engagement work.
Plans include updating existing designs with new colours and textures, creating new designs, digital printing in-house, and increased government exports to Australia.
Hine wants to be Australian manager and live on the Gold Coast. It’s a family joke, Neil says, but he’s probably only half joking. He wants to retire eventually, so the long-term plan is all about his family’s goals. “It’s ‘What do you want to do, where do you want to be?’ They don’t feel that they have to be here, they’re here because they want to be here. They really enjoy it and they’re good at what they do.”
Neil is also in talks with local iwi Ngāti Toa Rangatira, which has a substantial housing portfolio. Aspiring Walls hopes to provide wallpaper for new builds as well as the iwi’s 900 state houses. It would also train people to hang wallpaper. Aspiring has already taken on one rangatahi fulltime, training him to print and emboss wallpaper. It’s a commercial venture that also represents a “knitting-in of community”, says Neil. “Many who live in the pā have worked here or have a relative who’s worked here.”
The support of both his family and the company whānau are crucial to Aspiring’s success, says Neil. “Everybody is trying that much harder to make it work, which is really good.”