Sharon Brettkelly takes a tour around the Auckland factory that Covid patients around the world are depending on to breathe. 

Two big things happened in January at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

It started hiring hundreds of workers at its Auckland and Mexico factories, and it started up its crisis management team on the basis that coronavirus would go global.

“On the one hand it was early, on the other hand when we look back we go, gee, we feel like we wasted a good two weeks,” chief executive Lewis Gradon says.

The trigger was the messages it was getting from its own people working in Wuhan, China, where coronavirus originated.

“We saw the demand and we saw what our people were doing,” he says. That was, trying to get F&P equipment into hospitals and train people how to use it.

The company also knew this new virus wasn’t going to stay local, and started cancelling conferences and travel from early February – a hard sell, with many thinking they were over-reacting.

Today The Detail takes a tour of the company’s sprawling Auckland headquarters and looks into one of its factories churning out the lifesaving respiratory equipment being shipped to Covid patients in hospitals around the world.

In June F&P Healthcare became the first New Zealand company to be worth $20 billion after its shares on the NZX jumped, following a record 37 percent rise in its annual profit.

Driving that surge was a global spike in demand for two of the company’s  products, the Optiflow breathing aid or nasal high flow therapy that is delivered to the patient using the Airvo humidifier.

The company has been making the products for many years, selling them as a non-invasive method of treating respiratory patients. More hospitals were buying the products and adopting a change in practise, but Covid-19 accelerated the change, Gradon says. As Covid evolved “more and more practise guidelines have changed to say the best thing you can do for Covid patients is start them on nasal highflow”.

F&P hopes that hospitals will see the impact of the product on Covid patients and adopt the practise for all respiratory patients.

RNZ business editor Gyles Beckford says the company has been a “lucky recipient of the Covid tailwind,” but what happens after the pandemic?

“We are in a position that we’re developing new therapies,” Gradon says. “So when we have a pandemic, when the world treats more respiratory patients that helps us with changing clinical practise to our new therapies. It helps us get more exposure…and it helps us place more hardware in the hospitals that they can use after the pandemic.”

Since January the company has hired 700 factory staff in Auckland and 800 in Mexico.

“We don’t know what Covid’s going to do, we don’t know what governments are going to do, we don’t know what clinical practises are going to do. What we’re going to do is keep building the manufacturing capacity of those coronavirus-relative products up until things settle down so that’s at least till the end of this year,” Gradon says.

“And in a world where Covid goes away overnight the worst that will happen for us is that we will have built some manufacturing equipment that we don’t need for another year or two, that’s fine ….. (but) at the moment we don’t see the end of it really, we’re making everything we can.”

Gradon shows The Detail’s Sharon Brettkelly around the sprawling headquarters of F&P Healthcare on the shores of the Tamaki River where more than 3,000 people work.

He explains the strict hygiene measures the company follows to ensure it continues to stay open.

“We are the world’s largest supplier of two of the primary treatments for Covid-19 patients. The world is depending on Fisher & Paykel.

“If we’re not providing these products, that’s going to directly translate to mortality somewhere.

“Our thinking is we need to keep our people safe, and if we can keep our people safe we keep our ability to manufacture those products.

“We feel that as a bit of social responsibility more than anything else.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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