Long-time quarry man Colin Welsh has spent over 50 years in the industry and knows a thing or two about what make a quarry profitable. He was interviewed by RICHARD SILCOCK on the eve of his retirement.
COLIN WELSH is a legend in the quarry industry. Well liked, well-known and a colourful entity, he has been around quarrying in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific for over half a century.
He’s worked pretty much all his working life in the industry, but now aged 72 he’s decided enough is enough and it’s time to hang up his hard hat and move on.
“I love this industry,” says Colin.
“It’s been great and I have loved every moment, but there does come a time where I am looking to enjoy other things while I’m still in good health. I’ve got 14 grandchildren to spend some time with, a motorhome that I’ve hardly used and as a member of a local rugby league club a few more stories to tell.”
He grew up in Hamilton, left school at age 15 not sure what to do but gave mechanical engineering a go. After 18 months he decided that was not for him so he headed for the bright lights of Auckland and all that city could provide a young man out for a bit of adventure.
“I got a job working for Smith and Smith, who in those days were also timber merchants, got my heavy vehicle licence and then moved onto New Zealand Industrial Gas. From there I joined Copper Refining, a part to the BHP conglomerate, where I learnt a lot about metals.”
At age 27 he was selected to join Neiderer Machinery, and was put to work with the quarry build team (see founder Keith Neiderer’s obituary).
“Keith ‘Mr Quarry’ Neiderer said they didn’t just want anyone who could weld, but needed someone with aptitude and an interest in machinery – someone who could translate the needs of a client into a solution by supplying the right machinery for the job.
“I knew I had found my niche! I got to learn all about core and cone crushers, the different screens used and how to construct portable crushing plants.
“The design work really just amounted to nutting out an answer to a problem in the workshop or over a few beers down at the local pub after work.
“We probably ‘designed’ 200 to 300 crushing plants that way. With the expansion of the business in the 70s, the exporting of customised equipment to clients in Australia and the Pacific and the introduction of the Barmac crushing machine it was a great time to be in the industry [Colin helped Keith Neiderer build the original machine – refer Q&M June-July 2014].
“After some time I was appointed manager and got to travel to some pretty interesting places.
“I remember one project, where we were asked to design and build a crushing plant for the production of base course and chip to be used for the construction of roads around Lae in Papua New Guinea.
“We designed and built the plant back in Auckland and shipped it over. The plant comprised a crusher, a 36 x 10 scalping screen and several high capacity cone hammer mills. The stone was excavated from a nearby river and trucked to the plant by Moxy’s, which the locals referred to as ‘poop poop’ trucks!
“I went over to assist some expats and local indigenous workers set it up. It was stinking hot, humid and we lived in a gated compound. It was a bit of an eye opener as the ‘locals’ were not allowed to socialise with us, even to the extent that at the local picture theatre they were only allowed on the ground floor, while we were given seats in the balcony.”
Colin made countless trips to Australia, mostly along the eastern seaboard, to set up various plants – with most of the machinery exported from New Zealand and sent over by Union Shipping’s roll-on-roll-off ships.
“Because the NZ dollar was below that of the Australian at the time, and our costs and labour costs were lower than theirs, it allowed us to be very competitive and we won a lot of work over there.”
Neiderer Machinery was also successful in gaining contracts supplying stone crushing plant to countries in the Pacific, including Samoa and Fiji. Under a World Bank funded scheme, Colin was involved in setting up a quarrying and crushing plant in Samoa for the airport extension, and in Fiji for the construction of roads, where the mainly basalt rock was blasted, excavated and crushed.
Designing and provisioning quarries for councils here was another aspect of Colin’s work and this included the large quarry for Manukau City Council at Whitford (now owned by Fulton Hogan) and the quarry at Ngauranga Gorge for Wellington City Council.
When Neiderer Machinery was placed in receivership, Colin, not one to rest after this misfortune, set up his own business – Quarry Machinery and Installation, originally in Wiri and then Papakura in South Auckland.
“My contacts and relationships with clients from the Neiderer days proved to be beneficial, with Higgins coming on board with a request for me to design and build the quarry and a crushing plant at their Te Matai site near Palmerston North, as did Fulton Hogan who asked my advice on improving their setup at Mt Wellington.
“The business went well so my three sons, Duane, Gavin and Scott, joined me and we went from strength to strength, providing our knowledge and expertise for clients throughout the country.
“I also got over to Darwin to assist in the design and the setting up of a plant that can handle over 1000 cubic metres of hard rock material in an hour. The plant was required to meet the demands for new road construction in Australia’s Northern Territory.”
In 2011 Colin was approached by Mimico to merge with them, which he says, “probably came at the right time as I was contemplating retirement and the need to prepare for it”.
“It was a proposition that surfaced when I was chatting with Rex from Mimico one day.
“In our business, like many trades, there’s not a lot of business done over a latte! It’s about knowing people and networking, usually in the pub.
“The upshot of the conversation was they bought me out, so the assets and staff were all transitioned to Mimico. I am still doing some consultancy work for them and my son Scott is their engineering business manager.
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of quarrying along with the challenges that come up from time to time. I found a niche and built a reputation for sorting out problems and redeveloping quarries and crushing plants, making them more efficient and profitable.”
Looking forward, Colin says there’s a danger that some quarries could be closed down as the urban sprawl radiates out from the big cities and environmental requirements around quarrying consents get harder.
“Quarrying is a true blue, hard-working industry, where you learn on the job,” he says.
“I learnt a lot, and made lots of friends over the years as it’s an industry where we respect each other, with no bull, just straightforward camaraderie.
“It was about the sharing of knowledge and getting a job done efficiently without the bureaucratic trappings encountered these days.
“Now there are too many restrictions and while some may be well intentioned, such as accountability, health and safety etc, when I started out in the industry we just got on with it with probably no more accidents than are experienced today.”
After all he quips: “Quarrying is probably the second oldest profession in the world as the Romans were doing it over 2000 years ago, and look what they did!”