Keith Neiderer left us back in June. He didn’t want a funeral. It was said he didn’t like attending funerals and he certainly wasn’t going to start with his own. Alan Titchall remembers him.
I interviewed Keith at least twice over the 10 years that I have edited this magazine. Each time Keith would turn up at our offices armed with photos from his vast career in the extraction industry. His cellphone would ring constantly with work orders. He was on the north side of 80 at the time.
On each occasion, I raised the subject of retirement, his reputation as a ladies man in the past, and his WW2 record flying torpedo bombers off British and US aircraft carriers during the Pacific campaign. He declined to get into conversation on all three subjects.
He started in Invercargill working as a heavy machinery salesman, just as war broke out in 1939. So, it was fitting that he fulfilled his war service flying the heaviest single engine aircraft of WW2 – the Grumman TBF Avenger made by General Motors. Although rugged and docile, its massive 2000 horsepower engine flew it, and four 500-pound bombs, through the air like a truck. As an Avenger flyer, Keith was in good company. Ex US president George H W Bush flew one during the war (earning a Distinguished Flying Cross), and actor Paul Newman (who was colour blind so couldn’t become a pilot) was a rear gunner in this three-crew aircraft.
Keith wouldn’t discuss his experiences in detail other than to say he had just the one prang landing on the deck of HMS Victorious and believed, “If Truman hadn’t dropped the nuclear bomb, I don’t think I would have been here.”
Dealing with heavy machinery and adventurous encounters was the story of Keith’s life, and back in our last interview he was still operating an engineering workshop with four employees at Otahuhu, supplying crushers and parts around the Pacific region.
The early years
After the war Keith rejoined the engineering firm Boothmac, a Kiwi agency for construction machinery and crushers, first back in Invercargill (he was born and raised in Southland) and later in Palmerston North, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, and finally Auckland in 1956 where he resided until his death.
It was around this time that he started building and selling his own quarry machinery and operating drilling rigs. Neiderer Machinery did well importing crushers from the UK and the US and putting them on frames for resale as mobile crushers.
His engineering company will be best remembered for its association with the famous Barmac crushers, invented in the 1970s and now manufactured around the world by Metso. Keith had secured a licence to build the vertical shafted Barmac machine in 1972 that crushed rock on rock and says the first designs didn’t need much modification to be a commercial success – “it went pretty good from day one”, he told me.
“I sold two to Stevensons in 1973. Sir William Stevenson rang me at 7am. ‘Neiderer, I’m enquiring about one of those Hammer Mills without the hammers,’ he said. He ordered two at $9000 each, disappeared out of the office and came back with his office lady who asked, ‘What name do we put on the cheque’. That’s how quick he paid.”
Neiderer Machinery sent the first Barmac to the UK (Foster Yeoman) in 1979 where it replaced a Hazemag Hammermill that was costing $8 per tonne of product. The Barmac did it for 12 cents a tonne.
The first Barmac sold to the US was used in Texas to crush air-cooled copper slag, replacing a better known vertical impactor with huge savings to the operator. Other installations in the US replaced cage and hammer mills where costs were reduced from US$0.80 cents per tonne to $0.05 cents, Keith recalled.
He had been introduced to Paul Tidmarsh by a partner who had a half share of a quarry in Matamata.
There was other quarry machinery as well. Neiderer Machinery produced over 250 Aussie-designed Kumbee Hammer Mills made at Keith’s Matamata workshop and sold to South America, the Middle East and Africa. Apparently, one sold to the UK 20 years ago is still in use in the Shetland Islands.
A good yarner
Keith had a lot of good yarns. On a flight from New York to London the airline stuffed up his ticket and upgraded him to First Class. His accent attracted the curiosity of an aloof neighbour.
“This fellow turned out to be a top oil executive and his oil company was thinking of making concrete pylons for oils rig in the North Sea instead of the usual steel. I got a call from Norway one day for a Barmac,” he told me.
A fat suitcase full of travel tales from many decades of travel always included many social observations on other cultures.
In 1990, he was taken to Cambodia by a couple of Aussie consultants to the World Bank to quote on crushing equipment for a quarry. He told me this while waving a crumpled and faded picture showing a long line of women walking single file, each carrying a rock.
“The stone was being hacked out by women using crowbars, carted by hand and crushed with hammers,” he said. “They were getting just $2 a week, yet were more concerned at losing their jobs if the quarry was modernised.”
Socialising with the contractors at a Cambodian bar he donated to the plight of the country’s workers. One of the bar girls told him she earned $2 for going around the back with a customer and had only taken US$14 over the entire month.
“When I left I pulled out US$5 and gave it to her. When the Aussies saw what I had done, they said if I’d hung around any longer I would be responsible for ‘industry’ inflation.”
Reflecting on the industry of today Keith noted that there were fewer individuals running the show and more boardroom directors and managers on computers “running the show like a government department”.
He remembered a post technical session bar bill at one IoQ conference in Nelson that he sponsored was $6000. “And the more beer that went down the bigger the quarry extraction figures got.”
Every time his cellphone rang during our interview he took an order for more crushing parts, then, with an old-fashioned touch, he would jot down something in a little notebook that fitted perfectly into his top shirt pocket.
But time was catching up on Mr Quarryman. His wife of 55 years was in a nursing home and he said he was spending more time with her and less time on the workshop floor.
“I should be out of it. I now have to write down people’s phone numbers. I had to write your number and name down.”
He was 86 years old when he told me that, exactly eight years ago.
“I tell everybody I am going to retire when I am 90,” he added.
He did, and spent his last years in a retirement home.
The industry has lost one of its last ‘individuals’, but his legacy will be felt for a very long time.