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Four decades on – George Kelcher's ride with Road Metals

George Kelcher’s had an interesting 40-year ride with Road Metals through the ups and downs of the quarry industry. He shares some of those experiences with HUGH DE LACY.

Road Metals is celebrating 60 years in business over Labour weekend this year and George says it has been a privilege to be able to contribute as part of the overall team to this longevity. The emphasis now is about mentoring the younger staff members and passing on the knowledge gained over this time
Road Metals is celebrating 60 years in business over Labour weekend this year and George says it has been a privilege to be able to contribute as part of the overall team to this longevity. The emphasis now is about mentoring the younger staff members and passing on the knowledge gained over this time

As the general manager of the big South Island quarry and transport operator, Road Metals, George Kelcher celebrates 40 years with the company that the late Stan Francis founded in Oamaru in 1955.

George’s own start in the industry with the then North Otago Road Metals (NORM) came after he’d completed a mechanic’s apprenticeship in Oamaru with Otago Motors, then renamed Wrightcars. At the time he dreamed of jumping the ditch to drive big rigs in Australia.

To get the necessary driving experience in 1975 he asked Stan Francis for a job as a truck driver, because, at that time, NORM was running the biggest rigs in the region – eight-wheeler Leyland Octopuses and ERFs along with the first R Model Macks and G88 Volvos, which were a hefty step up from the TK Bedfords George was servicing at the time as a truck mechanic. Stan was okay for drivers but told George that he’d guarantee him a truck-driving job if he worked for him as a mechanic for three months. And Stan was as good as his word. George was soon in Twizel driving a Leyland Octopus on the power project before graduating to an ERF truck and trailer unit.

He was permanently diverted from his Australian truck-driving aspirations when, in 1976, he was sent on a six-month stint crushing gravel in Milford Sound on the West Coast, an assignment that “started me down the path of becoming a quarryman”.

He was to return frequently to the West Coast over the next three decades as part of, and at times leading, a team running mobile crushing operations from Fiordland to Hokitika, during which seal extensions took place on the Milford Road, and from Hawea to Haast, as part of a national highways upgrade. Areas covered also included many sites in Southland, Otago and Canterbury.

In the process, George became ever more focused on the technicalities of gravel-crushing, and as Twizel gave way to subsequent big projects like the Clyde Dam, Cromwell Gorge stabilisation, Clutha River deepening, Opuha Dam project, and the second Manapouri tailrace, he found himself leading a Road Metals’ team designing and building plant.

Along with Richard Baird, of the former Christchurch company Baird Quarry Equipment (since subsumed into AEG), he supervised the building of a new crushing plant for the Manapouri tailrace project. When this project was held up in 1998 (and threatened with mothballing) by the slow rate of the tunnel excavation, an invitation came from the big Auckland firm Stevenson’s Resources to undertake some crushing at the nearly exhausted East Tamaki Quarry.

The arrangement with the Stevenson Group was supposed to be for just four months while Manapouri was up in the air, but ended up lasting six years.

Major changes took place at NORM in 1991 when the then general manager, Allan McDowell, was headhunted by Fulton Hogan. And when founder Stan Francis passed away in January 1992, George was tapped to step into a management role. In 1994 the company, which had expanded into Canterbury, renamed itself Road Metals and George eventually became general manager. It was around this time that he became involved with the Institute of Quarrying (IoQ).

George was elected to the IoQ executive in 2002; served as vice-president in 2006-07; and president in 2008-09. The latter stint being marked by the institute’s holding of its 40th anniversary and World President’s Conference in Auckland.

George’s IoQ status also gave him the clout to lead, along with Gary Rooney of Rooney Earthmoving, an industry group that became the still-extant Memorandum of Understanding South Canterbury (MOUSC).

This group succeeded in persuading regional council Environment Canterbury to modify its otherwise unworkable plan to shut down alluvial metal extraction from South Canterbury riverbeds until such time as all the rivers in the region had been surveyed – something which would have been a disaster for the river-dependent South Canterbury operators and the local communities who are dependent on rivers for aggregate.

A further issue that currently has George’s attention is the reforming of the Health and Safety legislation and new mining and quarrying regulations.

The government did a pretty good job reforming coal-mining regulations, but left a lot to be desired when it came to the quarry sector in the wake of the Pike River coalmine disaster, and quarrying is still paying the price, he says.

George is currently at the heart of the ongoing debate around the designing and enforcing regulations for the quarry industry that is presently labouring under what he describes as the lumping in of quarrying with mining under a joint regime designed primarily for coal-mining.

“Legislation and regulation was pushed through in a very short time frame under government pressure resulting in what we have today,” he says.

“There is still considerable work to be done to achieve what will be a practical, achievable, enforceable system that can be obtained by the people that make up the bulk of our workforce and who are our current and future quarry managers.”

Road Metals is celebrating 60 years in business over Labour weekend this year and George says it has been a privilege to be able to contribute as part of the overall team to this longevity. The emphasis now is about mentoring the younger staff members and passing on the knowledge gained over this time, he says.

Reflecting on how quickly the past four decades have gone by George says it has been “one hell of a ride”.

“We have had a lot of fun, met a lot of people and presumably learnt a bit on the way through.

“There is a certain sense of satisfaction that you have been part of a company that has contributed to the building of a lot of projects, forming and upgrading a lot of roads amongst other contracts and the results will all be there for the use of generations into the future.

“On top of that the quarry industry is made up of some fantastic people, a lot of these have become lifelong friends – what more could you ask for?”

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