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Born in a quarry – The history behind Real Steel

BORN in a QUARRY The history behind Real Steel

Pictured above: Rock from Owhiro Bay Quarry heading to Wellington Airport.

Alex Mathieson, founder of family-owned business Real Steel explains how the company was originally a spin-off of his specialised quarry contracting company.

I began working in the quarry industry in 1975 at Owhiro Bay Quarry that was run by the Carey family.

I started out driving an off-road dump truck, and progressed to learning how to drill and blast, how to operate wheel loaders and dozers. This is where I fell in love with the heavy industry side of things. I also got my B grade and A grade quarry certificates.

The access to benches were very steep and narrow in places. Once we got up there, we were there for the whole day. Back in those days the diggers had no cabs.

Being on the coast we were exposed to the harsh southerlies but working on the benches had an awesome view over the Cook Strait towards the top of the South Island.

Then my wife Patsy and I decided to move over to Brisbane with the twins, Luke and Sam. We had a suitcase and a baby each and about $500.

I did a 12-month stint in Brisbane working for a sand dredging operation and worked my way up to production foreman in 12 months. I got a job offer back at the Owhiro Bay Quarry which had been bought out by NZ Cement Holdings (now Holcim).

I managed Owhiro Bay Quarry from 1982 for six years and during this time sales increased from 50K to 350K tonne per annum.

Another project I completed while working for NZ Cement Holdings was to amalgamate three ready mix concrete companies into one which is now Allied Concrete.

I then left the corporate world and ventured into my first business partnership in 1990 with civil contractor John Ray doing bulk earthworks and site works for five years. Our business was still connected with the quarry industry and extracted rip-rap.

First large blast at Owhiro Bay Quarry

As part of this I opened the Haywards Hill rock extraction site. Our first contract was 35,000 tonnes of large rock to Ewen Bridge in Lower Hutt for flood protection. Funnily enough the Haywards Hill site has just been reopened for work at Transmission Gully.

In 1995 Patsy and I formed Atom Hire. ‘Atom’ because ATM are my initials. This was a specialised quarry contracting and equipment hire company and the business had significant growth.

We won the contract at Kiwi Point Quarry, opened a gravel yard in the Wairarapa and did contract crushing, drilling and blasting in the Lower North Island. From time to time we were also contracted to assist with tricky jobs.

We identified a significant cost to the business on a monthly basis was wear parts. Back then availability of parts was far more limited. There were only three major suppliers of wear parts in New Zealand and their prices and margins were quite high. It was because of this I decided to look elsewhere and explore importing our own wear parts.

After testing the logistics of importing parts, I found they could be landed in New Zealand quite economically. The wear parts were the same quality but at a better price. My other contacts in the industry were also interested in getting their wear parts at a better price so I started importing more on the back of our own orders.

This importing business was technically a spin-off from our core contracting business Atom Hire. With time it started to grow, and we decided to form Real Steel in 2002 and make it a separate business.

While my son Luke was at University in Christchurch, he would spend his spare time visiting the quarries selling wear parts. He then went off to do his OE and worked in finance in Edinburgh for 18 months and joined the business again when he returned home.

Access to benches at Owhiro Bay Quarry involved very steep and narrow terrain.

In the early days of Real Steel, our garage at our house in Island Bay Wellington was full of wear parts – cutting edges, bucket teeth you name it. I’d ring Patsy to get a couple of bucket teeth, package them up and put them out on the driveway for an order.

This went on for some time until we identified certain constraints by importing ready-made cutting edges. We needed a good, reliable steel source and this is where our relationship with Swedish Steel (SSAB) came into place.

We began importing their Hardox steel – a very wear-resistant sheet steel from Sweden. One of our founding members Mark worked on developing our first design of cutting edges. At this stage we were working out of a 40 foot shipping container with shelving and a portacom as our office.

Luke became general manager in 2003, then managing director in 2010 when he bought into the business.

From humble beginnings and 17 years in business Real Steel now employs 70 staff, has a factory of 5000 square metres and some of the most advanced steel processing equipment in New Zealand.

Our products are designed to reduce downtime and increase productivity to save our customers money in the long run. We are also proud to be New Zealand’s official Hardox Wearparts Centre.

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