It doesn’t matter how skilled you are with an excavator because nerves and luck play an important part in deciding the winners of the annual battle of the nation’s best digger operators.
The Annual Civil Contractors NZ National Excavator Operator Competition is held in March each year on a site located in the contractors’ corner in the southeast of the Fieldays site at Manfield Park, Feilding.
This year it was wet and windy, but the show went on as usual, with the sticky competition site drying up by the afternoon of the first day.
The sun rarely made a breakthrough over the two days, but at least the cloud cover and a brisk wind kept down the fierce heat that normally features over this two-day event at the Manawatu Fieldays.
Beating the champ
Steve Galbraith, of Galbraith Earthmovers, was the Defending Champion, having won the national competition two years in a row.
He was aiming for his third consecutive win to match the current record holder Brian Hoffman, who has held the triple win title since 2014.
To hold on to his trophy Steve was competing against 10 other operators who had won their regional branch competitions around the country, including a number of veteran competitors – such as Craig Crowley of Crowley Excavators and the eventual trophy winner, Troy Calteaux from Otago.
Steve came third in what was a very tough competition and the much respected ‘gentleman’ of the competition has resigned from any more regional competitions and committed to being a judge in the 2019 NEOC.
The competition tasks
The main course, this year, involved 11 competitors completing 12 to 15 activities in 60 minutes, based on excavation exercises.
Competitors all used the same machines – an Hitachi 13 tonne Zaxis 130-5b excavator for the main course and an Hitachi mini digger for the One Day Job.
The main site requires competitors to pitch their skills in a variety of traditional competition tasks that include the crowd-pleasing pouring a cup of tea from the end of a bucket; slam dunking a basketball down a Hynds pipe; popping a cork from a bottle of bubbles; and (a first) peeling a watermelon.
The main course tasks also involve a realistic ‘emergency scenario designed to test contestant’s first aid skills and emergency response’. This year they had to respond to finding a severed hand while moving an excavator onto a truck.
Our top digger operator
Troy Calteaux’s second attempt at the National Excavator Operator Competition paid off for the Otago representative who lives in Milton and works for Andrew Haulage in Balclutha.
The bearded big boy from the South cleaned up overall to take the trophy to the South Island for the first time in many years.
Troy was presented with the ‘CablePrice NZ Number One Excavator’ award at the CCNZ industry ceremony held on the last night after the competition.
Troy has been with Balclutha-based Andrew Haulage for eight years and manages the forestry roading for Rayonier in the Otago region. He works alongside his father, Colin, and brother Kieran. This was his second time in the competition after he was placed fourth in the 2016 competition.
Getting them early
Off to one side of the competition area is the ‘CablePrice Mini Digger’ operated by Alistair McIntyre. Here contestants are judged on how well they brief and relate to kids operating a 1.7 tonne Hitachi mini excavator.
Contractor mag’s One Day Job
The ‘One Day Job’ event, sponsored by this magazine, involves a ‘real industry’ project using a five-tonne digger.
The task is equivalent to a full-day task, but must be completed in just 60 minutes and must be scoped, priced and planned by the competitor. Judging is based on an interview about costs and materials and the actual completion of the task.
This year competitors had to build a loading ramp on a farm after first scoping, designing and pricing the job.
The One Day Job judging
James Lux, chief judge of the One Day Job, put his hand up for the role after assisting with the judging of it last year.
This part of the competition is not represented at the regional level of the nationwide competition so can be difficult for excavator operators working for large companies on large projects who don’t get the opportunity to design and price jobs, or even work a mini digger.
However, this part of the competition is designed to bring out the skills of job costing, quoting and completing.
The task was to design, cost and build a loading ramp for a farmer. Contestants worked out their paperwork and sat down with two judges with their proposed design. Most, says James, had their paperwork and scheduling right.
However, this year had a special challenge – a contract variation was hidden in the scheduling and costing. This was in the ‘service infrastructure’ that for every job, large or small, has to be determined before you accidentally dig up a power line or water pipe.
James says such ‘variations’ crop up regularly in day-to-day working situations and it can be expensive for a contractor if they don’t do their due diligence at the planning and scheduling stage and look for hidden obstacles.
“We expected each contestant to approach First Gas and dial beforeUdig [both next door to the NEOC competitors’ marquee] to identify service standards.
“Only two contestants did this, which was disappointing.
“Had they done that they would have learnt there was a cable located where the task needed to be completed and it called for a contract ‘variation’ to include the cost of working around it.
“This variation represented 20 percent of the scoring out of 100, so it was a lot of points lost.
“Contestants also could have asked me if there were any service issues and I would have directed them to the right people. No one did this.”
These days James, who won all three sections of the competition twice (the trophy, the One Day Job and the Good Bastard Award) is content to judge.
Typical of all the judges, he takes time off work to help out on what is a two-week project to manage the NEOC. He works with Splice Construction in the Waikato, which supports his choice to help out both nationally and regionally.
“I have to say though, it’s hard, tiring work, but I will be back next year to judge – they are a great bunch of people here every year.”
Representing the Hawkes Bay, Dan Mephan, won the Contractor magazine One Day Job award for the best planning and construction of a dirt farm ramp.
Everyone likes a good bastard
For the second year in a row, a Manawatu region representative has been named as the country’s second best excavator operator, as Palmerston North man Jim Beamsley proved his excavator skills. Last year the second-place winner was Palmerston North man Sam Scott.
Jim, who works for Central Demolition and was competing for the first time, was not only awarded CablePrice NZ’s second place award but was also awarded the Humes’ Good Bastard Award for having the right attitude during the two-day event. The Good Bastard Award, is an accolade often said to be as valuable as the trophy itself – as everyone wants to work with a ‘good bastard’.
Jim has worked at Central Demolition for the past three years and helped on the AA Centre project on Broadway in Palmerston North.
Competition manager Tricia Logan says Jim was an outstanding operator as the field was particularly strong this year and it was an extremely tight finish between the top winners.
“It is also unusual for a first time competitor to get a placing, let alone win two awards.
“Jim performed extremely well. All the competitors demonstrated a very high level of skill, knowledge and excellence and are at the very top of their game.”
CCNZ chief Peter Silcock agreed.
“Overall, it was a fantastic competition with such great skill from all competitors that scores across the competition had to be triple checked to get our top three competitors. These guys are a credit to the civil construction industry and what can be achieved with a career in the industry.”
Intense judging required
The NEOC competition grounds take a good week to set up, thanks to local volunteers who give up their jobs and free time to design and prepare the site. The team of officials and helpers get together on a regular basis from the beginning of the year.
Three judges watched over each of the two competitors on the main course at any one time. If the number of competitors is uneven, a judge will step in and compete against a lone contestant.
The Fieldays celebrated its 25th anniversary this year and the NEOC celebrated its 24th year.
Chief judge Ben Hodgson was the first winner of the national competition and remembers the early days of the competition well.
“Back then it was very competitive. Protests were common against everything from the performance of individual machines to scale of the task props.
“These days there’s a lot more comradeship amongst contestants and respect that each has won their regional competition.
“That is not to say the judging has got any easier.
“You have to be on your toes and give every contestant full attention. It’s hard work. You can’t afford to miss anything.
“Plus the judges are involved in preparing the grounds after each dual competition, changing couplings and providing advice to operators.
“As chief judge I watch over the judges on the main competition site and there’s a lot going on, so scoring during the tasks is critical.”
Thanks to the sponsors
The competition is organised by the Manawatu Branch of Civil Contractors NZ.
As the competition organiser, CCNZ is indebted to national supporters: platinum sponsor, CablePrice; gold sponsor, Connexis, plus: Humes, Z, Hirepool, First Gas, Doherty Couplers and Attachments, beforeUdig, Attach2 Equipment, Earthworm, and Contractor magazine.
“These sponsors, plus the fantastic dedication and work of the CCNZ Manawatu Branch make the national competition possible each year,” says CCNZ chief Peter Silcock.
“The association also thanks all the local sponsors and supporters who help put the regional competitions together.”
The event could not happen without the volunteers who keep the competitors, their supporters and competition judges well fed and watered over the two-day event.
The awards night
Every year the awards night moves up a peg in presentation, thanks largely to the competition manager, Tricia Logan, who put her skills to good effect with great table layouts and a slick presentation during the Saturday evening.
This article was first published in Contractor‘s May issue.