Of the handful of family names indelibly etched in the history of our civil contracting industry is Downer, founded by engineer Arnold Downer over 80 years ago.
Arnold passed away in 1984 but had lived long enough to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. The company (Cable Price Downer) at that time turned over $146 million and had $43 million of assets, was a major force in the field of civil engineering in this region, and had an enviable reputation for completing projects on time.
To celebrate the company’s 80th anniversary, it recently produced a book; Building Futures – The Downer Story, looking back on its history and dedicated to Arnold Downer and all those who have worked to enhance the reputation of the company he founded.
This is a beautifully published book; excellent read, and generously illustrated with stunning historical photos.
The last quarter of the book focuses on the company’s more modern history and ‘building futures’ (in 2009 Downer EDI and Downer EDI Works merged to create the new ‘Downer’ brand). As Downer CEO Cos Bruyn says in his introduction; “While it gives me great pleasure to be associated with the tremendous achievements documented in this book, it is the potential of Downer that stirs me the most. Within the last 15 years the company has strengthened its capability, not only through targeted acquisition and international alliances, but also by building strong relationship with New Zealand’s leading infrastructure providers.”
However, for most readers it is the historic perspective that makes this book a ‘must read’. The building of the nation through the public works departments provided a rich ground for talented engineers, and Arnold Downer (who started his engineering cadetship with the Public Works Department in Otago/Southland) had a reputation for building tunnels. Even the Minister of Works in the 1930s, Bob Semple, referred to him as “a good man with a tunnel”.
It was a tunnel project, the Mt Victoria Tunnel (opened in 1931) that brought Downer into contact with other engineers and builders who joined Downer & Co, which was registered on July 5, 1933 to tender (successfully) a job with the Dunedin City Corporation on the Waipori Hydroelectric Scheme. That job “started a trickle of work that soon became a torrent”.
The book covers a number of fascinating projects such as a major airfield in Fiji for the US forces in 1941 with work continuing during the night under huge arc lights (interestingly, this military airfield was started before the US was attacked by Japanese at Pearl Harbour in late December 1941). The war years also saw Downer & Co pioneer opencast coal mining in Huntly and Stockton.
Then there were the joint ventures in the 1950s with overseas partners. In 1954 the company merged with William Cable Holdings, with Downer becoming its major subsidiary, and in 1964 WCH merged with A&G Price. Cable Price Downer was bought by Brierley Investments during the country’s infamous corporate ‘asset-stripping’ period. It was during the 1950s and the 12 year partnership with US company Morrison Knudsen Inc that Downer carried out some of it most impressive projects. These included the Rimutaka Tunnel (1954); the Roxburgh Dam; and the Wellington-Porirua motorway (our first motorway). Later came the Wairakei power station, Dunedin’s Momona Airport, Marsden Point refinery, Motunui Synthetic Oil Plant, and Starship Children’s Hospital.
“While those first 25-years would have been a matter of quiet pride for Arnold Downer, his philosophy would have always been to look forward rather than back. He was, he said, ‘more interested in where we could get to’.”
An outlook that Downer still works on today. By Alan Titchall.