Titan Cranes: Back from the brink

Titan’s leaders today … Bruce Whiley, Jan Coton, Owen Whiley and Vaughan Clark.

The Titan group suffered a crisis after the death eight years ago of its legendary and charismatic founder, Max Whiley. Now, on turning 50, Titan is celebrating “the good years, the tough years, and the future”. GAVIN RILEY reports.

Ten years ago construction-equipment supplier Titan Plant Services and its crane-hire offshoot Titan Cranes held a glittering 40th birthday celebration at a top Wellington hotel. Company founder and industry legend Max Whiley, though visibly ailing, was in attendance to smilingly greet staff and customers, many of them friends of long-standing, because that’s the kind of friendships the charismatic Max forged.

Fast forward to Queen’s Birthday this year in the same hotel and a much quieter function is underway. The occasion is the Titan group’s 50th birthday and it is largely for staff only – a staff that numbers less than one-third of the 300-plus total of 10 years earlier.

Yet there is much for those present to celebrate. After several crises that brought Titan to the brink for some time after Max’s death at 76 in 2007, when it relied on leaders recruited from outside, control of the group is firmly back in the hands of Whiley family members.

If Max were around today he would not be surprised that sons Owen and Bruce are operations manager and property and marketing manager respectively. But he would be astonished (and, one hopes, delighted) that daughter Jan Coton, whom he first employed as a receptionist in 1978, has been the group’s managing director since 2013.

A 94-page illustrated booklet, 50 Years of Titan, available to staff only, quotes Judy Whiley as saying her late husband would be proud now the family are running the business. “He would be very surprised, especially with Jan,” the book adds. “Max was old school where women in business were concerned. He would be chuffed that they have pulled it off.”

Levin-born Max was Wilkins & Davies’ Lower Hutt-based equipment division manager when he took the offered opportunity in 1965 to buy the division, which was already called Titan and included the buying and selling of heavy machinery, and crane hire.

He acquired the business with £2500 of his own money (he sold his wife’s car) and £5000 loaned by five business associates. The new Titan Plant Services had 10 staff, some used construction equipment, six mobile cranes for hire, workshop equipment, servicing vehicles, and crane spares.

Max bought plant from Ministry of Works auctions and private sources, refurbished the equipment, then sold it. He had a remarkable memory, kept records, and knew who had what for sale and who wanted it. He regarded his often-cluttered yard as “profit waiting to happen”.

His astuteness in business and networking abilities went a long way to building the company and successfully undertaking ventures that were a big stretch. He demonstrated strong people skills with staff, customers and advisers. He took pride in employing experienced hands-on people who helped the business grow. And staff not only stayed but were as loyal to him as he was to them.
Max expected sons Owen and Bruce to join the company, but not too soon. Jan was actually first on board, but after two years as receptionist left in 1980 to become a full-time mum. She returned in 1997 as sales coordinator, took leave in 2001 to obtain a business degree, became human-resources manager in 2003, and later also took on responsibility for health and safety.

Owen joined the company in 1982, worked in Titan Plant Services’ heavy equipment workshop, was promoted to workshop foreman in 1987, and in 1989 became equipment manager for Titan Cranes.

Bruce started in the Lower Hutt workshop in 1991, spent two years in the group’s Taupo branch, attended Massey University for three years to obtain a degree in marketing, and became general manager of Titan’s Volvo trucks distributorship in 2003.

The Titan bandwagon gathered considerable pace during the Think Big energy-related infrastructure projects of the 1980s. It continued to roll on so successfully that at the time of Max’s death eight years ago the group had a staff of more than 300 and an annual turnover of $150 million.

Titan had branches in major centres from Auckland to Dunedin, was the New Zealand importer and distributor of Volvo, trucks, buses and construction equipment, as well as Yanmar and Dynapac construction equipment, and its nationwide crane-hire company was the largest in the country with a fleet of more than 60.

But all was not well. Max’s lack of a succession plan had been apparent to all who knew him. Former Downer managing director Alex Swainson tried to address the problem after he assumed the Titan board chairmanship in 1991. However, though Max had a lot of time for Alex he was not keen to think about the future structure of the company and Alex died in 1998 without being able to persuade Max to initiate a plan.

After some pressure from inside and outside Titan, former Downer senior executive Brian Kennedy had been appointed group chief executive in late 2005. But his corporate style was not a good match for the Titan team and he resigned after a year. Max died seven months later, in June 2007, and directors John Rowell and Trevor Taylor acted as interim joint managing directors until former Gough Gough & Hamer head Brian Hogan was appointed chief executive in August 2007, shortly after which Jan Coton joined the board to represent the Whiley family.

Brian Hogan recruited 11 mainly sales people whom he had worked with at Gough’s and began an aggressive capital-intensive sales campaign. At first it was successful but by the fourth quarter of 2008, with the global financial crisis biting, the Titan group was out of cash and sales started to dry up.

More cash was injected, Titan Plant Services and Titan Cranes were separated (with Gordon Stone heading the latter) and assets were disposed of over a period, including the closure of branches and sale of the Volvo and Yanmar agencies. When Brian Hogan’s contract ended in May 2010, Darryl Sutton was appointed chief executive of Titan Plant Services, and he and a hard-working team succeeded in bringing the company back into the black.

Under a new board, which included not only Jan Coton but Bruce and Owen Whiley, a debt-free Titan group was able to start anew. In 2012 Titan Plant Services was renamed Titan Construction Equipment and was appointed the New Zealand agent for Terex cranes. Titan Cranes, under general manager Vaughan Clark, now has a hire fleet of 50, having bought NZ Cranes’ Wellington branch in 2012.

In a foreword to the 50 Years of Titan commemorative booklet, Jan Coton says: “It feels like we can say, yeah, 50 years, we made it. What better time to reflect on the good years, the tough years and the future.”

She goes on to salute the many staff who have contributed to the group’s 50 years – “from the original men who took the risk and joined Max in 1965, through the early years, the Think Big projects, and the heady days of Volvo Truck and Volvo Construction Equipment when we employed over 300 people, [through to] the difficult years and all those people who stuck with us and helped rebuild the company back to something we can all take pride in.

“Max was well known for his charisma and drive; however, his greatest achievement was no doubt the ability to build a team of like-minded successful people around him. Even without Max, Titan’s strength today is due to our ability to work together in effective teams.”

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