The pipe dream that came true

The story of the Hynds group of companies is the tale of a local boy who made good in his own neighbourhood. Today, after a delicate transition, the next generation is driving this family business forward. BY GAVIN RILEY.

FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO John Hynds, now 66, left his job as a sales rep with concrete-pipe manufacturer Hume Industries to start a contracting company.

His reason for the radical switch was simple – ambition. As a sales rep he was continually supplying to people who were successful and he wanted to be one of them. He saw contractors as committed people who took on a contract to do a job and got it done.

So he specialised in installing crib walls, pipes and manholes, using Hume concrete products. When Hume became involved in a major contract and could not supply him with crib blocks, the go-getting John promptly knocked the back out of the garage at his Papakura home and turned the building into a precasting operation to make the near 20,000 blocks he needed for a construction project.

He never looked back. In 1980 he expanded by buying Stevenson’s spun-manhole plant in Whangaparaoa, set it up in a factory he had built in East Tamaki, and began hand-feeding 1050mm-diameter manholes two days a week.

When he couldn’t afford to buy a semi-automatic batching plant from the United States for $250,000, he commissioned a Wellington engineer to design what he required, bought obsolete machinery from meat and fertiliser works, obtained vibrators and block-reinforcing steel from scrap, and did the entire job for $100,000.

Lucit precast retaining wall on the SH20 Manukau Extension, East Pond stage one.
Lucit precast retaining wall on the SH20 Manukau Extension, East Pond stage one.

When Contractor visited John at his bustling East Tamaki premises in early 1988, he was employing 45 staff and making spun pipe in 600mm and 1800mm diameters. He had also just bought equipment which enabled his company to double its production capacity.

His manufacturing and distribution of concrete products became so successful that he eventually disposed of the contracting side of the business to his construction manager, the late Grant Turner, and ended his work in the Contractors’ Federation (now Civil Contractors NZ) where he had been chairman of the Auckland branch, then head of the organisation’s civil and general section.

John’s elder son Adrian joined Hynds Pipe Systems as a sales person in early 1990, armed with a civil engineering degree. For the young man it was a dream come true.

“I always wanted to work in the business,” he recalls. “Where I played as a little boy was among the products stored at the back of the house. There was a little mechanised skip that used to deliver the concrete mix. In the weekend I’d drive around in that with my mates.”

Adult reality, however, did not initially match childhood dream. Adrian joined the company when there was a downturn in the construction industry due to the late 1980s’ sharemarket crash and local government reform.

Hynds is providing 35km of pipeline for an Ashburton irrigation scheme.
Hynds is providing 35km of pipeline for an Ashburton irrigation scheme.

At the end of 1990 he left for England only to find the start of a recession there and no demand for engineers. He managed to find work with a water authority in Bath then with the UK Government’s Department of Trade and Industry before returning home and rejoining Hynds in late 1992.

Over the next five or so years Adrian worked in the factory, became involved in design, testing and quality systems, moved on to running the night shift, and managed the company’s precast business. Then, as part of Hynds’ growth south, he lived in Hamilton for a year and developed the business in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, down to Taupo.

He returned to Auckland to take up a marketing and product development role and became involved in company acquisitions, the opening of more branches, and the development of the lower North Island market as Hynds’ business flourished.

In the early 2000s, by which time Hynds had moved into the South Island, his role was in sales and marketing and he became a director.

It was a busy time. The company purchased Gillies Foundry in Oamaru, which greatly benefited its water main product range, and Adrian later travelled to Australia to set up a Hynds business there.

Adrian Hynds (right), helped by younger brother Aaron, is making sure the business retains its family culture.
Adrian Hynds (right), helped by younger brother Aaron, is making sure the business retains its family culture.

One of the early challenges he faced was driving the implementation of Hynds’ ERP computerised business-transaction system. “This has really allowed the business to grow, and allowed me to understand a whole lot of things I didn’t know much about in terms of business process,” he says.

To be involved with the design of the system, configuring it, testing it, training people in its use and implementing it was an invaluable experience, he says. But not without its terrors.

“When we went to go live it was a big deal because it had to work. We had to get it right and there were a few sleepless nights towards the end. It went really well – but we put a lot of effort into it.”

In 2008 Adrian took over as Hynds’ managing director and his father became a very active chairman. It wasn’t an easy transition, according to John, winner of the 1999 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and other business accolades (see sidebar). In a candid interview posted online at the time he confessed that as a leader who had always kept a tight control of his enterprise, he found it difficult to hand over and let go.

“As a control freak, the ability to delegate was something I certainly wasn’t born with,” he says and adding that he had to develop empathy, adjust what he said to people, and adopt a “wise mentor” role. The transition took time, patience and a certain swallowing of pride.

Leonie and John Hynds are devoting their energy to philanthropic work.
Leonie and John Hynds are devoting their energy to philanthropic work.

Adrian says of the hand-over: “It wasn’t an overnight affair. Certainly there was a commitment to make it work.” When he was a little boy he would look at his Dad and be proud of him and say, “One day I want to be like him”.

“So I’ve always wanted to be the manager. We complement each other very well, actually. I’m not like John. He’s your entrepreneurial, customer-relationship type of person. I focus more on joining the dots.

“While John was running the business I was more doing the detail behind him. So the challenge originally in terms of succession, for me, was asking myself how would John do it? It moved through that phase to, I can do it myself but he’s still around, if I need him.

“Then it got to a stage where he wanted me to take over and I wanted to as well.

We’ve had to work out what John’s role was to be – which right now is the most successful it’s been. But it’s taken time.

“Hynds is John’s hobby. He doesn’t do anything else. He loves the industry. But he’s matured in how he can now contribute to the organisation, and continues to contribute to New Zealand in other ways as well. Hynds has been his focus, but he’s given me space to do it my way.”

The succession challenge accomplished, Adrian Hynds at 47 heads a group, which has just opened its 32nd branch (in Greymouth) and employs more than 600 people in eight operating divisions. The group is the dominant player in its market and consists of four key components.

  • Hynds Pipe Systems has 10 manufacturing plants throughout the country and a nationwide network of branches supplying New Zealand’s largest range of concrete pipes and precast products for civil, rural and infrastructure applications.
  • Hynds Environmental Systems designs and develops customised solutions for commercial and domestic sewage-treatment systems, drinking-water treatment, oil-water separators, stormwater-treatment systems, combined-overflow systems, flood protection, and spill-management products.
  • Waters & Farr manufactures and supplies high-quality solid-wall polyethylene pipe up to 1200mm diameter for water reticulation and drainage, non-pressure cable and communication ducting, low-pressure rural pipe, and the Bosspipe range of corrugated polypropylene pipe for low-pressure civil and rural applications.
  • Hygrade Products is the country’s leading importer and distributor of water main, drainage, street ware and specialist hardware products for civil and municipal applications.

Despite its size, Hynds is still a family business. It has three independent directors including the chairman, John is founding director, and his wife Leonie and younger son Aaron are directors – as of course is Adrian, who says he works at retaining the Hynds group’s family culture.

“We have foundation values which were originally seen as family values, but are now our organisation values,” he says.

“In terms of making connections, with 45 sites and more than 600 staff, it’s really hard to remember everyone’s names. But throughout the year I ensure that I can shake everyone’s hand at least once and thank our people for the contribution they make.

“One of our strategic themes is to empower our people to do their job well, do the best they can, and really enjoy being at Hynds. We put a lot of effort into making sure our people are given the tools and given the direction, getting the information that if they’re doing a good job they get the recognition for it.

“And it is a challenge. But this business doesn’t work without people.”

And it doesn’t work without a committed belief in the future. While Adrian says the upheaval of Auckland’s supercity local-government restructuring and the Christchurch earthquakes have meant a tough business environment since 2008, he believes the downward spiral has ended, the outlook for the medium term is promising, and there’s some confidence in the civil construction sector.

“We’ve invested in new equipment, and built a new factory in the South Island, in Rangiora, to make plastic pipe. We’ve also upgraded machinery in our Auckland concrete plant. We’ll continue to invest in the business.”

A competitor in half-marathons in his spare time, Adrian Hynds is already on the business start line for 2015.

“I think it’s going to be a busy year for us. We’re revved up, we’ve got the factories on full steam ahead, we’ve built up our inventory – and we’ll continue to supply the market with what it needs, when it needs it.”

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