Gordon Stone explains exactly why he has spent the past 45 years working for one company. BY GAVIN RILEY.
WHEN GORDON STONE travelled from his Christchurch base to speak at the Titan Group’s 50th birthday celebration in Wellington over Queen’s Birthday weekend, he had good reason to recall how he started work for the company as a fitter in 1970.
For among the many friends he met at the celebration was 82-year-old Frank Wicksteed, the man who employed him after they had disagreed over what Gordon should be paid.
“I was working night shift at Lever Bros across the road [in Petone] and during the day I was paua diving – there were no quotas back then,” Gordon recalls.
“I started at Titan in my holidays and Frank, Max Whiley and I argued over $1.25 an hour. I started there at 22 in the engineering workshop. Max [founder of the company five years earlier] used to buy used machinery at all the Ministry of Works auctions, because of the import restrictions on machinery, and we used to overhaul them and Max would paint them up and sell them on.”
Gordon had obtained his advanced trade certificate in fitting, turning and machining while working for the Ministry of Works at Gracefield. “I actually met Max there when he came to the machinery auctions, and I knew a few of the Titan boys there. The Ministry of Works was my first introduction to cranes – the old Allen cranes.”
Gordon prospered under Frank Wicksteed and in less than 12 months was promoted to workshop foreman – “a wee bit difficult because I suddenly had a lot of older people who were underneath me. But we stuck with it.”
In 1975 Titan Plant Services formed Titan Cranes and appointed Jimmy Tomlinson as manager of its new branch in New Plymouth. Gordon took over crane maintenance from Jimmy in Wellington and when the company bought Nuttall Cranes (part of the Ceramco group) in Christchurch, he was despatched south in 1979 to be second in command “because Max wanted a presence there – he was very firm about that”.
Gordon continued to carry out maintenance work in Christchurch, became increasingly interested in the day-to-day managing of cranes and in the erection of precast concrete components, and made many trips to Motunui to help assemble cranes for the Think Big energy construction projects.
When the Christchurch manager retired in 1990 Gordon took over, and when Titan opened a branch in Dunedin he became South Island manager. By 1993 Titan had become the largest crane-hire company in the country.
In 2008 he was appointed general manager of Titan Cranes, then in 2009 became chief executive. He retired from full-time work in 2013, and since then has remained Christchurch-based, working two to three days a week on special projects such as training and data loading. “I’m doing a bit of everything – for head office too.”
In 1994 Gordon was elected to the Crane Association national executive, where he was to remain for the next decade. He served as the organisation’s president from 1999-2001 without having the learning-curve luxury of being vice-president, spent two years as immediate past president, then stepped down from the executive only to return for a further two years as past president a short time later.
Gordon says his Crane Association service was in no way due to pressure from Max Whiley, the organisation’s founder and first president in 1975, “though once it was suggested, Max was totally supportive because he saw the Crane Association as such an important part of the industry, particularly for lobbying government. My election was due to Peter Thompson [1990- 92 president and head of Warkworth Crane Hire], who suggested I go on the council because he had a good engineering background and we were on the same wavelength.”
Asked about challenging experiences on the Crane Association executive, Gordon singles out helping form the Power Crane Association ITO, writing the first unit standards, and getting them accepted by the Qualifications Authority. Also important, to this day, is this: “Get to know the people in the regulatory bodies and get alongside them, because they don’t understand your business sometimes and you’ve got to run alongside them. If you can build relationships it’s much easier to get things done.”
Now 67, Gordon says he plans to exit the industry soon. He has sold his house in Governor’s Bay, is about to sail a yacht from Auckland to Tonga, has a yacht of his own in the Marlborough Sounds, helps a friend race an Akaroa-based yacht, is considering driving a caravan around the North Island for a few months before buying another house, and wants to spend more time with second wife Rose and their children and grandchildren, as well as fishing, tramping, and restoring classic cars such as a Jaguar and an MG.
“And I still have a real good interest in engineering and always poke my nose into workshops.”
But it will be hard to tear himself away from Titan, his employer for the past 45 years.
“The values and the culture Max had were exceptional,” Gordon says, explaining why he has remained with the company for so long.
“Even though we used to argue tooth and nail, everyone was pulling on the same bit of rope. Max was good to me – but we were good to him. When we had Titan Plant Services and then we had Titan Cranes, some might have seen Titan Cranes as a cash-flow for Max to buy more second-hand machinery. There was always a bit of friendly banter about that.
“I think what’s also kept me here so long is the changing interest of the job and working with good people with a passion for the job. I was very fortunate because I had numerous roles. I alluded to it when I spoke at the 50th birthday celebration, and about Titan being such an interesting company to be in, in the crane business, where we’re involved in everything – forestry, government departments, civil, residential, commercial, oil and gas, and aviation.”
After Max Whiley’s death at 76 in 2007, Titan went through a rough patch before righting itself, with Max’s daughter Jan now managing director and sons Bruce and Owen in key executive roles. “It’s still got a good culture, good values. We’re back to our roots. There’s definitely a bright future for Titan,” says Gordon, who spoke at Max’s funeral.
“And as for staff retention, it’s not only me who’s been here a long time. I’ve got three or four staff who have been here since we moved to Christchurch. And right around the country we’ve got extremely good staff retention. And that’s almost unheard of these days.
“It’s been an interesting ride.”