From the Archives: The Game Changer

Nearly 30 years ago, in a dramatic late-night gesture, Dave Carden signed away the privileged position his company occupied in the New Zealand crane world. It was a watershed moment for the industry. BY GAVIN RILEY.

Whatever the truth of the old saying that nice guys finish last, it doesn’t apply to crane-industry figure Dave Carden, who has finished rather well most of the major tasks he has attempted in his long and still vigorous life.

Dave is a nice guy but not in the sense of being blandly pleasant. He is a straight-shooter who calls it how he sees it, however he does so in a manner which does not cause offence because it is combined with a bluff warm-heartedness.

His generosity of spirit was never more famously demonstrated than at a crane-conference dinner nearly 30 years ago when he surprised everyone present by signing away on a paper napkin the duty-protection advantage his Tidd Ross Todd company enjoyed on fully built-up cranes.

“This action,” John Carter writes in his newly published history of cranes in this country, “is still regarded by many as a defining moment in the history of modern-day cranes in New Zealand.” TRT’s duty protection had become a hotly debated issue within the industry, he says.

Dave had pragmatic reasons for his dramatic and game-changing gesture. More about that later; suffice to say his action was consistent with someone whose life story shows has always been his own man.

Born in Paeroa in 1930, he attended the local primary school. When he was 14 his mother died and his father sent him and his brother Tom to King’s College in Auckland, where teachers decided Dave had ability but did not apply himself.

In 1947 he started a fitter-and-turner apprenticeship with Thames company A&G Price (founded in 1868) then joined Putaruru Engineering to learn welding and maintenance of sawmills and farm equipment. He next spent three years as a junior engineer on 12,000-ton Dutch Shell Oil diesel oil tankers, plying routes to the Far East, England, the United States and Europe. The pay was a paltry £40 a month but he paid no tax, telling the New Zealand authority he was paying it in England and the English authority he was paying it in New Zealand.

Ashore once more he joined Wilcox Engineering in Putaruru to learn about earthmoving machines, then Ford sub-agent Heavens Motors in Arapuni to become acquainted with the insides of vehicles.

In 1958, aged 28, Dave founded Southside Motor Engineering Co – “I decided I now knew how to survive”. He serviced farm machinery and trucks, did sawmill repairs and rebuilds, carried out quarry-equipment maintenance, and later branched into structural-steel building.

He also made a basic extendable boom crane mounted on a Bedford chassis and in the mid-1960s started Southside Crane Hire. The first crane was truck-mounted and made from a Leyland Hippo which had been wrecked when it rolled off the Kaimai Range while carrying logs. The crane carrier was built from scratch, including the lowline cab, chassis and outriggers, and using the Leyland running gear, engine and transmission. It had worm drive diffs and a maximum speed of about 70km/h.

Dave then converted an NCK205 dragline, doubled up on the hook rollers to get capacity, and made a power boom, power-load lowering, boom, fly jib, high A-frame and counterweight. It had a 16.9 MT rating and, says Dave, was high-tech for the district and ahead of its time.

The crane ended up on long-term hire at the Turangi power project, along with an   NCK304 which Dave mounted on a new 8×4 chassis obtained from business acquaintance Jack Tidd.

In 1966 Jack asked him to become workshop manager for Jack Tidd & Co in Te Rapa – an invitation designed to end Dave taking business off Jack by building his own cranes. Dave instead asked to be an equal partner in a new company which would buy Southside.

Jack declined but about 10 months later made a fresh offer whereby Jack would have a one-third share in a new company, Jim Ross and Norm Todd of Ross Todd Motors would split a one-third share, and 37-year-old Dave would hold the remaining third and bring in his Southside business. Thus was Tidd Ross Todd Ltd born.

The first year was hard. Norm Todd was general manager, Dave was workshop manager, but Jack retired and Jim Ross was running his other interest, Baker Construction. “Jack had let his workload run right down so we had to survive on Ross Todd logging truck re-powers, which were considerable, and any excess work from Putaruru [Southside],” Dave recalls.

TRT redeveloped suspension rubbers for Tidd logging jinkers and started fitting rebuilt cranes to Tidd carriers. The company had inherited a stock of Tidd carriers as part of the merger and had to dispose of those first to get cash flow.

“I believe one of the secrets to our ultimate success was having an independent chairman on our board, Laurie Willis, a wonderful person who guided us through those difficult times until we became a very efficient unit,” Dave says.

“It takes time and effort to mould together a bunch of virtual strangers. Norm as general manager was a pleasure to work with and always watched the pennies. Jim had the vision to go forward and Laurie Willis pointed us in the right direction. We always had a reasonable bottom line – but those first few years were character-building.”

When Norm stepped down as general manager due to other business interests, Dave took over and broadened TRT’s activities to meet demand.

“In the early post-war years you needed an import licence to obtain truck parts and Jack Tidd had been far-sighted enough to take advantage of this – hence we had a flourishing spare-parts business along with components for crane-carrier build,” Dave says.

TRT was mounting Kato, Coles, Tadano, Bucyrus Erie and NCK cranes to its carriers because government duty protection forbade the importation of the total unit. The result was a good product which complied with all New Zealand standards, including roadability.

However, Dave knew that the days of duty and licensing protection were numbered. In 1976 he travelled to the Grove Manufacturing Co in Pennsylvania where he persuaded the company’s president to agree, as an interim measure, to export Grove crane upper works which Dave would mount on TRT carriers. The president was initially reluctant, as it was contrary to his company’s modus operandi, but Dave clinched the deal by pretending to be offended by Grove’s displaying an Australian instead of a New Zealand flag in honour of his arrival.

“Around 1982 the licensing regime and duty protection were being phased out, therefore our activities changed accordingly. We imported along with other crane agents complete mobile cranes with some large units such as 80-ton Groves for Titan and a 100-ton Grove for Carlton Cranes in Auckland.

“To be roadable in New Zealand these required special trailers to support the booms, also a device to transfer the load off the carrier onto the trailer. This was done hydraulically and was the first of its type in the world. So our workload slowly changed to more low-loader-type trailers. We would design and build for specific job applications and customers.”

When Dave attended the Power Crane Association (PCA) conference in 1982 he decided the time had come to relinquish the duty protection he enjoyed on fully built-up cranes.

“TRT’s buying power was not competitive by world standards. The product was great, the price wasn’t. It was unrealistic to expect efficient crane-hire companies to keep supporting us,” he explains.

“We had diversified sufficiently to be self-supporting without the carrier business. We had a reasonable-sized truck-and-trailer parts business. A progressive heavy-trailer manufacturing division was now in operation and Think Big projects were coming on line.

“So at the Queenstown conference I announced to all present my intention to relinquish duty protection and the only piece of paper at the rostrum that evening was a paper napkin. Bill McIntosh was the president and had great pleasure in accepting my wish and having it witnessed smartly.”

The PCA (now the Crane Association of New Zealand) received a bonus from Dave when he served as the associate members’ representative on its national executive from 1988-95 and was also a member of the technical committee which liaised with various government departments on legislative requirements for cranes.

Dave, whose son Robert subsequently became PCA president and recently received life membership of the Crane Association, describes his PCA service as “very satisfying”. It’s a description that also applies to TRT’s long-term relationship with Grove.

“We’re the only New Zealand company to stick to one crane manufacturer, and the only company to specialise in major crane-accident repairs, either strut jib or hydraulic, and have a group of specialist technicians dedicated to servicing and trouble-shooting,” Dave says.

“We’ve been told by Grove’s general manager in Australia that we could be the longest-serving Grove agent in the world. And we’ve twice been Grove’s Asia Pacific dealer of the year. Through the amalgamation of Grove and Manitowoc we now sell and service the total range of cranes – tower, mobile, track and rough terrain.”

The end of the last of the Tidd, Ross and Todd involvements in TRT in 1979 saw the Carden family become the sole owner of a company which today has 145 staff and several divisions – truck and crane service, trailer and capital plant manufacture, crane sales, and spare-parts sales. About half of production is for export. Dave owns 50 percent of TRT, with 25 percent shares being held by two sons, Robert, the engineering director, and Bruce, the sales director.

When Dave stepped down as managing director in 1998 he stayed on the board. Kevin Chubb was recruited to be chief executive and remains at the helm. The company still has an independent chairman. “I’m a great advocate of fostering strengths to get results,” says Dave, who despite his 40-year dedication to cranes still found time to be president of Lions and Rotary clubs and serve on the board of St Paul’s Collegiate School, Hamilton, where his three sons were educated (his third son, Ian, owns his own security and electrical business in Melbourne).

Although Dave will be 81 in September he’s no armchair octogenarian. Along with his wife Jenny (whom he married in 1960 – “the best thing I ever did”), he goes tramping with a group every week; he has a complete home workshop with underfloor heating; he enjoys fishing from his 13-metre launch, which is moored at Whitianga; and he and Jenny have the occasional overseas holiday, such as sightseeing and fishing for halibut in Alaska.

“It’s a great life, and certainly worth the many hours of effort in the earlier years,” Dave says.

“This is a great country, especially if you’re prepared to back your judgment, take calculated risks, and get focused and involved.”

This article was first published in September 2011’s Contractor.


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