Heavy Haulage

On top of their game

Family owned Britton House Movers is a big player when it comes to building relocations, employing over 45 staff and running a fleet of 10 haulage units. RICHARD SILCOCK caught up with Paul Britton in between moves to profile the 60-year-old business, his role and his views for the future.

WHEN I CATCH up with Paul Britton he and his team have just finished relocating a house from their two-hectare yard at Haywards on SH58 to Titahi Bay, a job that took several hours and saw them on the job at 4am.

The yard is full of relocatable houses, vehicles were coming and going, the phone was ringing and Paul is smiling – he should be as the company has experienced a growth in business of 80 percent in recent years.

He’s busy organising a relocation for the following night, a job which he says “could be a bit tricky as the access is over sloping, wet, muddy ground and the neighbours aren’t that cooperative about us encroaching on their property!

“Planning is essential in this game but you have to retain a degree of flexibility and adapt to the conditions and regulations,” he says.

To reach a back section, this single storey house was hydraulically elevated 2.5 metres to avoid houses and a fence either side of a narrow driveway before it was carefully backed into position.

Paul is the third generation Britton to run this family owned business and is both general manager of the Britton House Movers Group and manager of the Wellington operation. With a permanent staff of 45 and three branches in Wellington, Bulls/Wanganui and Hastings, he is kept busy.

“We did over 350 relocations last year, 95 percent of which were buildings,” he says. “We are one of the biggest building relocators in the country and are regarded as number one in the lower half of the North Island for relocating large buildings from, or to, difficult sites.”

In addition to 10 Mack, Western Star and International units, they have nine house moving trailers, a number of utes and pilot vehicles and an array of hydraulic lifting equipment.

“By comparison to our competitors we are able to pool our equipment and resources,” he says. “For example, here in Wellington our units are smaller and suited to the often narrow streets; whereas the Bulls/Wanganui operation has some big units able to handle 90-ton loads, so if we need that capability here we can bring a unit down.”

The business was started in 1957 by Paul’s grandfather, Ted Britton, with an old GMC truck.

“He got into building relocations by chance,” says Paul. “He was involved in demolition work in Wanganui and was asked if he could relocate a building instead of demolishing it and the business grew from there.”

In 1985 the firm merged with Southcombes Building Removals and opened a branch on the Kapiti Coast before moving to the present site on SH58 a few years later when they secured a contract to relocate a number of buildings from the Haywards sub-station.

Hauling the 300-tonne ‘Milford Wanderer’ tourist excursion vessel from the Quay West Boat Builders facility at Wanganui.

Ted’s three sons, Graham, John and Arthur took over the business when Ted retired in the mid-80s and they remain as directors of the company. Paul (Graham’s son) became GM after spending some 30 odd years on staff doing a range of jobs. Arthur’s son, Adam, is employed as a piling foreman at the Bulls/Wanganui branch.

Paul Hackett manages the Bulls/Wanganui branch, while the Hastings operation is managed by Elwyn Fryer.

“They both have a ton of experience,” says Paul (Britton). “They’re regarded as being a part of the family with Paul having clocked up 44 years with us.

“Like my grandfather I also got into this business by chance. I was thinking of joining the navy when I left school at the end of 1987, but dad asked me to give him a hand over the Christmas holidays and the rest as they say is history.

“I guess there are some what-ifs, but I don’t have any regrets and have a passion for this business and the industry as a whole. No two jobs are ever the same, you get to meet some interesting people and go to places that are pretty much unheard of outside the immediate vicinity. The hours are long, often at night and in all kinds of weather, but the rewards are there.”

Paul says that while they are house movers, the cream lies in the on-selling of houses and he unashamedly admits that is where extra profit now lies.

“In correlation with relocations we often act as house brokers, buying and selling on behalf of owners, or purchasing outright from an owner or developer who may be rebuilding or needs to make way for other redevelopment. We bring houses back to the yard; do some renovations and on-sell to a new owner, with the move and the foundations provided as a complete package.

“I like to think we are in effect recyclers, able to offer people affordable houses which have plenty of life left in them. We also build modest spec houses from scratch, then sell and relocate them.

The double-storey, historic Holly Lodge guest house at Wanganui was extracted from an orchard site and required some additional traction from continuous-tracked heavy earthmovers.

“However we are essentially about shifting houses, we are good at it and really just want to focus on shifting houses,” he says.

Completing heaps of paper work has unfortunately become part and parcel of the job according to Paul.

“There can be a raft of permits and authorisations to obtain from the likes of NZTA and local councils for overweight/over-dimension loads and where applicable from power, phone, police and rail authorities. Relocation and building permits are also required along with safety and insurance agreements.”

Asked to recall some of the more spectacular relocations, Paul is hard pressed to come up with any one in particular, for he says they all presented different challenges often with obstacles such as other houses or high sided bridges to be negotiated.

“Perhaps one of the most interesting was the relocation of a 2500 square metre former rest- home from Upper Hutt. We transported it in 21 sections over a period of five weeks to its new location where it is now used as offices by Te Wananga-o-Raukawa.

“We’ve also done triple unit moves, such as the Kapiti Aero Club hangar, and the Boat Shed complex on Wellington’s waterfront which was moved 300 metres on four trailer units and rotated 180 degrees. That required some careful coordination and planning.

“Moving some of the big props for some of Peter Jackson’s movies from Weta Workshops to various filming locations is also memorable as it was a bit different,” he says.

On replying to a question on the challenges currently facing the industry Paul says the increasing number of constraints being put in place by local authorities, the delays around the issuing of resource and building consents, the new health and safety requirements and getting good staff are the main ones.

“These days it is difficult to secure young people for this industry who have the right aptitude, who are prepared to work long hours often at night and be away from home frequently,” he says. “However if they’re willing, have the right attitude and want a job with variety they stand a good chance of going the distance and learning heaps.

“I attribute our success to recruiting the right people and having an experienced team, whether it be the guys doing the move, our in-house builders, our mechanics, or the people in the office – they all do a fantastic job,” says Paul. “Collectively there is a pool of experience and we all operate as a close knit family.

“While it is a family business, we give staff every opportunity to progress and to take on supervisory and leadership roles, and looking ahead move into management as people retire.”

Paul says the recent changes to the Health and Safety Act have left some operators running scared – scared they have missed something in the paper work, or that staff are being non-compliant on site.

“We take the view that health and safety is paramount so we put all our people through a ‘Site-Safe’ course and asbestos awareness training. We encourage team work, looking out for each other, checking equipment and mitigating risk. Given our size we also employ a safety audit manager to supervise safety training and monitor safety procedures.”

Up until last year Paul was chairperson for the NZ Heavy Haulage Association, a role he held for six years (he’s been a board member for 15 years).

“It’s been both an interesting and challenging time,” he says. “The association plays a very important role in our industry, advocating for members and seeking changes from authorities and government. For instance, we brought about a review of the VDAM rule, changed the regulations around constructing foundations, and [we] get to discuss with NZTA plans for new road infrastructure such as roundabouts, bridges etc – providing our perspective.

“I firmly believe any operator involved in our industry should be a member of the association, for a strong membership is our collective strength,” says Paul. “As a member you will get more out of it if you take an active part at branch or national level. You will learn heaps, get to mix with likeminded people and hear their story and viewpoints – I certainly did and it did wonders for my personal growth for due to the nature of the business we can often work in isolation.”

While Britton’s is a 24/7 operation, in his spare time Paul and his wife Tiffany head for their beach cottage up the coast and indulge in some beach roaming or long walks.

“I am passionate about this business for it is both my life and my hobby. However it is important to take time out and have an understanding wife who is tolerant of the time I spend away, so I guard my time off – no phones and no trucks!”

The landmark, two-storey Tinui Country Hotel in the Wairarapa was moved in two sections to Greytown, a distance of 120 kilometres along a narrow country road. 
This article first appeared in Contractor August 2017.

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