Being dyslexic has not stopped Craig Walker from forming and running one of the most successful building removal companies in the country. Richard Silcock spoke with Craig about his background, the success of his company and his views on the issues facing the heavy haulage industry today.
Craig Walker Building Removals is one of the largest and most successful family owned and operated building relocation specialists in the country, with a fleet of truck and trailer units, 20 staff and an annual turnover of around $8 million.
“I came from a fairly regimented family” says Craig. “My father saw service in Europe during WW2 as a bomber pilot flying dangerous sorties over Germany and on return to New Zealand after the war continued his career in the RNZAF with postings to various airbases around the country and Fiji, rising to a senior rank before he retired.
“Living on airbases as a child, I grew up around aircraft and the strict military way of doing things and I think that was instilled in me, especially regarding being prepared, planning, calculating risk and keeping everything neat and tidy and in order.
“Likewise, I like to ensure our trucks and equipment are well maintained and kept clean and everything done and handled in a professional manner. A truck covered in mud is not a good ‘advertisement’ albeit it’s difficult at times not to avoid especially when we are working in boggy ground conditions.
“As a young boy I was destined to follow in my father’s footsteps and join the air force; however, this dream was dashed when I was found to be dyslexic. It was an impediment that affected my schooling and grades and I found it difficult in class to keep up, so at age 16 and on the advice of my teachers I left and with the help of my brother, who was involved in house foundations, got a job working for Warwick Johnson who owned the House Removal Company in Hamilton.
“It was a case of learning the ‘ropes’ on the job,” says Craig. “It was my induction to the heavy haulage industry, and I loved it from day one. I seemed to find my niche and enjoyed the hands-on aspect and the variety of work it provided.
“After a couple of years, I joined Haines House Removals as a supervisor and three years after that set up a business, Auckland Building Removals in a partnership arrangement, but after eight years and an amicable split I established Craig Walker Building Removals in 1987, the year of the stock market crash!
“It was pretty tough going for several years, working seven days a week. I only had a clapped-out Bedford truck and some second-hand jacks. My wife Sharon did the bookkeeping, accounts and arranged the consents and permits.
“Over the next 10 years I slowly expanded the business as more work came in. We took on staff and bought new equipment and in 1997 purchased a 21,000 square metre site in Kumeu, West Auckland from where we still operate.
“We built a modern workshop and hired a couple of diesel mechanics for the purpose of doing our own vehicle maintenance and later built an administration block for our admin, sales and inhouse design team.
“Following a period of business consolidation, at the beginning of the new millennium we again expanded and started acquiring more housing stock and this led us to purchase an additional storage yard. Around the same time, we increased our truck and trailer fleet with modern state-of-the-art units to ensure we were at the top of our game.”
Craig says he has always believed in staying abreast of technology and robust business systems and says this guides every aspect of the company, right down to meticulous office and accounting procedures and stringent maintenance of their vehicles and equipment.
This attention to detail has resulted in the company being awarded a Class five rating by NZTA, the highest of five categories.
Asked why he thought the business has been so successful, Craig says it was down to sheer hard work in the early days, long hours and finding solutions for his customers.
“I was working long hours but set out from day one to provide the very best service and professional expertise.
“It was my dream to succeed that drove me.
“In the early days relocating a house was an unusual thing, but New Zealand was a bit of a leader in this field as most of our houses are built of timber and on piles, making it a lot easier to relocate than say a brick house on a concrete pad.
“I think my parent’s family values were also crucial as it taught me the importance of being honest, showing a high degree of integrity in all business dealings, having the right attitude and good business acumen.
“While much has changed over the years, ethics remain paramount.”
Craig says that in some ways the relocating of houses has got a lot easier, with specialised equipment, more powerful trucks able to haul heavier loads, hydraulic jacks and amazing multi-wheel trailer units that are able to lift the load at amazing angles to avoid obstacles.
“Simple things like track mats enable us to move a truck and trailer over muddy ground without getting stuck and LED lighting and rechargeable power tools have all made it easier.”
“We run a fleet of trucks. The work horses are the three C500 Kenworths, an International Lone Star and a Kenworth W610 SAR all of which are equipped with push-pull turntables. We also have several Hino trucks which we use to transport gear such as our heavy duty hydraulic jacks, small excavators, building equipment, winches, generators, compressors and various tools. We also have several smaller trucks and utes.
“The trailer units are all hydraulic. Four are remote rear-end steer and two have the facility for additional axles for extra heavy loading.
“I tend to favour the Kenworths as they seem to handle the New Zealand on/off-road terrain better and we’ve just bought a new one at just under half a million dollars. We tend to buy new and run them for around 420,000 kilometres.
“Quite a bit of our work entails removing a building from a site and then bringing in a ‘new one’ to the same site. When the customer does not require the original building, we often purchase it, take it to our yard, perhaps do some renovations and then on-sell it to another customer.
“There are currently around 60 houses in our yard as there is an increasing demand for good relocatable homes which a customer can renovate. With the cost of housing and building materials in Auckland this provides a very economical way of getting into a house once a section has been purchased.
“We also do quite a bit of work for government agencies, local authorities, the Defence Force and various construction companies.”
Asked about the operational challenges faced running a house relocation business, Craig says it is mostly about the weather, negotiating road works, narrow streets, roundabouts and the increasing amount of traffic on the road even at night.
“Greater Auckland seems to be getting more wet weather these days and that often makes moving a house to a site on a steep section a bit more challenging as we need to engage winches and tractors, or cranes to assist.
“Often we need to cut a house into sections and remove part of the roof to create a load size that will ‘fit’ the road network. Weather then becomes an issue as we need to protect the building from the weather using tarpaulins.
“Roadworks can also hold us up, especially where work is being done at night and over a long distance, for instance the Dome Valley up north, where roadworks are being done over a 15 kilometre section causing significant delays and a build-up in traffic.
“Most of our moves are around greater Auckland, although we regularly go further afield to all parts of the North Island and recently took a house down to Woodville near Palmerston North and barged a house loaded on one of our trailers to Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf where access could only be gained by landing it on the beach, which presented some interesting challenges!
“Another challenge we face is the increasing amount of traffic on our roads, even at night, and the number of cars parked along urban streets, all of which require careful and time-consuming negotiating.
“But the main thing facing the heavy haulage industry these days is essentially about getting good staff,” says Craig.
“It’s due to the nature of the work – long hours, often dirty muddy work in all kinds of weather and usually at night – all of which doesn’t make for a good family or social life.
“When we employ new staff we look for aptitude, ethics, a hard worker and a team player – and preferable with a Class One or above drivers licence, but due to what I term generational change, younger people seem to have a different outlook compared to my generation and want the ‘easy life,’ so it is often difficult to find the right people.
“You could say I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to health and safety (H&S). While the H&S Act may seem a bit over the top and one size fits all, I believe it is fundamentally good. By the very nature of jacking up houses and transporting them as an over dimensional load there are inherent risks and these risks need to be strictly managed.
“An employee needs to have confidence that his/her employer has robust H&S protocols in place to help prevent accidents and injuries and the employee must follow these protocols but have the right to voice or identify a possible H&S issue or bring an issue to the attention of their employer. It’s a fundamental human right.
“We have a policy of mitigating risk. For example, where we are working at height on top of a building, or working/driving long hours/distances, we follow a strict policy around the hours worked, with no more than 14-hour stretches allowed followed by 10-hour rest periods over a six-day cycle. We also hold regular H&S meetings and safety and risk assessment training modules and carry out all our operations in compliance with the ‘Best Practice Building Relocation Guide’ which I largely wrote.
“Under the Covid L4 restrictions most building relocation work was curtailed, however under level three we were able to operate albeit in a very controlled work environment with strict protocols in place when crossing the Auckland border controls.
It is perhaps a sign of the times, but these days CWBR requires a ‘secured’ payment as part of the contract with its customer, with the payment held in a Trust account until completion of the job.
“After all, when you purchase a house, it is normal practice for the deposit to be held in a solicitor’s trust account until such time as full settlement is reached. We adopt the same approach and most of our customers accept that.
“Over my years in business I have encountered only a few cases where the customer has been lethargic in meeting their obligations. I did encounter one person who had unreasonable demands and threatened me, but I guess that happens in all businesses.
“By and large our customers are just delighted to have secured a house and had it moved to their dream section.”
Craig was appointed to the Board of the NZ Heavy Haulage Association in 1998 and was president of the association from 2001 to 2003 before stepping down in 2012 when he was made a life member.
Over the ensuing years he has been recognised for his services to the heavy haulage industry and local community, having been awarded the industry’s Gus Breen Memorial Award in 2004 and the NZ Order of Merit in 2014.
The RNZAF has also recognised Craig’s philanthropic contributions over the years. As the Air Force played a large part in his early years growing up on a base, Craig has donated several buildings and supported the younger personnel. In recognition, he was awarded an honorary commission and the temporary rank of Group Captain as patron of Number 30 Squadron, A.T.C, Hobsonville.
He also undertakes several voluntary activities in the local community and is currently deputy chair of Massey High School. The school has benefited from donated buildings and his support of the school’s academy college.
Latterly he has also been involved on a consultancy basis with the production of a TV series, fronted by Clarke Gayford (the Prime Minister’s partner) and produced by Imagination Television, about house relocations and has appeared in several episodes.
At 66, Craig says he is ready to give more responsibility to his daughter Kylie Haskins (administration manager) and son-in-law, Dave Haskins (operations manager) and for them to take over the business this year.
“I’ll cut back on my hours of work, especially the night work, but give a helping hand as required,” he says.” I am passionate about the business I have established and the industry as a whole. I’ve got a good team, so I can afford to let go the reigns and enjoy more time with Sharon and get out on the water in my boat fishing or relax at our beach house in Coromandel.
“I’ve enjoyed the journey, the work and satisfying our customers.”