Looking back on 80 years of history

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Civil Contractors New Zealand as the industry association representing the interests of civil contractors in New Zealand. By Alan Pollard, Chief Executive, CCNZ.

We are currently planning events to celebrate this significant milestone, and some work to further capture the history of the industry.

Members may recall that a short history of the Contractors Federation was written by the first General Secretary, A R Tarr, back in 1979, in a book entitled A Strange Breed of Men, published by the Penrose Printing & Publishing Company, and covering the history of the organisation from its foundation. It’s a fascinating read, and it is now incumbent on us to capture the history from that point on to complete our story so far.

In Tarr’s first remarks in the book, he quotes the Chairman of the organising committee of the American Association of General Contractors, who in 1918 said;No business is more exacting or requires greater effort and determination than construction.

“A lifetime is spent acquiring experience, judgement and the accumulation of capital, equipment, and efficient organisation, only to have our enterprise meet with disaster of many kinds – commercial or financial discrimination, confiscatory legislation, political extortion, predatory competition, and by the magnitude and concentration of opposing influences – from all of which most of us have suffered.

“The contractor is the prime factor in all material progress. Through him all necessary works are built, of public and private interest; he affords a livelihood for millions of men and their families.”

Roll forward 106 years, and doesn’t this sound very familiar. While very much a product of its time and construction is no longer solely a male profession, there is much in this quote still holds true today – contractors continue to stare down a multitude of adversities to deliver material progress that affects the whole population.

Tarr traces the start of a contractor movement back to Bob Semple, a politician with a civil engineering background who held the Public Works portfolio from 1935 to 1949. Semple was increasingly being lobbied by individual construction companies and operators and sought a better way to organise the construction industry.

Enter Dan Sloan, the owner of the Wellington Hotel. Tarr describes Sloan as; “a quietly spoken man with a pleasant but somewhat reserved personality – more characteristic of a clerical worker in a government department than a robust D8 operator on a large earthmoving project.”

It turns out, though, that Sloan was a good organiser, was friends with Semple, and his daughter was Semple’s personal secretary.

He convened a meeting of earthmoving and agricultural contractors in July 1944, including prominent contractors, who became the founding members of the Contractors Federation, with Sloan in the Chair, with their first business to form a national organisation to; “protect and promote the interests of earthmoving and agricultural contractors.”

The constitution was developed, and the organisation registered as an Incorporated Society. And so, the organisation that has evolved into CCNZ was formed.

Tarr described construction contractors as people; “who lacked nothing in their determination to build an industry and to form an administrative structure capable of serving it competently and well in the years ahead.”

Compare this to 2024. The civil construction sector is demanding and exhausting, and businesses spend time and money investing in people and plant and equipment, only to be exposed to the risks of the vagaries of economic and commercial boom and bust cycles, the impact of political interference – political ideologies, poor law making, suffocating compliance, and short-term thinking driven by electoral cycles rather than community needs.

But at the end of the day, as in 1918, what the industry does has a profound effect on the health, wealth, and well-being of our communities and our country. There will always be challenges, but what matters is what we do about them.

And, as the founding meeting anticipated, CCNZ’s role remains to protect and promote the interests of our industry, and to do so competently with an eye to the future.

Our core objectives in our current Strategic Plan in many ways mirror the expectations of the contractors gathered in that room back in 1944.

  • Provide pro-active industry leadership to support a successful and sustainable NZ Civil
    Construction Industry.
  • Be recognised as the primary voice for our NZ Civil Construction Industry members.
  • Promote and rollout a sustainability framework to our members and to external stakeholders as the benchmark standards for our industry.
  • Support a healthy and safe industry to lift accessibility, quality and capability of safe work practices and workplace wellbeing initiatives.
  • Continue to engage with our members through increased collaboration and information sharing.

I think that Bob Semple, alongside Dan Sloan (and fellow founding members from that first meeting such as Vic Draper, Noel ‘Baldy’ Margan, Harold Parsons, and Sam Neville, who all went on to serve as Presidents of the Contractors Federation) would be amused to read that we continue to have the same conversations now that they were having back in 1944.

But I also hope they would look at what has transpired since then with a sense of achievement and pride. That the movement that they started 80 years ago has achieved what they set out to do and has served and continues to serve our members (contractors and associates) well.

We look forward to celebrating that milestone, and the legacy of all the industry has achieved through CCNZ ever since, throughout 2024.

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