There will be few in CCNZ who don’t know Ewen Major. For the past 15 years he’s been Auckland territory manager for the Cat rental store, but construction machinery is in his blood.
With his larger than life personality, and the simple fact he’s been working for decades, Ewen is hard to miss. But finally, he has called it quits, retiring at the beginning of the year. However, with energy to burn, he won’t be slowing down much.
Born in Balclutha 80 years ago, Ewen was heavily influenced in his life’s choices by his parents, although their talents were very diverse. His father worked for Reid & Gray, an agricultural machinery manufacturing company, and his mother was a professional opera singer.
“We all moved to Dunedin when dad got promoted. In 1946, the lead soprano of the opera Firefly fell ill just two weeks before the show opened and my mother stepped in to fill the role, learning the whole part in just 10 days,” Ewen recalls.
That was the start of a very illustrious career for Vincente Major, who sang with the National Opera through the 1960s and 70s and received an MBE for services to singing.
Ewen shared her love of music and of performing. He learned the piano in his youth and sang in a few operatic shows himself. He has also been known to serenade the contracting fraternity during conferences when there happened to be a piano in the room.
But his easy charm and confidence lead him to a career in sales, and thanks to his father’s influence, machinery sales.
His first job was with National Mortgage, a division of what was then Wrightsons. In 1962 he was transferred to the Otahuhu branch in Auckland, where he sold polythene packaging – otherwise known as plastic bags.
A few years later he married Cheryl Whale, daughter of contracting legend Ivan Whale. At this time, Ewen was selling menswear around the North Island, while his father had set up a machinery agency called Major Enterprises.
“He invited me to return to Dunedin and join him. We specialised in concrete gear and had the agencies for Errut concrete machinery and Martin mixers among others,” says Ewen.
“However, with our first child on the way, my father-in-law put pressure on for us to return to Auckland. He set me up with a job in his firm, making me the plant and equipment manager.”
In the 1960s, Ivan Whale Contractors’ biggest job involved digging scoria out of Greenmount Quarry.
“We were the largest scoria operators in Auckland,” says Ewen. “It was a very successful company and a joy to work there.”
After 18 months, Ewen was offered a shareholding in the firm. At that time, he also became involved in the Contractors’ Federation, with the aim of increasing the company’s profile in the industry.
“I worked with Ivan until about 1972-73, when I set up Major Enterprises in Auckland. Along with the concrete equipment agencies, I also had the agency for Pennzoil.
“By 1975 I was carting concrete gear all around the place, when I met up with Bob Youngman of Youngman Richardson. We got to talking and together went to a meeting at New Plymouth Hire and set up NZ Hire Association with the aim of getting national purchasing power for rental equipment firms.”
Amongst all this, Ewen always had time for golf.
“I joined The Grange golf club in 1963 when I moved to Auckland, and golf became very much a part of my life.”
He’s managed to combine his passion and his career. His last big project before he retired was the contract to supply rental machinery – up to 14 rental machines on site at one time – to Project Legacy, which has seen 18 new holes built on the Grange and Tamaki courses as well as nine being built on the old Middlemore course, plus a new $22 million clubhouse.
Despite his upbeat nature, things haven’t always been smooth for Ewen.
“Sometimes nothing goes right for a time,” he says. “I felt out of my depth with Major Enterprises so I closed it down in the early 80s.”
This marked the next big change in his career.
“A contact then told me there was a job going as an inspector on the 150-mile-long petroleum products pipeline from Marsden Point to Wiri. I had the necessary construction experience, so they hired me.”
With the pipeline complete, Ewen was then offered the job of site civil manager for Mainzeal, which had the contract to build the tanks at the Wiri Fuel Tank Farm.
“They had to get impervious clay at the base of the holes before the tanks went in to prevent seepage in the event of a spill. They found the necessary clay in Hamilton but didn’t have a way to dry it once it was put in the holes.
“Yours truly suggested they hover a helicopter over the hole for a couple of hours,” says Ewen with a laugh. “It sounds ridiculous, but it worked!”
His next position was as marketing manager for STE (later bought by Southpac Trucks), which were the distributor of Foden trucks and other construction machinery. In the year prior to his starting, they had sold just three trucks. With Ewen leading the way, the next year they sold 22.
This performance was enough to get him invited to Foden head office in the UK, where the ‘big boss’ offered him a job as international marketing manager.
But, “it was too much of an ask for the family, so I turned it down.”
Back in New Zealand, he established a new national marketing, sales and service operation throughout the country for STE, increasing annual sales from $1.4 million in 1983 to $10.6 million by 1986.
Then came another complete change for Ewen. His marriage had ended and in 2004 he was offered a job as marketing manager for three hotels – the Harlequin, the Strand and the Birdcage, living at the birdcage and serving beer to the contractors working on the motorway upgrade nearby.
“It was only for 18 months, but what an education!” he says.
“A job then came up with Cat Rental. I was 65 at the time, but I applied anyway, and they hired me.”
For the last 15 years of his career, Ewen worked for Cat Rental, loving the team at Goughs and getting really involved with the Contractors’ Federation.
However, in October last year, Ewen’s partner, Iris, died and that was a catalyst for another change.
“I had a rethink about where I was,” he says.
“I was 79 but in good health. I had dropped down to working just four days, but at Christmas I decided to retire, finishing up in January this year.”
Now, he’s playing golf a couple of times a week, spending time with his family, and keeping in touch with his friends.
He also has plans to get his mother’s old piano out of storage and start playing again.