Contracting and camaraderie

Harrie Harris attributes the success of his company, and many of the friends he has made to his membership of the Taranaki branch of CCNZ.

By rights, Graham ‘Harrie’ Harris should have been a dairy farmer. He was born in Stratford in 1942 to dairy farming parents, growing up with the cows, and helping out on the farm. He left school without any qualifications at the age of 16 and spent the next 14 years working on dairy farms across the region.

The crunch came in 1970, when a severe drought resulted in a low payout for farmers and Harrie contracted leptospirosis – a bacterial infection transmitted via cows’ urine.

Laid low with fevers and bedridden for days, Harrie and his wife Janet made the decision that farming was not in his future.

The couple bought a house in New Plymouth and Harrie set about looking for work.

“I had a friend who knew a builder in town who was looking for a labourer – I needed a job, so I went to see him.”

That builder was Graeme Pepper of Pepper Construction, and in Harrie’s 28 years in the industry he reckons there hasn’t been a single month where he hasn’t done some work for him – even if it was just a small job such as mowing grass.

“If he had a job to be done, we did it,” he says.

The first job was building state houses to accommodate workers on the new power station project, and Graeme needed someone to put down paths and build fences.

“The wages were one dollar an hour,” says Harrie. “However, when I left the farm I hadn’t been able to sell my Ferg 35 tractor and soon found it was useful on the building sites. He offered me an additional $2.50 for the hours we used the tractor, so there was always plenty of tractor work to be done!”

In 1972 Pepper Construction won a contract to build about 150 houses. Harrie told Graeme he’d like to have a go tendering for the landscaping portion of the project on his own account.

“I worked out a price and, through him, was awarded the project to lay lawns around 25 houses.

“Someone else had a contract for another 25 houses but fell by the way after completing only five, and I was asked by the Housing Corp. if I would finish the contract. I said I would, but only if I got the next 50 houses without tendering: I now had 80 to do!”

At the same time, the housing overseer from Palmerston North got in contact with Harrie. He had 60 lawns to lay at Linton Military Camp and was having trouble finding anyone suitable to do the job there.

“He offered me a price double that of the New Plymouth job. It turned out we completed the project in two, one-week stints a year for three years, and was probably the most lucrative job that I was ever offered,” Harrie says with a laugh.

In 1976, Harrie hired his first full-time employee, Paddy Williams.

“Paddy worked for the company until he passed away in 2013 – that’s eight more years than me!’

When the business first started, Harrie got a lot of work from a construction firm called Daamen Butler.

“The owner was crook and wanting to get out of contracting,” says Harrie. “He had a loader and a couple of trucks. He threw me the keys one day and said, “get started, pay me back when you can”.

“Back in those days you needed a 25 percent deposit to buy anything. With this machinery we could get into good work. We started getting bigger after that.”

In the 80s, house building was slowing in the region, so Harrie decided to attempt demolition work. By this stage, the company had up to 10 staff, two loaders, four trucks and its first 20 tonne excavator.

“One of our biggest demo jobs was for the Centre City project – we removed 13 major buildings in six weeks. We also did the rebuild site works, which took another year.”

Harrie says his company was probably the main demolition contractor in New Plymouth for around 15 years, saying “we did all the big jobs for a long time”.

The company also did a lot of work for Fonterra in Hawera and demolished the Regents Theatre in Whanganui.

But it wasn’t all demolition work. One of Harrie’s most memorable projects was for the construction of a safety tunnel on Mt Egmont-Taranaki, for which he received a Caltex Construction Award in 1998.

“It was the highlight of my career,” he says. “A proud moment for me, and pretty special when you are an owner/operator.”

Harrie and Janet had formed Graham Harris Ltd in 1973 and joined the Contractors’ Federation that same year.

“Meetings were very formal back then, with members wearing ties. The discussion was nearly always around the Ministry of Works being awarded roading contracts and subdivisions, while contractors were not asked to tender,” he recalls.

“I have always been passionate about being a member of the federation, and my membership has enabled me to make lasting friendships.

“I am adamant that the networking opportunities offered at federation meetings and conferences was a big part of the company’s survival – over the years we worked for nearly every contractor in town.”

Harrie was on the Taranaki branch executive from 1975, serving as chairman for a total of 12 years. He was awarded life membership for his services in 2000, and still attended meetings.

“The branch has been involved in a number of projects where members have contributed their time and machinery for the community – we did the cycle track removal at Rugby Park and a walkway extension for the council, to name just two,” he says. “These jobs helped create great camaraderie, with 16 contractors working together.”

Harrie got out of the contracting game in 2000 when he sold his company. Since then, he’s been working as an assessor for Connexis doing WRT (wheels, rollers and tracks) assessments – some 1130 to date.

“This has been a great way to stay in touch with the industry that I love,” he says.

And when he’s not working, or catching up with ex-employees, he can be found up-river, whitebaiting.

“Although, this year, the rewards have not been great,” he says wryly, “but the season’s not over yet.”

This article first appeared in Contractor November 2017.

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