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Farewell to a top civil contractor and gold miner – Sam March

Guy and Andy March, two of Sam March’s nephews, share a few memories of him and March 
Construction.

SAM WAS BORN on July 14 1945. He spent the first four years of his life in Lees Valley on the family farm before moving back to Christchurch and attending various primary schools including Ilam, Medbury and New Brighton District School, before completing his secondary schooling at Christchurch Boys’ High School.

Upon leaving Boys’ High Sam was employed at a local contracting firm CL Cox. It was here where Sam learnt to operate heavy machinery peddling the likes of 10RBs and Priestman Wolfs. He also developed his abilities in pipelaying and all types of civil construction.

During his time at CL Cox Sam rekindled his love of horses and used to work with Cliff’s father, Pop Cox, doing track work for him. Sam would be seen around clutching a packet of Rothmans with a copy of the Friday Flash and Best Bets poking out of his back pocket

In 1968 Sam left CL Cox bound for Sydney to experience his first “OE”.

However, it was to be a fairly short-lived adventure. Being an industrious type, he quickly secured work in a wool store, but when approached by the union rep to relieve him of some fairly hefty union dues, you could say Sam politely declined!

In the union-dominated Australian workplace this sort of behaviour did not really put him at the top of their most liked list, so after offending more than couple of union officials he realised he would not hold down a job in Australia and came back! Australia’s loss was New Zealand’s gain!

Later that same year he went down to West Arm in Manapouri working for The Consortium driving a new 
trax-cavator.

During his time in Manapouri Sam had clearly worked out in his mind that he wanted to be a contractor and he wanted to have his own business.

He returned to Christchurch at Christmas 1968 and then in 1969 he joined AE Edmonds and Son as an operator. Buzz (March) had returned from chasing mum around the North Island and selling insurance to join Sam at Edmonds. Soon after Wayne (Mags) Nicholson also joined Edmonds, beginning his lifelong association and friendship with the March family.

In early 1971 Buzz and Sam decided to form March Construction (MCL) with its official incorporation date being May 18, 1971.

A friend and colleague of theirs, Paul Stribling, moonlighting from his job at the Christchurch Drainage Board, helped price jobs with Buzz and Sam.

After some unsuccessful tendering, they won two jobs on the same day, one to build Sheffield Crescent and the other a subdivision for Auburn Florence in the east of Christchurch.

They bought their first piece of equipment, a Priestman Wolf, which remains in the MCL yard today, and borrowed a trailer. The tow vehicle for this was Buzz’s 1954 purple Hillman Minx called Murtle the Turtle. That was MCL’s plant fleet.

The first hole in Sheffield Crescent was dug by Sam and Tim. Buzz arrived a week later having worked his notice period with Edmonds, then Mags another week later as MCL’s first employee.

The third job became a bit of a watershed moment for the company, when Sam and Buzz were approached by a man named Ron Bodger. Ron was a surveyor for one of the largest property developers in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch, Cyril Smith.

Their former employer, AE Edmonds and Son, had gone broke during the early stages of building the Parklands subdivision.

Ron said to Sam and Buzz, “Are you boys interested in doing some work on this development?”

They said, “You bet”. Ron said, “Meet me in the Bower tavern at 5pm”, where he presented the rates for the work and Buzz and Sam took the opportunity with both hands. What followed was years of work opening up the suburb of Parklands.

This meeting at the Bower was quite pivotal as Ron presented them with an opportunity for their first gold mining venture in Gibbston, Central Otago and it also set the scene for where many, many deals were done by Sam and Buzz over the years… namely the pub. Some of these deals were successful and some less so, but there was always a story to tell.

During the first few days of the Parklands job, a well-established large construction company, McConnell Dowell, was working close by and they were failing to dewater the ground successfully.

A couple of their foremen came on to the site and said to Sam, “this job has broken one contractor and it will break March”.

They said they would be back in the morning to see the swimming pool created when March dug the first hole, to which Sam replied, “bring your slippers”, they said “did you mean flippers?”, Sam said “no, your slippers”.

The next day they turned up to a dry manhole and could not believe it.

The new business necessitated an incredible work ethic and dedication which meant 16 hour days and seven day weeks, and this has been a hallmark of the March brothers throughout their working lives.

From there the company flourished and many good years followed. MCL developed into a multi-disciplined civil contractor successfully undertaking all aspects of civil construction.

The company became very well known in Christchurch for its orange colour and bold name on the equipment. It began to contract around the South Island and then into the North Island.

Sam and Buzz also became prominent developers of land throughout the country and this included Travis Country Estates during a long and enjoyable partnership with Tony Merritt and Alec Fairweather.

MCL is now part of the world’s largest construction group, competing at the top of the market and working on some significant major projects currently including the building of new rail tunnels under Auckland’s Chief Post Office, a historic building originally built by Sam’s great grandfather, James Jamieson 105 years ago.

I know Sam was very proud of MCL, its history and what it has now become. A significant part of that success is due to his abilities, drive and hard work over a very long time. He will forever be the co-founder of MCL.

From a business perspective Sam was a very entrepreneurial man who undertook many ventures but ultimately will be remembered as one of New Zealand’s best civil contractors and gold miners.

In the late 1970s Sam and Buzz were aware of another Christchurch contracting company, Ryan Brothers, gold mining very successfully in the Skippers Canyon, Queenstown.

One day Ron Bodger said, “Look do you boys want to go gold mining?” As usual being up for any adventure Sam and Buzz said “Hell yes”.

Ron had access to mining permits and the first gold mining venture started during the Christmas period of 1979-1980.

The boys built a small shaker screen in the workshop at MCL in Christchurch and established this near Rum Curries Hut on the banks of the Kawerau River in the Gibbston Valley along with a Hitachi UH09 excavator and Fiat Allis FL10 Track Loader.

This small venture made them $38,000 over the Christmas break and at that point gold fever set in!

Many more mining ventures were undertaken over the next decade in Central Otago, the West Coast and Australia with Sam at the forefront of all these activities. Sam developed a reputation as one of the most skilled and knowledgeable alluvial gold miners in the country.

During this time Sam and Buzz became known as “Roaring Meg” and “Gentle Annie”. I’m sure you can all work out who was who!

While in Australia, Sam and Buzz met Warren Batt.

As you can imagine, with a lifelong career in the construction and mining industries there are countless side-splitting stories, almost all of which cannot be told within these walls.

We would like to share a couple of the more sanitised ones with you.

During the freezing Christchurch winters, particularly during well pointing operations, it was traditional to have a fire to warm up with prior to work starting.

One morning Sam decided it wasn’t quite warm enough and poured another 20 litres of diesel on the fire which then proceeded to erupt into a ball of flames and consequently melted the insulation off the high voltage overhead cables and ended up taking the power out to an entire suburb.

Jumping forward some 40 years Sam was in the caravan at the site of a pump station job in Peraki Street, Kaiapoi. It was late on a Friday afternoon and like all good contractors Sam wanted to get the hole dug for the pump station before the end of the day. He was operating the Priestman Wolf with the clamshell bucket and he was going hard.

The six-wheeler International truck was so grossly overloaded with wet silt but Sam said to Pete Dormer and myself, “Just one more bucket Stick”.

Well, unfortunately this was one bucket too many! As Pete Dormer turned the truck out onto Peraki Street at 5:30pm, the tail door burst open and most of the contents of the pump station spread down the road.

This evoked a Shakespearean reaction from Sam as he cradled his head in his hands and said, “It’s a f**king disaster”, which only got worse when he snapped his broom in half early in the clean-up!

As a man Sam was both respected and loved by us all.

As a family, we are all fortunate to have been able to work together over a very long period of time.

On a personal note both Andy and I feel very privileged to have been able to work with Sam, learn from him and have many long conversations about business and life over the years.

A man of substance

Chris Lee, managing director, Chris Lee & Partners, makes a tribute to Sam March.

WHEN LONG-TERM Christchurch contractor and itinerant gold miner Sam March died in January of lung cancer, a whole rural town grieved.

A real man, a real New Zealander, has died. Sam was the sort of New Zealander for whom those of my generation will always give thanks.

It would not be overstating matters to record that Sam had been one of many who helped create the country that many of my age celebrate.

With his older brother Buzz, Sam left school as a young teenager, went pretty well straight into partnership with his go-getting brother, and over the past nearly 60 years he did his bit to build New Zealand’s infrastructure and to mine gold, generating perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars as gold sales grew, now our second largest export to Australia.

Sam was the ultimate quiet, hard-working, amiable problem-solver, with special skills in teaching and leading his workers, currently numbering around three dozen at the project he managed at the time of his demise, a gold mine in the Southland rural village of Waikaia.

He had learnt his gold mining skills in the field over nearly four decades, not in any university.

His brilliant, gracious man-management skills were natural to him and knowledge was to be shared; dignity was to be maintained.

Had NZ’s school of management needed a personification of good management practices, Sam would have been the model.

Just one of his triumphs sums up Sam.

In the 1980s, the government announced it was building a new hydro plant in Central Otago and would move part of the town of Cromwell to obtain the optimal site.

Cromwell’s dozens of shops, houses and some orchards had to be demolished before the newly-created lake drowned them.

The town had been built on the junction of the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers, a busy joining of rivers that had been a lucrative source of gold more than 150 years ago. As the miners rushed back to mine the river bed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the town was built on the shingles beside the river, with churches, pubs, blacksmiths, grocer shops and miners’ huts covering the shingles.

From the river junction, the Lady Ranfurly gold plant set records for daily gold extraction.

Sam and Buzz, with a fellow geologist, the late Ron Bodger, knew the history, so when the plan to flood the town was announced, Sam and Buzz marched down the main street, hammering in white pegs to define their claim to explore for gold.

The TV cameras were there, perhaps believing the pegging was a stunt.

In the years it took to move parts of the town, Sam led a mine that proved nicely profitable, exploring the shingles that no one had imagined would ever be accessible while they were topped by a town centre.

Sam and Buzz also won the contract for March Construction as engineering contractors, to build much of the infrastructure for the new town of Cromwell.

Sam March was no academic. He left school early and achieved his high levels of knowledge in the field.

He was never a scone-doer, never greedy, never abusive. He was a small, wiry, strong man, quiet, amiable and old-fashioned.

His sausage casserole was enjoyed by many, his macaroni cheese a weekly highlight and he was a dab hand at roast chicken or grilled chops.

The young high-fliers of today, armed with their MBAs, will do well if they can contribute as much to ‘’real New Zealand’’ as Sam did.

He has five daughters and one son and is survived by his second wife, Maureen.


This article was first published in Contractor March 2018.

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