Company ProfileContractor

Scrapers reign supreme

Motorised scrapers are enjoying a huge resurgence, and the smartest earthmovers are cashing in on the productivity, and profitability, they offer. For some, such as Drapers Earthmoving, the sun never set on the scraper’s ‘heyday’. Owner Vic Draper and son Scott talks to Chris Webb about his loyalty to these evergreen workhorses of the muck-shift.

In their heyday, as everyone in the earthmoving business knows, when push came to shove, you needed a motor scraper.

And in the most arduous of conditions, tandem push-pull scrapers delivered the lowest cost per cubic metre when moving materials in suitable ground conditions, particularly in relatively short-haul cut-to-fill operations.

Vic and his son Scott are third and fourth generation Drapers making their mark in the greater Wellington construction scene. They follow in the footsteps of Vic’s grandfather, also called Vic, and father Tom, who helped reshape the region’s roads network, and “dug the hole”, as Vic modestly puts it, in the early 1970s for the Beehive, New Zealand Parliament’s Executive Wing.

It’s some reputation to live up to, but one which sits comfortably with this family business that continues to thrive in Lower Hutt and its surrounds. Two concurrent major contracts, one at Wellington’s Aotea Block, the other at Churton Park, are paving the way for much needed housing in the burgeoning city.

The first is a 250,000 cubic metres muckshift forming part of the 246-hectare Aotea Block subdivision. It is of significant strategic importance to Porirua City because of its large size, and its location adjacent to the city centre, the motorway and the railway. It is the largest area for urban growth within the city’s boundaries. It is also very visible and, according to Porirua City Council, the type and quality of development on the Block will set the tone for the development of the city over the next 15 to 20 years. The second, at Churton Park, a fast-growing Wellington suburb, is set to grow from a current population of just over 6500 to be home to 12,000 residents in the next 20 years. Drapers’ current contract involves some 100,000 cubic metres muckshift.

Vic’s grandfather left Ireland at the age of 21, in 1920, seeking better opportunities in emerging Australasia, as many did after the Great War. “He spent some time in Australia,” says Vic. Initially with a farming background, Vic’s grandfather chose to settle in the Wairarapa region where, around 1930 he was to develop his business, VA Draper & Co, as a trucking and roading contractor, moving on to general earthmoving and housing subdivisions work.

This work continued in the late 1950s, when Vic’s father Tom took to the reins. “We were then doing a lot of roading work, and running scrapers even then, but smaller stuff, generally,” explains Vic. “We also had Blaw Knox pavers and a hot mix plant at the time. In the 1970s we bought some [Terex] TS14s and from that time moved on to generally bigger plant, including compactors and dozers. We were also into heavy haulage at that time, with a small fleet of artic’ trucks. We did a lot of work on land reclamation on the waterfront.

“The late 1970s saw a change of government and a change in the economy. There was a real downturn in the business,” says Vic. “The result was that the original family business was wound-up and closed down.” Undeterred by this hiatus, Vic bought back many of the machines and started again, from scratch.

Contracting is, he admits, in his blood. Grandfather Vic was a founding member of the NZ Contractors’ Federation and, holding the title for eight years, its second and longest serving president to this day. The position of president was later to be enjoyed by his father, Tom, and the family business was also to provide yet another president, Wally Pearce, in due course. Vic is a life member of the Wellington Wairarapa branch of Civil Contractors New Zealand.

All four of Vic’s sons have worked for the family business during the course of its recent development. Now Scott is assistant manager. Tom retired to pursue his passion for vine growing in Martinborough.

Able to undertake all manner of earthmoving and roading works, including such activities as roading work and overburden stripping for quarries, Drapers has found what Vic calls a “niche market” in subdivisional earthworks for housing developments, which is a buoyant sector, currently. His company generally bids for contracts in the $1-$5 million range.

Ever since leaving school and spending three years as a diesel mechanic for a Caterpillar dealer, Vic has retained his preference for Cat equipment. “[Caterpillar] have good back-up systems in place for the owner-operator,” he tells Contractor. “We did have some problems with the Terex scrapers,” but he is not specific on what they were.

Any doubt about Caterpillar loyalty is soon dismissed by a long plant inventory. On Vic’s current job at Aotea alone, there are two 637E Series II motor scrapers, a D8H and D7F, an 825B compactor, 320A and 320C excavators, a D25B articulated dump truck, and 950 loader. Scott’s site nearby boasts two 627A motor scrapers, D8R, D8N blades, 320D excavator, 814 compactor and two D350D ADTs. The company also has a 16H grader in the fleet.

The motor scrapers come into their own in their present environment, says Vic. And while for a time at least their popularity may have diminished as many contractors opted for a 360 excavator and dump truck combination for regular earthworks, he says there is no contest between the two.

“In terms of productivity, the scrapers will run rings around the dump trucks. We’ve had instances where it’s taken two days to excavate (and remove spoil) a hole using the 360 and dump trucks. Then it’s half a day to backfill using the scrapers.”

The only downside, says Vic, arises from finding good people to operate them. “Anyone can drive an ADT. But it takes real skill to drive a scraper, and good people are hard to find. It can take a couple of years to train up a good scraper driver to master it.

“In the end, it’s worth it. The benefits of using scrapers are generally understated. In Wellington, where sites can be very steep, they work well. New Zealand followed the British trend in the 1990s, and you saw fewer. People were using more ADTs and so the number of scrapers being built was in the decline.” Now, says Vic, the trend is in reverse.

Scott is not just a convert, but fervent advocate of scrapers. “I get to operate all the plant we have; the scrapers are ideal for the location.”

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