When Elijah stepped up

Jane Warwick talks with young Waikato contractor Elijah Graham about his sudden take-over of his father’s business at the age of 19, home, family and work.

Halfway through Elijah Graham’s Civil Engineering diploma his father Peter passed away. Elijah was just 19 years old and the event changed his life in the worst possible way. Or did it?

That gut-wrenching loss of his father has fast-tracked his career and four years later he has taken Graham Contractors to a solid and successful small business that Peter Graham would be hugely proud of.

Only those who have been there can comprehend what it is like to lose your father so young, but Elijah Graham’s draw in that hopelessly stacked and sometimes cruel lottery set him on a faith-based path (both spiritual and self-aware) that now supports his mother and his siblings and nine staff.

It is a comfortable size and manageable within what Elijah perceives as his capability but it would probably be safe to say he underestimates himself.

In those first shell-shocked days he had no choice – Peter had been halfway through the construction of a 14-lot rural residential subdivision. There was no question in Elijah’s mind that it wouldn’t be finished, even if it would prove to be a swan song. It was hard to turn up on his father’s job without Peter there himself admonishing him to not… “scratch my counterweight; and watch out for the boom around the branches on the trees; you scratch this digger, you’re gonna get it!” There was no excuse, his father maintained, for scratching a digger.

The only parts that should be touching dirt were the tracks and the bucket. Peter was, says Elijah, like a broken record, but it installed good work principles in his son. It was a miserable time, but there was no question that Elijah wouldn’t finish the job his father had started.

“The subdivision needed to be completed, in a timely manner, irrelevant of the circumstances. Graham Contractors had undertaken a contract and had to deliver, period!”

It took him three months to complete that job and there were days when sadness overwhelmed him, when he would be trying to dry his eyes as well as keep two hands on the joysticks, but with help from his maternal grandfather who assisted by driving a roller or truck and raked, or whatever else was required, and picnic lunches from his mother, Nicola, who would sit and eat with him and be a willing ear and constant support, he got through.

Once that obligation was fulfilled Elijah had time to think about the future and it looked, by then, as if it lay with the business his father had founded. There was his mother, older sister Fiona (now 26), and brothers Mason, Luke and Jacob (now 22, 12 and 11) to support and although the business under Peter was small – more a private contractor working for people he knew – Elijah could see he had laid a good foundation.

Paperwork hadn’t been Peter’s forte and his people skills around his employees not so good – in fact he was so pedantic about his machines and how they were to be operated, that Elijah believes it was only being his son that saved him from being shown the door sometimes. However, Peter certainly knew one end of a digger from another and the lay of the land he could read like a book. He worked hard and was a good operator so there was potential in modest Graham Contractors and definitely something to build on.

In the end it wasn’t a tough decision. Elijah knew he could pick up his studies again later (he is now studying with NZHIT) and he had a better grounding than most when it came to understanding what being a civil engineer meant. From as young as 10, in school holidays or weekends, Peter would wake Elijah early and take him off to work. He would explain the job to him, throw him up in the digger, give him that earful about not scratching the machine and set him to it. So the physical side of stepping into his father’s large and sometimes formidable boots was relatively easy, it was the paperwork that was the real struggle, which gave him new understanding into his father’s reluctant skirmishes with his pen.

There were times when it all seemed too much. For the completion of the subdivision he had to produce a monthly progress claim, whatever that was. He needed to raise invoices, manage contracts, liaise with clients, tender for jobs, form attributes – he longed to slam the office door on the lot of it and climb back onto his safe and undemanding digger. But his father’s aversion to paperwork meant his mother had to be a good administrator and this was another significant part of Elijah’s success in taking the business forward.

Nicola did his books for him and introduced him to his desk and now, four years on, he can price jobs competitively, produce non-priced attributes particularly for council work, produce works programmes, manage projects, calculate payment claims and cultivate a practical health and safety culture amongst other administrative tasks. In short, he says wryly, I’m now a pen pusher.

This change of seats hasn’t impacted him too badly. At this year’s National Excavator Operator Competition in Fielding he gave a respectable performance despite having spent very little time on a digger in the preceding months. He also won the Good Bastard (Humes Pipelines) Award.

Graham Contractors’ most important contracts won to date are the bridge maintenance contract for the Waikato District Council, which it has won for the past four years and a 60-lot subdivision, which is still going.

The bridge maintenance contract is something Elijah really enjoys managing as, he says, it’s not your typical type of civil work.

“It’s a good change from diggers and dozers not just for me but also for the guys. The subdivision work is great also. It’s been a steady flow of work for the past 16 months.

I have a really good relationship with the client, both professional and faith-based, which is a bonus because my faith is very important to me.”

And then there are his staff.

“One of the things I enjoy and find gratifying about having my own business is teaching people to operate gear and see them do well at it.

“For example, I have a young guy who works with me who was very shy and couldn’t even hold a shovel or rake properly when he started.

“But after two years, he’s now a competent operator and, because we are a small company, a very important part of the team. I have a few guys with a similar story. Everyone is different, but for me, teaching someone to operate, and seeing them do well is where I find my reward.”

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