Frances Boyce, an owner of one of the largest civil contracting businesses in Taranaki, talks to ALAN TITCHALL about taking over the company from her father.
JUST BECAUSE YOU are the boss’ daughter doesn’t mean you get favours. Anyway, the young Frances Boyce (nee Whitaker) had no intention of working for her father, Chris Whitaker, who set Whitaker Civil Engineering in New Plymouth in 1980.
In fact, on leaving school Frances had no idea of what she was doing or where she was going.
“I started doing an economics degree at Victoria University then realised that was not me – so I changed to architecture.”
Yet it wasn’t ‘grand designs’ that Frances was lured into, but the specialist area of industry health and safety, a subject that she is still passionate about.
“In my last year at uni I worked full time for the Accident Compensation Corporation as a customer service representative. The money I was being paid far exceeded anything I would get in architecture as a graduate.”
That short stint of just over a year, providing information on ACC products, services, policies, legislation and tax information and processing, has been the backbone of a career that drifted into civil construction.
In March 2001, after returning home to New Plymouth, Frances got a job with local engineering company Transfield Worley (now WorleyParsons) as a contract administrator with a specific contract at Refining NZ.
“The job was certainly varied,” she stresses. “Financial cost reporting, implementing KPI presentations; developing databases; problem solving; simplifying reporting structures; and HSE and quality management support.”
As young people do, Frances got itchy feet and decided to see if the grass was greener on the other side of the Tasman and, in 2002, packed her bags and landed in Queensland where she worked as a quality administrator on a pipeline project.
“It didn’t work out, so I gave up and came home broke in January 2003 and said to Dad, ‘I need a job’, on the condition I would only work for him for three months.”
Careers don’t always end up where you expect them to go and that short stint with Dad’s company lasted eight years.
This time included two years back at the Whangarei refinery while Whitaker carried out $13.5 million worth of civil scope works, which finished mid 2005. Frances was the quality H&S manager on this project and it was where she met her future husband, Peter Boyce.
The itchy feet returned and, in June 2011, Frances and Peter joined the Dialog Group (another petrochemical specialist and related to Fitzroy Engineering) to work on a large tank terminal project in southern Malaysia. Frances was a quality advisor, developing and implementing the project documentation requirements to ISO9001: 2008 standard.
They returned just over a year and half later and started back at Whitaker Civil where Frances was seconded into client Worley Parsons as support services manager and H&S adviser.
The buy in
Chris Whitaker, an engineer, started his company 35 years ago with the contract for supplying rocks to hold down the undersea pipe between the offshore Maui operation and onshore processing plant. It was a huge feat at the time and each rock had to be quarried and carefully measured so it fell through a chute into the sea without jamming. The rock came from Wiremu Quarry and Saunders Quarry and was loaded at Port Taranaki, so the logistics were huge.
Over the past three decades, Whitaker Civil has made a major contribution to the petrochemical industry, Taranaki Regional Council works, and government capital works infrastructure development. The company has provided work for Shell Todd Oil Services (STOS) since 1981 and, of course, enjoys a long-term contract with WorleyParsons.
Graeme Dravitzki joined the company in 2002 and later became a director.
Frances and Peter Boyce had talked about buying into the company while working in Malaysia and, on returning home, raised the subject with Chris Whitaker and Graeme Dravitzki only to learn that another interested part was close to signing a sale deal.
“We accepted that as a lost opportunity,” Frances recalls.
Continuing the same serendipitous way her career had tracked so far, that deal fell through and in November last year Frances and Graeme were directors of a company that employs some 120 staff, a level that it has sustained over the past five years. Not a bad achievement these days when Taranaki engineering is in a slump as petrochemical work has eased off.
Whitaker owns and operates $9 million of plant and equipment, operates its own workshop facility, and owns and operates a quarry at the end of Waiwhakaiho Road, in Bell Block. Work is mostly divided between the petrochemical industry, local authority, and private clients, but with a lot of stuff in between. This has included building the Bell Block Bypass; and the recent upgrading of the Waitara River flood banks – completed in time to hold back the June floods in the region. Even small projects have earned accolades, such as the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge. This was a design and build competition by the New Plymouth District Council, which Whitakers won. The 68.8 metre pedestrian and cycle-way bridge (it can also handle an emergency vehicle) across the Waiwhakaiho River at New Plymouth opened in 2010.
Frances says future work streams look good, with a preferred contract agreement with Port Taranaki and storm and flood damage maintenance contracts through Downers, under the local NOC agreement.
Big projects coming up for possible tendering include the New Plymouth Airport upgrade and continued makeover of the 360 hectare Pukeiti Gardens.
Health and safety focus
Moving up into one of the big seats in the company and a new role as general manager, overseeing the company’s management systems and practices, hasn’t distracted Frances from here passion with health and safety. She remains very active in various local and national safety agencies in Taranaki.
“I consciously want to be part of the local industry in this respect and I am a member of NZ Institute of Safety Management. This association is very strong in this region, plus I am involved in the Be Safe strategy group.”
Be Safe Taranaki was formed in the late 1990s by a few managers in the oil and gas sector who also set up a local centre of excellence for health and safety that has been based at Bell Block.
“It’s about getting everyone to read off the same page in a health and safety sense and, after 15 years, we have a strong network promoting safety performance, which is reflected in the statistics for this region.” In her own backyard, Whitaker has signed the national Zero Harm pledge.
Wear the hat that fits
A notable feature of Whitaker Civil Engineering is the loyalty of its staff and a small staff turnover. Construction manager, Kevin Broadmore, for instance, has been there since 1984.
“When Graeme and I bought the company we knew we had good staff to rely on, and with a strong sense of loyalty. We have very skilled and experienced people and that is reflected in the contracts we have secured.”
Responsibility does not stop at your job title, she adds.
“We are all responsible for making or breaking the company and no one here is title bound. You wear whatever hat fits on the occasion.”