A truly golden jubilee

A lustrous cluster of professional awards has given consultancy Tonkin & Taylor something exciting to celebrate in its 50th anniversary year. It’s a success that can be traced back to the ethics and drive of the company’s founders.   BY GAVIN RILEY

TT_1.jpgTT_2.jpgA company which began with the humble ambition of “putting bread on the table” and is now celebrating half-a-century of growth and success must have something special at the core of its culture.

Environmental and engineering consultancy Tonkin & Taylor has a 24-carat goal – to be the best to work for and the best to work with. The company says that what makes it different, and a foundation for its success, is its organisational culture and the talented people who are attracted by this ­– and who, in a few instances, have stayed for as long as 25 to 30 years.

The company’s stated aim and self-analysis are reflected in a high standard of achievement, culminating recently in five 2009 ACENZ Innovate awards.

Ralph Tonkin (above left) and Don Taylor (above right) could not have imagined such impressive 21st Century peer recognition when they met while working on the Auckland Harbour Bridge approaches in 1959.

TT_3.jpgTonkin had earlier agreed to a suggestion by Professor Peter Taylor of Auckland University that they set up a laboratory (Geotechnics), provided he could found a consulting practice alongside. A few months later Don Taylor joined the practice and Tonkin & Taylor was born.

It was a brave move in an era when civil and infrastructure engineering was dominated by the Ministry of Works. But Ralph Tonkin and Don Taylor combined entrepreneurial flair, talent and high ethical standards, and they set about building a legacy based on hard work, commitment, client care and technical expertise.

According to Professor Taylor, Tonkin could size up an engineering project in a flash and come up with a workable scheme. He could also “play golf with a prospective client and convince him of the soundness of the scheme and the expertise of the firm – truly a man to be remembered”.

TT_4.jpgTonkin, who died in 1985 from Alzheimer’s disease when only in his 50s, is remembered at his peak as very much a pioneer who was driven by opportunities to pursue and conquer.

Don Taylor, who retired as managing director in the 1980s, was the perfect match for his colleague. As well as having a specialist qualification in soil mechanics and a genuine feel for it, he was a geologist. But more importantly, he was the consummate professional consultant who role-modelled the ethic of high standards and accuracy and insisted on working from the “big picture geological context” before planning and carrying out more detailed investigations.

A leading figure in both the geotechnical and consulting and engineering communities in New Zealand and beyond, he had a sharp intellect and wit which he brought to bear on the professional organisation of which he was president.

“An ACENZ conference,” he once said, “is a gathering of sharks which have agreed not to bite for a few days.”

TT_4.jpgRalph Tonkin’s and Don Taylor’s core operating principles remain at the heart of the company and have helped drive it forward. From a small engineering practice Tonkin & Taylor has developed into a specialist environmental and engineering consultancy group with a current staff of more than 600. It has offices throughout New Zealand as well as in Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and operates extensively in Asia, India and the Pacific.

And it is still, proudly and surprisingly, a New Zealand, employee-owned business. Its widely distributed employee ownership, combined with a clear sense of identity and focus on specialist skills, contribute to its considerable and consistent success. 

Tonkin & Taylor’s milestone projects include the Whau Valley Dam, the Lower Waikato River control scheme, New Zealand Steel, the Aniwhenua hydro project in the Bay of Plenty, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, Redvale landfill, Vector tunnel (Penrose to central Auckland), and the Northern Gateway toll road (Orewa to Puhoi). Last year its Bukit Tagar landfill project in Malaysia received the supreme award for consulting engineering in Southeast Asia.

The areas of Tonkin & Taylor’s practice have expanded over 50 years to encompass dam, solid waste, coastal engineering, and environmental engineering and science. However, the group has retained a core expertise in geotechnical and today has one of the largest geotechnical consultancies in New Zealand. Its managing director since 2005, Peter Millar, was previously geotechnical group manager.

TT_6.jpgSeveral events have been or are being held to mark Tonkin & Taylor’s 50th birthday – sponsoring of community organisations (such as Oxfam New Zealand), a nationwide morning tea at all the New Zealand offices in late June (attended in Auckland by Don Taylor), and a ball at Auckland Town Hall in December.

But the event that has given the company a real professional buzz was receiving those five awards at the ACENZ Innovate ceremony in Queenstown in late July. They included a gold award as a member of the team responsible for the Northern Gateway toll road; a silver award for the company’s work with Environmental Choice New Zealand, the Government’s environmental labelling programme; and merit awards for the consultancy’s involvement in the material recovery facility in Onehunga, the Ohope escarpment drainage project in Whakatane, and Pitcairn Island’s jetty, slipway and Hill of Difficulty access road.

The Ecolabelling Trust’s Robin Taylor described Tonkin & Taylor’s involvement with Environmental Choice New Zealand as having been “consistently of the highest quality” during the trust’s tenure as operator of the programme.

Michael Franks, general manager of Visy Recycling, said Tonkin & Taylor’s work on the material recovery facility in Onehunga was “refreshingly pragmatic and outcome-focused. Their problem-solving approach would be more likely to be found in an alliance than a fee-for-service arrangement – but it was a key factor in the project being delivered, let alone delivered on time”.

TT_7.jpgMayor of Whakatane Colin Holmes said the technically challenging Ohope escarpment drainage project, designed and constructed within a very tight time-frame and within budget, “represents an excellent example of council, consultant (Tonkin & Taylor), contractor and community working together to achieve an outcome that will serve the community well into the future”.

Noting that all the award projects were “top of the line” in New Zealand, Tonkin & Taylor’s Peter Millar said: “We’re thrilled to win these prestigious awards, especially in our 50th year. The awards also highlight how passionate and innovative our employees are about the work they get involved in.”  


Contractor Vol.33  No.11  December 2009 - January 2010
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