Diamond jubilee

It’s 75 years since Goughs acquired the New Zealand franchise for Caterpillar. HUGH DE LACY looks in on the celebrations.

Goughs_1.jpgHis critics called it an act of wanton destruction of government property, but Bob Semple deliberately driving a bulldozer over a wooden wheelbarrow in 1937 cemented the names Caterpillar and Gough Gough and Hamer into the New Zealand public consciousness.

Semple was Minister of Works in the first Labour Government, elected in 1935 just as the misery of the Great Depression was beginning to lift, and the wheelbarrow-crushing incident was a brilliantly successful political stunt that shored up his party’s waning support, allowing it to retain the Treasury benches in the election of that year with its fat 1935 majority trimmed by only two, to 26.

The stunt was a play on the continuing bitterness felt throughout the country over the make-work policies of the former Reform/United Coalition Government, which had seen thousands of nearly destitute workers sent away from home to isolated labour camps to do often meaningless work for the dole.

Swearing to “do away with the wheelbarrow”, Semple ushered in a new era of mechanisation of civil construction that made New Zealand the world’s biggest market outside the United States for Caterpillar products from 1937 to 1939, and made it synonymous with Goughs ever since.

Goughs_2.jpgMost of the crushed wheelbarrow probably ended up in the fire after that incident at Harewood Aerodrome – now Christchurch International Airport – though the handle is proudly on display in the Gough Group head office in Christchurch. The RD8 Caterpillar tractor Semple drove (serial number 1H1240) came to a stickier ending. During World War II it was sent to Singapore with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Aerodrome Construction Unit to build an airport to help keep the invading Japanese at bay, but was still aboard the ship when it was sunk by Japanese bombers in Singapore harbour.

The Caterpillar Tractor Company itself had its beginnings in East Peoria, Illinois, in 1925 with the merging of Benjamin Holt’s Holt Manufacturing Company and Daniel Best’s C.L. Best Tractor Company. By that stage Holt’s Caterpillar crawler traction system had already made a name for itself with the Allies in World War I, and under the new company was yoked to a highly efficient diesel engine that vaulted Caterpillar into the technological lead in the burgeoning global market.

At the time that the first Caterpillar diesel 60 tractor rolled off the Illinois assembly line in 1931, Edgar C. and Tracy T. Gough had been in partnership for two years with Harry H. Hamer in the electrical goods business in Christchurch under the Gough Gough and Hamer name.

Caterpillar already had a New Zealand franchisee, the stock and station firm A.S. Paterson Ltd, which also held the Big Tree (Shell) Motor Spirit franchise. A director at Patersons, C.T. Shirtcliffe,  had imported a Caterpillar crawler to work swampy areas of his farm after watching a demonstration in the United States in the early 1920s, and it was through this association that Patersons got the franchise.

Goughs_3.jpgPatersons continued to exercise it until 1932, selling Model 10s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 60s, and especially the little two-tonner that was enormously popular on the gumfields of Northland and in swampy and peaty areas like those between Palmerston North and Foxton.

The Depression caused Patersons to re-think the value of their Caterpillar franchise, even though the overwhelming majority of sales were into the agriculture and associated sectors in which it specialised. Word of the availability of the franchise got to Harry Hamer through a friend he played bridge with. He discussed it with Tracy Gough and they cabled Edgar Gough who, as luck would have it, was on his way by ship to the United States to look for more product lines for Goughs  to represent.

The result was the signing of a franchise agreement between Caterpillar and Goughs in August 1932 for a consideration of £3000. Goughs continued with its established electrical goods business while Tracy Gough began demonstrating Caterpillar products up and down the country. Politically astute, Tracy could see a role for Caterpillar in the Labour Government’s determination to “get the country moving again”, and he was a delighted spectator at Bob Semple’s piece of political theatre with the wheelbarrow at Harewood Aerodrome.

In that same year Harry Hamer had separated out the electrical goods franchises to form Hamer Electrical, which still exists, and two years later the Caterpillar franchise became the company’s core business when Edgar Gough separated out the electrical engineering business.

Goughs_5.jpgInevitably Goughs reached out overseas and among the first places it went was to Antarctica where in 1958 it began the on-site servicing of Caterpillar equipment for both the New Zealand and the US Antarctic programmes. The company then created a couple of Australasian firsts: in the 1960s it was a computerised nationwide parts distribution service, and in 1973 the scheduled oil sampling laboratory that identified abnormal mechanical wear from oil samples.

In 1986 it launched Monarc, a totally-integrated on-line real-time computer system developed in-house using the new LINC software, and continued with it for 12 years until it was replaced by Caterpillar’s all-encompassing dealer business system.

Since it acquired the Caterpillar franchise in the 1930s, Goughs has blossomed, with the dealership employing over 450 staff in 16 branches nationwide. Yet it has remained a family firm that this year restored direct family governance for the first time in 20 years with the appointment to the board of directors of Ben Gough and Alex McKinnon, respectively grand-son and great grand-son of company founder Tracy Gough.

Goughs is the largest subsidiary of The Gough Group which comprises three distinct divisions: the Equipment Group, the Transport Group, and Gough Finance and the Corporate Services Group. As the Caterpillar dealership, Goughs is part of the Equipment Group, along with Goughs Engineering and The Cat Rental Store.

Goughs_4.jpgEarlier this year the company celebrated the 75th anniversary of the acquisition of the Caterpillar franchise with a function for 350 staff and their partners, plus industry leaders and associates at Mona Vale on the banks of the Avon River, the site of the original Gough family home and now  a publicly owned jewel in Christchurch City’s crown.

Caterpillar vice-president Rod Beeler represented the American company, while Gough Group chairman Jim Sheed and Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker lauded the company’s contribution to Christchurch and the country.

Clearly the country has come a long way in 75 years: you’d have trouble finding a wooden wheelbarrow anywhere these days, but the Goughs and Caterpillar signage are part of the landscape.   

Contractor Vol.32  No.10  November 2008
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