Going Underground

Graeme Harker had been working for Green and McCahill for 23 years when he thought it was time to do something for himself.   BY ROB CRABTREE

Harker_Big.jpgIt was 1980 when Graeme Harker decided to go it alone. At the time he was working for Green and McCahill on contracts in the South Island. He handed in his notice, borrowed $65,000 and bought a Euclid motorscraper. He put the machine on a 12-month contract with the Ministry of Works and ended up staying for four years, “and that was the start of my contracting”, he says.

Having acquired the taste for the business he then bought a couple of old International diggers and went drainlaying in Auckland.

“Bloody old things they were, useless really, but they were cheap! So I started tendering jobs – my two sons, Phillip and Michael, and a couple Dalmation stone masons working with me. We went putting up block walls over the North Shore – anything that was going. It was very easy to tender and win jobs at that time – not like it is today.”

He put a tender in for his first big contracting job in the Wairau Valley. His price: $100,000, the next lowest tender was $150,000. He agonised over his price – reworked it overnight thinking he’d got it wrong, but finally decided it was fine. He did the job with a couple of trucks and diggers, and came out with about $50,000 profit. Harker couldn’t really believe it, but he’d been on the digger himself, keeping an eye on things – a lesson in itself.

In 1987, the fledging contracting business got caught like so many others, with a firm going under owing them nearly six figures.

“I got into a situation where I owed creditors about $250,000. But I went round to all of them and said, ‘this is what has happened, I’ll pay you out, just give me time’. I went and saw them every month to let them know I was still there.”

He earned himself a reputation along the way as someone that could be trusted. It took him a couple of years to pay off the debts. During this time he met accountant Rod Cooke and asked him to sort out the operation’s finances. Twenty years on Cooke is still the company’s financial adviser.

Harker Earthmoving, as it was called then, was mainly working on open trench drainage jobs.

“The late Micky O’Hern was doing all the jacking at that time and did a job for us in Mt Albert – he supplied the gear and the know-how and we supplied the manpower. Then another pipejacking job came up for tender and I said to my son Michael, let’s price this ourselves. It was for 150 metres of 1050 pipe – very small pipe!”

When they looked at the pricing of sub-contractors and what the risk factor would be in money terms, the two decided they would build their own rig to do the job. They bought some hydraulic rams from Hugh Green, which they are still using, and Belchers Engineering in Pukekohe built the rig. They also bought some other secondhand gear such as compressors.

“We worked 24 hours a day in two shifts to keep the pipe moving, because we didn’t really know what we were doing. But we gave it a go and it worked! It was our first project and the MOW were surveying it. We had to get it right because there was a pipe already laid. It was through 95 metres of bloody hard Waitemata sandstone.

“The surveyor came and measured it, and said ‘you’re out’. Well that sent a cold shiver down my back. ‘How far?’ I asked. And he said, ‘you’re out by a millimetre, so I think we’ll leave it there’.”

Harker says no one really knew about pipe-jacking then, but he had always adopted a ‘can-do’ attitude. So he decided to look around the world and see what more they could learn, because it was obviously a direction the market was heading. Michael Harker travelled overseas to conferences and looked at jobs to see what different machines could do.

“We were promoting pipe jacking to the consultants, suggesting they should go under roads rather than through. A few years on, Transit said no more digging up motorways and roads. We were away.”

The name of the company was changed to Harker Underground Construction when the main thrust of the business moved underground. It now trains its own staff as well as picking up qualified people from overseas.

“People are important,” says Harker. “We have some really good people – a mix of Kiwis, Tongans, Rumanians, Brits and various others. We were lucky when the Manapouri job finished – there were some good staff there who wanted to stay in tunnelling, so we employed them.

“The skill of a really good tunnel driver is to have the feel of the machine. Not to see anything, because if it’s closed up front you can’t, but to feel it. To lift it up or down 10 minutes before it’s required – just a millimetre or so – Phillip Harker and Leigh Bishop have that feel – it’s a great skill.”

Harker is unashamedly old school when it comes to values, hard work, trust, quality all the way.

“When we were open cutting, I was always pretty fussy on putting the right material in and doing the right job. It’s the only way you could continue to get work. We’ve had our muck-ups, but we learned from them. Now we’re working to small tolerances – five to 10 mills is all.”

He’s blunt when to comes to the question of why Harker Underground Construction has grown into the successful operation it is today.

“Quite frankly we’ve had the balls to take the risks and get the job done. I believe we’ve earned our reputation. Anyone could go out and buy a digger and a truck when it was open cut.  But not now. It’s a niche market and we’ve stuck with it.

The company employs about 40 staff, operating from its yard in Papakura and has plant and equipment valued in the millions of dollars.

Now 68, Graeme Harker is quick to acknowledge that his wife Janice has also been a critical part of the support team that has made the company what it is today.

“She’s supported me and trusted me through the good and bad times. We still take risks, but it’s a young people’s game now.

“I’ve probably been successful because I am a risk taker. I put everything on the line and I think that’s the success.  If you’re not game to have a go, step past your failures and keep going, then you won’t make it.”

The company is still growing and Harker says there is plenty of work available.

“The infrastructure of some of our councils has fallen 20 years behind. You can grow to the limit here, I know. It’s a high-risk game – but if you do a good job properly, get the trust of the councils you’re going to survive.”

Contractor Vol.31 No.7 August 2007