Graeme Blackley: The retiring president

After nearly half a century in contracting, former Contractors’ Federation leader Graeme Blackley sees the exit sign up ahead.   BY GAVIN RILEY

BlackleyGraeme.jpgWhen you’ve devoted a working lifetime to something you love doing and are good at, it can be hard to know when to let go.

Graeme Blackley believes he has it under control, even though at nearly 70 he is still doing the job he has done for decades – managing director of Blackley Construction in Palmerston North (with special responsibility these days for rural operations and plant and equipment).

Blackley says he plans to call it a day and concentrate on his 58ha sheep and beef farm in 2010 when he completes 50 years as a contractor. 

And what a half-century it will have been.

Blackley has not only made a success of his own life from a modest beginning but has toiled unceasingly for many years on behalf of his fellow contractors … successively as Manawatu branch chairman of the Contractors’ Federation, chairman of the federation’s former rural section, president of the federation, the inspiration behind the national excavator operator championship, a director of Contrafed Publishing Co (for six years), and a judge of the federation’s construction awards (for the past two years).

By being unfailingly friendly, cheerful, genuine and helpful, Blackley has displayed a remarkable capacity to constantly engender goodwill and loyalty in those around him.

When he completed his federation presidency at the New Plymouth annual conference in 1998, he received a standing ovation. “The epitome of the people’s president,” wrote Contractor magazine. Council member Steve Scott said he had made a first-class job of taking the federation back to the branches, and added: “He brought a very human face to the federation.” 

Two years later, when Blackley was made a federation life member, his successor as president, Trevor Tattersfield, described him as a lifelong workaholic. And councillor Mike Edridge, himself a much respected contractor, said of Blackley’s time at the helm: “He did nothing else for two years. He was ringing us every five minutes and worked hard for us guys – and still does.”

Blackley modestly attributes much of his presidential success, and his ability to grow in the job, to then chief executive Pieter Burghout. 

“Pieter said, ‘This is your job, off you go’. We went to many, many meetings and he made me do the talking. While I was a bit tongue-tied at the first one or two, I soon got the message.

“I remember Pieter and I went to a meeting where there was a whole lot of politicians and he said, ‘When we go through the door, I’m going to go right and you’re going to go left’.

“As president, you don’t have to stand above everybody and you don’t have to stand behind them. You should stand with them.”

Ironically, in view of how well he did the job, Blackley had an astonishingly arduous climb to the top. Backed by the votes of the rural section, he defeated John “Digger” Miles for the vice-presidency in 1992, lost the job in 1993 when challenged by Jim Juno, lost again in 1994 in a battle with David Booth, then beat Booth in 1995 before finally being elected president the following year.

A similar propensity to overcome difficulties marked the early years of Blackley’s working life.

Born and raised in the Hutt Valley, he served a motor-mechanic apprenticeship there, married and went farming (unsuccessfully) in Taranaki for almost a season, then moved to the Wairarapa where he reverted to working as a mechanic.

His ambition was to buy a farm and in 1960 he decided he could achieve this in about four years by hiring himself out as a drainage contractor with a tractor and digger at 35 shillings an hour. But he knew nothing about contracting, made a lot of mistakes and little money, and had to do other jobs – mechanic, plumber, farm hand – to help pay for his machinery. 

A friend in the Department of Agriculture, Kerry Mayo, got him some land-drainage work, taught him what he needed to know, and in 1965 advised him to move to the Manawatu where there was plenty of work.

From his new home, and using a digger on the back of a bulldozer, Blackley did land drainage for farmers over a wide area – Taihape, Dannevirke, Wanganui, Eketahuna, Pahiatua and Wellington. He formed a partnership with a Robin Lamb and eventually Lamb took over the Taihape area while Blackley concentrated on the Manawatu.

Driven by New Zealand’s need for farm development, Blackley’s workload increased. He bought out a contractor who had a drainage machine that would dig and lay tiles, then borrowed money from the recently formed Rural Bank to buy the first laster-controlled drainage machine in the country.

“The Rural Bank was driving round farms and almost tipping money out of wheelbarrows into letterboxes for farm development and drainage,” Blackley recalls.

“I don’t think we ever paid them back. It was an articulated machine and my brother and I mounted it in our workshop on the back of an HD5.”

Despite his progress, which was fuelled by a combination of hard work and government largesse, Blackley says he could see no further than the next job and had no idea his fledgling company would grow into the 45-employee business it is today.

“It was just something that grew and grew. The laser removed one person from the job but it took a lot of time getting it right because nobody knew anything about it.

“We were at the forefront with laser drainage. Then the plastic drainage pipe came along and that saved us another man. A lot of people came to see what we were doing in the way of lasers and laying plastic pipe. We did everything that needed to be done with drainage from start to finish and were invited to speak at drainage seminars at Massey University.”

Blackley Contractors moved to its present premises in Stoney Creek Road in 1969 and extended its expertise to encompass water supply and civil construction projects.

Today the Blackley group consist of four companies – Blackley Construction, the operational arm (the name was changed from “Contractors” in 2000); Blackley Equipment, which owns, maintains and hires plant; KMS Holdings, which provides management and secretarial services to the other two companies; and Pathfinder Services, which carries out route investigation and design.

Blackley Construction has had stable leadership over the years and a strong family dynamic. Former industry trainer and Contractors’ Federation executive officer Grant Binns was appointed general manager in 1990, the year Blackley became ultra-busy as chairman of the federation’s rural section. Three of Blackley’s sons hold managerial positions – Kevin (special projects), Steven (civil operations) and Murray (trenchless-utility operations and aggregates production). A fourth son, Alan, works in the office.

This team has been responsible for some impressive projects – the turf development and drainage at Wellington’s much-lauded Westpac Stadium; gas lines for Fletcher Construction; a 4.5km-long, 600mm water main for Palmerston North City Council, using newly developed Rhino pipe from Iplex; a water-treatment plant for Manawatu District Council; and irrigation works for the disposal of Tui Milk Products’ wastewater at Longburn and Pahiatua, the latter winning a highly-commended citation in the Contractors’ Federation annual construction awards.   

Using an Interdrain 2028 HRT trencher, Blackley Construction has carried out the underground cabling at three wind farms in the Manawatu area, is currently doing similar work at Meridian Energy’s White Hills wind-farm project at Mossburn in Southland, and expects to be involved in the forthcoming Westwind development in Wellington.

The company works hard to maintain its position as a leader in trenchless technology. It runs seminars on the subject for consultants and councils, visits local authorities to discuss overseas trends and new technologies, and wherever possible suggests better alternatives when making tender bids.

Binns, the New Zealand Council representative on the Australasian Society for Trenchless Technology, has delivered papers at ASTT conferences in Australia, at the lines-and-cable conference in the UK, and at water and waste and sports turf conventions, and the Institute of Highway Technology-Transit symposium in New Zealand.

Assessing his company’s future, Graeme Blackley says: “We’ve got some really good strengths, some really good people. We’ve got the ability, the thinking and we keep up with the times.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity to stay in the marketplace where we’ve been and hopefully expand a bit.”

He is also optimistic about the industry he has served so long and so well – but he warns that to keep overseas companies out of New Zealand, contractors must be vigilant, hone their skills, employ good staff at all levels, satisfy the client, use the best equipment and technology, and be innovative.

Blackley will do what he can to encourage this if he’s asked to be a construction-award judge again this year. Though the task is taxing (round the country inside a week) he says it’s one he has really enjoyed.

Not only has it involved meeting highly talented contractors and seeing skilfully executed projects, but “there’s barely a place I can go, from North Cape to the Bluff, where I can’t ring someone and say gidday”.

That’s his reward, small but priceless, for having been the people’s president.

Contractor Vol.31 No.2 March 2007