Green's green grass of home
Former contractor Hugh Green has made a huge success of his life in New Zealand, a country he loves. But that’s not enough to stop him being homesick for his native Ireland. BY GAVIN RILEY
Examples abound in 20th Century social history of poor people who migrated to the United States and made a fortune, enriching their adoptive land in the process. New Zealand has stories like that, and one is Hugh Green’s.
Born in Donegal in northwest Ireland, Green arrived in New Zealand as a 20-year-old in 1952 with modest savings earned through sweated labour in Britain and Australia.
He also brought with him a ferocious work ethic, an industrious pair of hands, and an innate business sense.
Now 76 and still working, he can look back on a rags-to-riches immigrant life that has embraced contracting, land and property development, farming and trading in livestock, shrewd investment in the stockmarket, winning oil and gas exploration licences, and wide-ranging but largely unpublicised philanthropy involving millions of dollars.
This last activity, doing good by stealth, is Green’s way of expressing his gratitude for the opportunities New Zealand has given him.
Asked if he is contented with the course of his life, he replies in his Irish brogue: “Aye, very contented. I’m very happy here. I’m very passionate about New Zealand. I think it’s a great country.”
Then comes the bombshell: “The only thing is, looking back, I would like to have stayed in Ireland.”
Homesickness, it transpires, has been a regular companion through the years. Green left Ireland as a teenager only because there were few work opportuntities. He had two brothers and a sister join his contracting company in New Zealand and has always stayed close to fellow Irish migrants. He estimates that today 60 percent of his social contacts are with Irish Kiwis.
In 1961 he began making pilgrimages to his homeland every two years, and in the 1970s it became an annual journey. He stays with an old friend and they go to the Galway races, even though Green has no interest in horseracing.
It’s hard to explain, this lure of the land of one’s birth. Green admits if he’d remained in Ireland he would probably not have been as successful as he has been here. “Away from home you have to have a go at it.”
He didn’t have much chance to have a go at school. He left at 12 after missing 150 out of 250 schooldays the previous year and without ever having sat an exam. He was good at arithmetic but not so good at reading and writing, though he’s done a lot of reading since.
His father was a publican who became the establishment’s best customer before giving up drinking. His father also wasn’t good at handling money in his other job of cattle-dealer. So young Hugh, one of a family of eight, took over the role of drover.
“I would like to have had more education, but if I’d been at school longer I wouldn’t have had so much education in life, and that has been most beneficial to me,” he says.
“If I was determined to do something, I put a lot into it. And going to the fairs in Ireland at a young age, you had to be pretty keen to survive. Very early in life you got to be a judge of people, and that was very important. If you were selling a few cattle, you had to pick your man, see if you could pick a customer. That was essential.”
The post-war advent of trucks put paid to walking cattle to and from fairs and charging so much a head. Faced with working for farmers for only three shillings a day, 17-year-old Green sailed on a cattle boat to Scotland where he got a job as a labourer on airport construction, then hydro schemes. When he’d saved £75 he went home for a month because he was homesick.
The following year he helped lay 35 acres of concrete floor at an extension of the Vauxhall car factory in Luton, England. But he had become unhappy with the treatment of Irish workers in Britain: “I always felt I was an alien”.
A cousin who was a monseigneur in the Catholic church in America offered to pay for him to go California (the mind boggles at the possibility of Hugh Green, Hollywood movie mogul). However, wanting to make his own way in life, he sailed on a £10 assisted passage to Australia, driven by the desire to make some money.
In the company of fellow Irishmen he met on the boat, he worked for poor wages on hydro schemes in Tasmania and Victoria and cut sugar cane in Queensland before making an important move to Melbourne.
“We fell in with some Irish fellows who were digging trenches at 1s 6d a foot,” Green recalls.
“We decided that was pretty good. You could make £50 to £60 a week when wages were usually only £7.
“Then we priced a job and we got it. We employed two or three other Irish fellows. Things went well. We were making up to £100 a week, maybe £70 or £80 normally, digging trenches and laying water mains.”
But in 1952 there was an economic slump in Australia and the work dried up. With £1200 saved, and in the company of fellow worker Barney McCahill, who also hailed from Donegal, Green decided to head home via New Zealand and Canada, intending to return to the cattle-dealing business.
“But,” he says, “we never got past New Zealand. We arrived in Wellington and put in a tender for £2700 to lay cables for the Post and Telegraph Department. We were given three months to do the job and we did it in a month.
“We employed five other Irishmen and paid them £27 a week in wages. When we finished the job we had £2100 in the bank.”
During his three months in Wellington, Green would go into the library and look up advertisements for tendered work in Auckland.
“So we went up to Auckland and put in a tender for 21 miles of cable round the city. That was 1953 and we officially formed Green & McCahill. We did that job in 11 months and we had £13,000 in the bank when we finished.”
The fledgling Green & McCahill (Contractors) Ltd acquired a digger for that project and expanded steadily through a succession of tunnelling, sewerage and stormwater-pipe contracts for Auckland City Council and the recently formed Auckland and North Shore drainage boards.
“We employed a lot of Irish because in those days the Irish were more close-knit than they are now as they were all into pick and shovel and into building,” Green says.
“We didn’t have many private clients because there was always the danger you wouldn’t get paid. I did four small jobs for one fellow and didn’t get a razoo. It was seven or eight thousand quid, and that was a lot of money.”
Any lingering thoughts Green might have had of returning to Donegal evaporated when he met Moira, whose mother was Irish and whom he married in 1955. “We let her into the team,” he jokes. The couple have five children – John, Maryanne, Frances, Gerard, Eamonn – and 11 grandchildren.
Towards the end of the 1950s Green & McCahill acquired earthmoving equipment and began constructing subdivisions, both on a contract basis and on its own land.
In 1960-61 the company tackled its first roading job, the Hamilton arterial route, for the Ministry of Works. The next 20 years saw the heyday of earthmoving in New Zealand and Green & McCahill made a name for itself all over the country, as well as carrying out extensive development of its own properties and opening a branch in Australia.
In the Think Big era of the 1980s the company participated in such major projects as the expansions of the Marsden Point oil refinery and New Zealand Steel’s Glenbrook mill, restoration of the collapsed Ruahihi hydro dam, and construction of the Te Marua twin lakes water-storage facility in Upper Hutt.
Hugh Green ranks the Te Marua project among Green & McCahill’s finest accomplishments, along with three dam projects – Lower Huia in the Waitakere Ranges, Mangatangi in the Hunua Ranges, and Whau Valley near Whangarei.
But Te Marua came at a cost. “It nearly broke us. We were down $5 million at one time. But we were very lucky. We got the contract for the foundations at the Marsden Point oil refinery and we made $5 million there.
“We had three arbitrations on the Te Marua job and we won all three. If we hadn’t been able to hold on we would have gone broke.”
Green & McCahill was a courageous company. “Some of the jobs we tackled were way out of our league, but we got them done.”
It was also self-reliant. “We were never great people to borrow money. We borrowed very little. That’s what took us through.”
And it was a generous if demanding employer. “We always paid above the award wage. When the wages were about a tenner a week we were paying £27. We made sure we got the work out of them – but nobody had any objection to that.”
After the 1980s Green & McCahill altered its focus to become more investment-based, though it maintained an interest in construction through the development of some of its existing landholdings.
The founding partners eventually went their separate ways. Today Hugh Green is chairman and director of the Hugh Green Group, and daughter Maryanne is chief executive and director.
He is modest about the stunning skills he has displayed in business for someone with so little formal education. “It’s all about judgment. I was always a sort of a wheeler-dealer. It was like getting back into the cattle business.”
Retirement is not in his plans – “I’ll retire when I find something I can enjoy as much as what I’m doing”. His only interest outside work is his farm just south of Auckland.
In 2006 something rather wonderful happened to Hugh Green. Accompanied by members of his family he travelled to Galway to receive an honorary doctorate of laws from the National University of Ireland.
He describes how he reacted to the award: “It was hard for me to grab it at the start – I didn’t know how I felt about it. Then when I went over there and we got into the swing of it, I was delighted with it. And I met some great people.”
Does he realise that if he’d stayed in Ireland, never emigrated, it’s an honour that might well have eluded him?
Green appreciates the irony. “You’re right,” he cries, laughing heartily.
Contractor Vol.32 No.1 February 2008