Last of a dynasty

For more than half a century from after the First World War the Grinters were a prominent family in construction then road sealing in the upper North Island. Des Grinter tells his story.   BY GAVIN RILEY.

Grinter_1.jpgFew families in the history of construction in New Zealand can claim to have had a more lasting presence in the industry than the Grinters.

For well over half a century, up to the mid-1970s, members of this family were engaged in proprietorial roles either in construction in the Auckland region or road sealing in the Waikato and well beyond.

Older or retired contractors will remember the last of the dynasty – Des Grinter, managing director of Waikato Bitumen in its final eight years, then a much respected convenor of judges for the Contractors’ Federation construction awards in its first 15 years until the early 1990s.

Grinter, 84, has lived with his wife Jean for 40 years in the same house, bordering on Lake Rotoroa in Hamilton. The couple are due to celebrate their diamond wedding next year.

Given Grinter’s family history, he was always a likely candidate for a career in some area of the construction industry.

His grandfather, A A Grinter, a stonemason and bricklayer, arrived in Auckland with his wife and son from Somerset in 1884 and worked on the final years of the main trunk railway, completed in 1908.

A A Grinter’s eldest son was head of A G Grinter & Co Ltd, a successful large builder in Auckland in the period after the First World War.  Three other sons, including Des’s father Frank, formed Grinter Bros Co Ltd in Hamilton in 1925 and relocated to Auckland where their contracts included driving large stormwater tunnels in Mt Roskill and Balmoral, constructing stone-faced seawalls and outfall piping at Devonport and elsewhere on the North Shore, building the Titirangi concrete road, and installing the first sewerage system in Rotorua in 1930 (for £6439 10s 6d).

Des Grinter remembers visiting the last-named project as a small boy with his father.

“The underground holding tank was found to be located in an area containing large buried logs and an underground spring of warm mineral water,” he recalls.

“The concrete tank was redesigned and constructed underwater using a diver in full gear with hand-pumped air supply. The pipe reticulation in the town street was all hand dug under difficult conditions due to the amount of hydrogen sulphide gas that was coming up out of the excavation.

“The man in the trench was attached to a safety rope and his mate on the other end was ready to pull him out and take his place when the gases in the trench overcame him. My interest was in the diver and I didn’t understand the drama that was going on in the trench.”

From then until it was wound up in 1953, Grinter Bros carried out such projects as eliminating Garden Place Hill in the centre of Hamilton, which entailed the removal of 360,000 cubic yards of spoil in 240 days; supplying nearly all the aggregate for the construction of the Karapiro Dam and power station; contracts for subdivisions, roads and bridges in Auckland and as far north as Kaitaia; a stormwater marine-discharge contract for Lower Hutt City; and supplying a grader and aggregate for the construction of the wartime airfield at Kaitaia, now the local airport.

In 1938, having recovered from the Depression and renewed a presence in Hamilton, Grinter Bros formed Waikato Bitumen to supply heat and spray tar, bitumen and cold bitumenous emulsion to enable local bodies and contractors to carry out surface sealing on roads, footpaths, and industrial and sports areas. As the company developed, it offered a full sealing service, which included preparation plus spreading and rolling of the crushed stone chips.

During the Second World War all works and equipment were placed under government control, and companies carrying out essential contractual work were subjected to profit limits. This taxed “excess profits” and continued until the late 1950s, curtailing the expansion of older contracting companies.

By that time Waikato Bitumen still had only about 12 permanent staff and transport was carried out by hired owner-drivers. However, in 1957, under Frank Grinter’s chairmanship, it was decided to expand and modernise the operation in order to compete with larger rivals.

Because of his specialist engineering knowledge, Des Grinter, then 32, was offered a position with the company that included a substantial shareholding and the potential to become a manager. 

Grinter was born in Hamilton in 1924 but raised in Auckland, was engaged in essential wartime industry work (ship repair, power supply), was called up by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1945, then obtained a degree in mechanical engineering at Auckland University in 1949.

He spent five years with the Ministry of Works as a junior mechanical engineer, working at the Mangere plant zone, Mangakino power scheme, Taupo geothermal development and, finally, as district mechanical engineer for Napier.

After a short spell as a sales engineer in Auckland with Atlantic Oil, he joined Winstone as a mechanical engineer at its Lunn Ave quarry where the company was beginning major development work – the selection and installation of large crushing equipment designed to last 30 years.

This task was largely completed when Grinter accepted the 1957 job offer from Waikato Bitumen.

“The need to improve the company’s equipment was the main reason for the appointment and it proved to be a well-timed decision as our main competitors were also entering a rapid development stage in a field that was expanding,” he says.

Grinter was to remain with the company for 20 years, during which time it became one of the top three in its field in the upper North Island, handling about 10 percent of the bitumen used in New Zealand.

Its number of employees rose from a dozen or so to 150 and its operations expanded to south of the Bombay hills from east to west coasts and including the Coromandel Peninsula, with southern limits from Opotiki on the east coast to the Mokau River on the west coast but the line dipping to take in Taupo and Taumarunui.

Custom-built truck bodies and metal-spreading equipment were built; extraction of bitumen from drums and heating ovens was improved; self-contained heated tankers replaced unheated road tankers, with increased spray rates and load capacity; a small laboratory was set up to support the capacity to manufacture and lay hot asphalt surfaces and provide cement-stabilised road foundations; a large workshop was built to service the increasing number of vehicles, rollers and other equipment; and emulsion-manufacturing equipment was overhauled.

Grinter made knowledge-gathering visits to Australia, the United States and Europe to enable Waikato Bitumen to keep abreast of modern practices and design and construct specialised components for its equipment, so it could remain ahead of its competitors.

However, Grinter says modestly, “We were not often leaders as firms such as British Pavements and Fulton Hogan had a history going back before Waikato Bitumen was formed. They had very good staff and were frequently into innovative procedures or equipment long before it appeared in the North Island. As late starters we had a lot to do before being able to develop anything which was an improvement on their establishment.”

Waikato Bitumen won major contracts during this period. It constructed the runway and roading at the new Hamilton airport in 1965 and about ten years later laid the hard standing for the Wellington container port in partnership with Higgins Contractors of Palmerston North.

Grinter was appointed Waikato Bitumen’s managing director in 1969 and became chairman in 1973 when his father died. The company thrived as he pursued his strong interest in developing new mechanical ideas and refining existing ones – helped, he says, by the support of a loyal staff.

But change was on the horizon. As early as 1965, in keeping with a global trend, Shell had taken a 25 percent shareholding in Waikato Bitumen. Then in 1976 a hostile takeover bid by another oil company saw an alliance of Shell and Firth Industries make a counter-offer, which the directors accepted. Grinter remained as general manager but retired in October 1977. (In 1989 the Waikato Bitumen-Reliable Roads-Northland Roadbuilders group was bought by Fulton Hogan.)

Grinter’s exit from the industry ended his service to the Contractors’ Federation, in which he had been chairman of the Hamilton-Bay of Plenty branch, then a member of the national council. But the following year, 1978, he was appointed the inaugural convenor of judges for the federation’s construction awards, an honorary post he was to hold with distinction until 1993.  A year later the federation awarded him life membership.

During his time with Waikato Bitumen, Grinter also helped local manufacturing companies which produced equipment for the dairy and building industries. After his retirement he continued with one of those companies, Thermo Products Ltd, which initially manufactured and installed milk-processing equipment then waste-fuel energy plants.

He retired from this work in 1986, but continued to enjoy his hobbies of yachting (until 1996) and power boating (until 2007), and today is a keen digital photographer.

Grinter says he always wanted to be an engineer and his ambition never faltered. He believes he was particularly fortunate to work in an era, especially after the war, when so much infrastructure development was required. 

He doesn’t believe he would be happy to be in charge of a business today. “Government policies which do not ensure continuity of capital works for locally developing companies have led to many of them now being owned overseas and have made it more difficult for locals to develop the skills required to compete,” he says.   

Contractor Vol.33  No.4  May 2009
All articles on this website are copyright to Contrafed Publishing Co. Ltd.