Smith's cranes give country a lift

Cantabrian Tim Smith, a part owner of Smith Crane and Construction, says he is a significant investor in the rebuild of Christchurch with "skin in the game".

Smith has to be ready to work his business hard, given that he and his family business partners have $60 million to $70m invested in cranes, drilling and other construction equipment. Some of that investment is covered by bank debt.

His business is based in a 10 hectare Harewood workshop and yard off Johns Rd with Smith cranes deployed on projects around New Zealand.

There are more than 200 staff employed in a company that is "divisionalised" in terms of the management structure, Smith says.

While he is "probably more committed than anyone", the Canterbury rebuild is yet to really kick off for the company. "It's very minor in my book. There's a few things starting to happen, but nothing too serious . . .

"A period of indecision, means there is more work outside Christchurch," he said. "We've got stuff happening at the Waterview tunnel in Auckland which is a billion dollar job.

"We've got a whole heap of cranes going to the Marsden Point refinery to do a big expansion there, we've got cranes going to Tauranga wharf to put some container cranes together.

"We've got tower cranes, [including] the biggest tower crane in New Zealand, in Auckland on an apartment complex."

Such commitment means risk. Smith was owed about $1.5m following the collapse of Mainzeal Property and Construction.

Smith Crane and Construction provided the equipment, dozens of staff and methodology connected to jobs done under Mainzeal as a main contractor, he says.

Those jobs included the demolition of the 17-storey Clarendon Tower over a 12-15 month period and later the Queen Elizabeth II Park sports complex.

He has had to absorb the loss due to the failure of Mainzeal Property which, he says, demonstrates that even very large companies are prone to financial problems.

"There wasn't any warning signs there. They'd been paying us virtually up till then . . ." he says of the sudden demise.

"I was a bit disappointed because as far as I was concerned Cera (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) wanted bigger organisations. Here I was the one doing all the work and working for some supposed big organisation that were basically broke, and Cera wanted them as the contractor rather than me."

Smith also had a stoush with Christchurch property developer David Henderson over the failed Five Mile development near Queenstown.

On February 22, 2011, Smith and his crews scrambled to help in the rescue mission following the damaging earthquake in Christchurch.

He attended the slumped Pyne Gould Corp building, which saw both fatalities and survivors. He helped co-ordinate about 15 heavy cranes and 80 staff in rescuing people trapped around the city.

"We lifted 80 people off the [Hotel] Grand Chancellor I think," he remembers.

The cranes were also used to rescue people from from the Forsyth Barr building in Armagh St and The Press building in Cathedral Square, and were also at the sites where fatalities had occurred including the CTV building and the Durham St Methodist Church.

Smith worked round the clock for nearly a week surviving on an hour or two sleep a night. "I was trying to get a bit of structure involved because I didn't want it to be chaos . . .

"(We) had crane reps . . . and a couple of crane hire managers, so I basically just split them up and said hey you go and do that building and you go and sort out what's going with that one and I'll go and sort out this one."

One new Christchurch construction job Smith's business is working on is a five-storey complex at 287-293 Durham St opposite the historic Provincial Chambers.

The site is owned by the Canterbury-based Yeo family, with the crane company drilling holes for about 80 piles split into 900mm and 1200mm diameter holes. That part of the project is due to take about three months.

Smith has recently been in Britain buying piling equipment he sees as useful in saving heritage buildings and those judged as not being up to seismic code.

The specialised small rigs can be driven through the building 2.5-3 metre "headrooms" to allow new piles to be added underneath the existing structure. One rig will arrive in New Zealand in February.

"It's quite common in the UK because the UK has a lot of historic buildings, and the UK are world leaders in what they call micro-piling . . . it's about $200,000 for a mini-piling rig," Smith says.

This and the planned purchase of a "casing oscillator" rig for $150,000 are relatively minor capital expenditure items, he says. On the Durham St site he has a 250 tonne crane worth $1.5m and a drill rig worth $1m.

A good European-built crane might last 20 years, he says.

Smith started as a diesel mechanic by trade.

That early background prompted him and the company to develop a high-lift jack to lift earthquake-damaged houses so their foundations can be repaired, while the house remains above.

Smith Crane and Construction has since built five sets of the jacks and structural steel towers, with the most complex part of the equation being the use of an electronic system to help drive the jacking system.

"I said hey you need a system to be able to get underneath. Of course we do quite a bit of house moving and have done since 1998, [when] I bought a house moving business . . .

"[You] need enough room to build the new concrete foundation without having jacks and things in your way." The first jacking system was built "on spec" by Smith and his inhouse design team for about $500,000, and the system has now jacked up 25-30 houses to allow foundation repairs.

The 2013 Champion Canterbury business awards saw Smith Crane and Construction as the winner of the new innovation and technology award for the lift jacking system.

Smith Crane and Construction began in 1991 with one man and a 20-tonne rubber-tyre mobile crane. The company has expanded over the years, for example buying Drury Cranes around 2000.

Smith's interest in cranes was sparked by his father, John, who now lives in Cairns, Queensland, and has a 14 per cent stake in Smith Crane and Construction. His brother Albert also has a significant stake.

His father, born in New South Wales, came to New Zealand to start a drainlaying and bridge building contracting business and help bring up a family of eight children.

Tim Smith is the brother of National Cabinet Minister Nick Smith. Another brother, Daniel Smith, has a large crane business based in Rangiora.

"There are times that we compete with each other a bit," he says of his relationship with brother and sometimes fellow contractor Daniel.

It is a large family that includes three sisters Margot, Viv and Cynthia.

Brother Albert runs crane and bridge construction businesses in Australia, while another brother, Pete, is a civil engineer based in Wellington. Margot and her husband, John, also have a crane hire business on the Sunshine Coast in Australia.

"Cynthia and her husband, are the principals at an outdoor education centre in Rotorua, and Viv and her husband have got a farm and childcare centre in Kaikoura . . .

"There is [an entrepreneurial spirit]. It probably comes from Dad I suppose.

"Dad was real hardworking."