Rail contract boom for Lower Hutt firm

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 07:59 25/07/2011

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A Gracefield company, which traces its roots back to the days of a big car industry in the Hutt Valley, has just delivered an order of seats for the new Tranz Scenic carriages from KiwiRail.

Merje DDM, which grew out of the collapse of buggy maker Tritec, focuses mainly on providing seating for theatres and auditoriums in New Zealand and Australia, but has now completed a new range of train seats developed from the ground up.

The firm has its origins in Brugger, a big Hutt Valley supplier of seating components in the 1960s, when many of the world's car makers had factories in the area.

Brugger was later sold and renamed Kenson Industries. As protections on the vehicle sector were removed, Kenson began moving into other areas, including other types of seats, plus buggies for infants.

When that company collapsed in 1998, some of the remnants were gathered together to become Tritec. Based in Gracefield, Tritec built up a large business focused on buggies, but it also fell into receivership in 2008.

It was later bought out of receivership by another Wellington company, Phil & Ted's, which was mainly interested in the Mountain Buggy brand, closing the production side.

Miles Fowler, who used Tritec to make theatre seats which he then sold in New Zealand and Australia, faced losing a key customer, so negotiated to keep some of the manufacturing capability, taking over the seat-making business.

Merje - a name made from the initials of Fowler and another director Jesse Paenga, along with their partners - was formed and the firm does most of its business providing seats used in theatres and lecture halls, with one of its largest customers Victoria University.

"They tend to be quite large projects, but there is often gaps between them," Fowler said.

This gave the company scope to submit a proposal for the AK carriages from KiwiRail, a contract which was first mooted to Tritec. One of about 30 initial proposals, Merje was one of three firms short-listed for the train project, providing samples used elsewhere in the KiwiRail network.

It designed a product that is largely locally made and which is now being delivered.

Fowler says a key advantage of the company's seats was the fire- proof graphite foam from Acma Industries, another long-established manufacturer, based in Upper Hutt.

Palmerston North's Fibreglass Developments provided the fibreglass backing of the seats, while other firms in the region provided components used in the seats.

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"A couple of things came from Auckland, but essentially they're 100 per cent manufactured here. We try to stick as close as we can to the Wellington, Lower Hutt area."

Fowler said Merje, which has about a dozen staff, was expected to have turnover of about $3 million this year.

- The Dominion Post

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