Building business

Last updated 05:00 28/12/2013
Randal Gray
Angela Crompton

Randal Gray hopes the business his father stared 50 years ago can continue operating in Marlborough

Daniel Gray
Angela Crompton
Daniel Gray, a third-generation member of the family-owned Dashwood Timber business, secures a load of new timber. The company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, is typical of many small businesses in Marlborough – started by one man and carried on by future generations. They have also started to diversify to stay viable
Randal Gray
Angela Crompton
Randal Gray, Dashwood Timber manager, stands outside one of the microhousing units his company constructs.

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Optimism remains the driving force behind family-owned Dashwood Timber after 50 years in business.

Nothing special was done to mark the December 9 anniversary of Jim Gray setting up his business near the old Dashwood railway yard in 1963. But talk to his son Randal Gray, who manages the company at present depot in Renwick, and a story is told about a small operation's survival in a changing timber and building industry.

The age-old tradition of ordinary people using their wit and skills to build the shelters they needed have been largely removed by regulations, Randal says.

If the laws dictating what Dashwood Timber can and cannot do in 2013 existed 50 years ago, his father's business would never have got off the ground.

Jim was a Scotsman whose hopes of going to university were dashed by World War II. Instead he went to the United States and trained to be a Royal Air Force fleet air pilot. Peace was declared before he flew any war planes in battle but the Texas sunshine made him unwilling to settle back under Scotland's dreary skies.

He arrived in New Zealand after visiting Australia, where he had met and married Randal's mother, Patricia. Nelson was their first base, where Jim became a commercial pilot. It was a fellow pilot who told him about a larch wood forest ready for harvest at Dungree, near Seddon.

"He sent his family away for three months to stay with Mum's relatives so he could get himself going," Randal says.

Jim had no forestry or milling experience, he adds.

"But my father believed that with intelligent application, one could do anything. And to be optimistic.

"He taught himself how to repair equipment and tractors; he taught himself how to do engineering; and he taught me how to do it as well."

Jim named his company Dashwood Treated Timber and Post Ltd and - as the name suggested - it specialised in fence posts.

Felled larch wood logs were "peeled" of their bark then steam-dried in a marine boiler made by WGG Cuddon Ltd. Once dipped in a creosote-mix preservative, the logs were ready for use.

The business slowly started to expand. First Jim started making farm gates, then he began designing and constructing pole-framed barns and implement sheds.

Jim worked out how to design and construct them himself but he always followed farm building code specifications. Four-hundred of the Dashwood Timber barns and sheds were erected on farms around Marlborough and North Canterbury.

It was hard work, digging holes for the support poles, says Randal who, with brother James, had joined his father's work team. It was the days before workplaces were governed by strict health and safety regulations and laws prevented all but registered and licensed personnel completing specific tasks, he says.

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"We had no scaffolding, no helmets, no high-vis jackets and it was heavy work, carrying big poles up ladders.

"We did a lot of ladder work. And no one ever fell off. We took risks, but they were calculated risks.

"We could do a two-bay hay barn - including a concrete floor and a roof - in a day and a half. That would be impossible today. We couldn't do it in three times that time now."

Randal went to university and holds a chemistry degree but he questions the push that nearly everyone needs a formal qualification before they can do anything.

"How does a company like [ours] last 50 years?

"By using ordinary people and using ordinary labour.

"Young people are just as competent today as when my father started, but the opportunities aren't there [because] we are not allowed to give them."

Dashwood Timber moved to its Renwick base at Condors Bend in 1975. The 2000 square metre property it uses was originally Crown land now owned by the Marlborough District Council.

The 38-year lease is nearly over, Randal says, and the Grays have yet to learn whether they can renew it. He, wife Nicola, daughter Samalah and son Daniel are all hoping it will be.

The four Grays are all involved in the business, helped by a single employee, an "old-salt sawmiller-forestry owner".

Daniel is training to be a registered builder and until he has his qualifications, Dashwood Timber has started making micro-housing. No more than 10 square metres in size, they slip below the building consent regulations.

Safety remains paramount, though, and Randal says electrical or plumbing fittings are done by qualified tradesmen. Micro units typically have a concrete floor, weather board claddings, polystyrene insulation and double glazing.

They can be used as sleep-outs, offices or linked together by covered pathways to create affordable housing, each unit having a specific duty - kitchen, ablution room, satellite rooms.

Randal says they are environmentally low impact - "You can pick up these buildings and move them away." - and more affordable than conventional homes.

"New Zealand housing should be among the most affordable on the planet; [instead] it's one of the most expensive."

- The Marlborough Express

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