Engineering runs through this family

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:00 22/02/2014

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Kidson Construction founder Brian Kidson who has handed the mantle of chief executive to daughter Katrina, has some salient parting words for businesses: think beyond blaming the economy for your woes, and reflect on your own practices.

Mr Kidson has kept a large civil engineering and construction firm afloat through some challenging times over the past half century, but finds it hard to single out any defining moment he considered the toughest.

"I don't think I can answer that question because it not only depends on the general economy, but on where you are and whether you've got the price right on the job. You make half your problems yourself."

Katrina Kidson, 42, has recently been appointed chief executive of the well-regarded Nelson firm, which arose from Mr Kidson's discontent as a young engineer with the former Transport Nelson-owned Highways Construction.

"I started Kidsons because I wasn't really happy at Highways Construction. Some of the directors expected too much from it. They were running a subsidised business [the national railway] limited to people who had the right licensed gear. Contracting was high risk and open to everyone.

"I also wanted to build bridges and other structures rather than doing earthmoving and roads."

Mr Kidson's career choice was no doubt influenced by that of his father, former Nelson city engineer Charles Kidson, who moved his family from the war-threatened capital Wellington to Nelson in 1939. He would do the rounds of projects with his father, and became fascinated with how structures evolved. A stand-out job was the original runway of Wellington's Rongotai Aerodrome, which was beside the current runway.

Brian Kidson went to Nelson College then Canterbury University, where he earned a master's degree in soil mechanics.

One of his first jobs was working on Motueka's water supply scheme, which was a project he had been involved with as a student.

"When you do an engineering degree you have to do practical work in the holidays.

"I'd been in Motueka working on a water supply scheme, and when I graduated I went back for a year to complete the design of the distribution network throughout the town."

Mr Kidson then spent the latter years of the 1950s in Australia on large scale projects, including the Snowy Mountain hydro scheme, then returned to Nelson in 1961 and began the role with Highways Construction.

Kidson Construction began in 1964 with one staff member, Dutchman John Vermandel, whom Mr Kidson described as "very capable" and someone who was good company.

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"I had bought a tracked front-end loader with a detachable back hoe and an old truck from a person in Wellington. Our first job was kerb and channel around the Nelson City Council flats in Stoke."

Fifty years in the business has brought its share of rewards and disappointments, but there was a lot to look back on and enjoy, Mr Kidson said.

He lists his favourite job as the salvaging of Samoa's inter-island ferry the Queen Salamasina, which was badly damaged in the 1990 Cyclone Ofa.

Mr Kidson's strong interest in boating extended to the building of five ferro cement pleasure craft, including the family's own motor sailer which was moored in the Marlborough Sounds and provided the platform to many memorable holidays.

Mr Kidson said the Queen Salamasina was wrenched from its berth in the cyclone and blown across the harbour on to a gravel spit where it was holed, and lay stranded.

The salvage was initiated by a visit to the ship's insurers in Singapore, which had to give the green light for the project to begin.

After that, a price had to be agreed on a "no success, no payment basis".

Mr Kidson said the salvage began by the building of a retaining wall around the ship.

The water was then pumped from the hull, and the vessel made watertight.

"We then dug out the area between her and the retaining wall, pumped water in her to refloat her, pulled her into the dugout area and removed the retaining wall in front, then towed her back to the wharf."

The ship was then towed to Nelson by a tug from New Plymouth, where it was slipped and repaired, the engines dismantled, cleaned and re-started. The ship was put back into survey and went back to Samoa under its own steam, Mr Kidson said.

In 50 years, not much has changed in the general engineering landscape, except levels to which buildings had to be fortified to withstand new rules around seismic strengthening.

Technology advances in concrete and steel was proof of that.

Katrina Kidson said engineering was fundamentally based on maths and science which had not changed, but engineers' understanding of how to apply that had got a lot better.

"When I think about what I studied in my degree, it was a lot more complex and involved than what dad did, but when you get out in the field, there's a lot that is the same."

"The fundamentals haven't changed - not like IT, where if you leave the industry for five minutes you don't know what's going on."

Ms Kidson, who has been a civil engineer for 20 years, and was most recently chief executive of design and planning consultancy Isthmus in Auckland, said the moveto Nelson was the right time.

Her brother, Matthew Kidson, has been running the business for the past eight years and will maintain a key role in the firm, identifying new business opportunities across the wider group of Kidson companies.

The changes are the result of several designed to strengthen the company's strategic and operational performance, ahead of predicted substantial growth in the construction sector forecast for this year and beyond.

Ms Kidson has been a director of the company for four years.

She too was influenced by her father in terms of career choice, despite earlier thoughts about nursing.

She said there was never any pressure or push to go into engineering, but there was a natural ability and understanding with her and her brother.

"I think the influence dad had on me getting into engineering was more around knowing what a civil engineer does and also being able to see what dad did.

"I remember driving over bridges and saying to friends, ‘my father built this bridge'. I have so much respect and so much interest in what my father has done.

"The Queen Salamasina for example - he made that happen. It wasn't like someone said, ‘can you come and do this?'."

Ms Kidson said a favourite definition of engineering was that it used maths and science to solve society's problems.

"It's a really rewarding career from that perspective. I've worked on public health engineering building water treatment plants, fixing wastewater discharges, and building bridges and roads."

Mr Kidson did not think the scene was any tougher than it was when he started. "There's more competition, but more work around and more people around too."

Ms Kidson believed the firm was still going strong because of her father's passion for construction.

Mr Kidson was also dedicated to the people who worked from him.

At one point staff numbered 70, and the firm once had depots in Christchurch and on the West Coast. Retraction had occurred and Kidson Construction now employs 40 people.

"You have a lot of good people working for you and you owe it to them to keep the jobs going. That's the main thing," Mr Kidson said.

Ms Kidson said the company would grow, but the question was when.

"My guess is it might be towards the end of the year that we start to see the growth."

It would be bolstered by the amount of looming seismic upgrade work.

"Getting contractors involved early will be critical. There's a lot of work to be done and a lot of hard decisions to be made that are confronting Nelson city at the moment."

Mr Kidson said a lot of it was being driven by insurance companies which had woken up to the fact they could not afford to insure buildings if owners did not comply with new rules.

Ms Kidson said the current landscape was a risk management process for society, which had to consider how much it was prepared to spend and what risks it was prepared to have.

The biggest job on the firm's books right now was the seismic works and renovation of Nelson's Riverside Pool.

It was also doing plenty of work on retaining walls around Nelson, and helping with aspects of the Christchurch rebuild.

"A key part to our strategy is working out what we can manufacture here and get down to Christchurch.

"We've already sent down a number of pre cast panels for a supermarket. Another firm laid the floor on site and we've gone down and put up the sides. It means that job has gone ahead quickly," she said.

Mr Kidson was now looking forward to having more time for croquet, snooker and golf, while Ms Kidson was rekindling her connection with Nelson via a new interest that runs in the family: mountainbiking.

In Business is a new series profiling significant Nelson-based companies.

- The Nelson Mail

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