Hendl & Murray founder Ron Hendl dies

Ron Hendl in his element in 2003.
FAIRFAX NZ

Ron Hendl in his element in 2003.

Ronald "Ron" Clifford Hendl, April 22, 1938 - June 27, 2017

He was known variously as "Lofty", "Big Ron", and "Bones".

No prizes, then, for guessing Ron Hendl, founder and managing director of Melville stainless steel engineering firm Hendl & Murray Engineering, was a big man.

And, like many big men, he had the personality to match: he was a raconteur, both friendly and generous, who enjoyed telling a yarn or two of exploits from his younger days. He was old school – his word, promise, and handshake were binding and meant something.

At 15, Ron got his start as an apprentice fitter and turner with Thames engineering firm A & G Price in 1954, where he worked on the steam trains the company maintained for New Zealand Railways. This led to a lifelong interest in steam engines and in large engineering jobs.

A story Ron enjoyed telling about this time was how he boarded with extended family. He earned two pounds and nine shillings a week and was charged two pounds 10 shillings a week board. Luckily, he received a living away from home allowance every three months to pay the shortfall – and actually had some money to spend.

During his time in Thames, he played club rugby as a tall, lean, rangy lock, earning the nickname Bones. He was pleased to get mentioned by a rugby reporter in the local rag as being "useful about the field" with "lineout ball winning ability". His love for the sport never faded and, because of his passion, the company he would go on to found, Hendl & Murray, became a sponsor of both the Chiefs and Waikato Rugby.

Hendl & Murray built some seriously big structures in his time – engineering so large it had to be manufactured in sections that could be assembled in the Port of Tauranga, ready for shipping, or for which roads had to be cleared during delivery.

There were, for example, the six stainless steel sugar hoppers for Sugar Australia's Melbourne plant which, at 28 metres high, would tower over most buildings in central Hamilton. Each could hold 540 tonnes of castor sugar and had to be built in sections and trucked to Mt Maunganui to be assembled and lined before being shipped across the Tasman.

"They are too big for the road," Ron told a Waikato Times reporter at the time. "We are building them in sections as large as we possibly can and transporting them to the port."

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Hendl & Murray's largest local project to date was building four 500,000-litre silos for the Clandeboye dairy factory near Timaru. Another project involved assembling the filtration equipment and supplying the pipework taking water from the Waikato River for Auckland's water supply.

The company's close connection with dairy goes back to Ron's first job, after he qualified, when he joined the NZ Dairy Company in Hamilton on its maintenance crew.

Ron and Valerie (they met at A & G Price, where Valerie was an office worker) moved to Hamilton in 1960, staying in a company house in Frankton before buying their own home in Sussex Street, Chartwell, where they lived for 47 years.

A company restructure gave Ron the nudge he needed and he went out on his own as a contractor. This was the beginning of Hendl & Murray Engineering, which became a major part of his life for 40 years. Initially the company set up in the old dairy factory at Rukuhia, fabricating bottle conveyors for the new milk plant at Takanini. They later moved into a workshop in King Street near the Founders Theatre roundabout. It was a period of considerable diversification of engineering work both within the dairy industry and outside projects. New dairy factories were being built and in 1980 Hendl & Murray was a major supplier of onsite stainless fabrication labour at both the Reporoa and Tirau sites. The purchase and move to a larger workshop in Bandon Street followed, then to the current Tawa Street premises.

From time to time Ron was approached by the NZ Dairy Board in Wellington to see if he would be interested in the design and manufacture of specific items of plant and equipment. His can-do attitude to take up any challenge led to the manufacture of Hendl & Murray static dewatering screens, hammer mills, pin mills, mincers and curd presses for casein production – much of this equipment is still in daily use after more than 30 years.

Hendl & Murray gained its first overseas contract in the late 1980s through the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. "It was a very difficult time. If we hadn't got a job building a dairy factory in Vietnam, we might have gone under," Ron remembered some time later.

Equipment for the factory was prefabricated in Hamilton, shipped to Moc Chau province, and Ron plus two others hit the ground to assemble it onsite. He took an instant shine to the Vietnamese people, embraced their culture, liked the way they got things done, their resourcefulness, and friendly, caring nature – but he never mastered chopsticks and, on many occasions, restaurant staff were sent back to the kitchen to see if they could rustle up a fork or spoon. 

To access the Australian market, Ron made sure the company became part of a Trade NZ initiated joint action group, joining with a number of other like-minded fabrication companies. Together they established an entity known as the Stainless Alliance International, of which Ron became a director.

In addition, Ron was instrumental in forming a working relationship with Jardine Engineering in Hong Kong, which at the time operated three workshops in mainland China. While it lasted, Hendl & Murray supplied design, skilled labour, and process equipment items into China. A small casein plant was designed, manufactured, installed and commissioned at a factory in the far northwest corner of China and, of course, Ron volunteered to be there to enjoy the big adventure.  

Ron may have been a hard worker, but he was keen on his holidays. He always made sure the family got a two-week beach holiday every year. He would go for long beach walks, swim with the kids and play board games or beach cricket.

He and Valerie took many overseas trips. They started by holidaying in Australia and the Pacific Islands, went on their first cruise in the mid-1980s and, over the next 32 years, travelled on 22 cruises to see the world.

When Ron turned 70, he took the family, including grandchildren, to Fiji for a week's holiday to celebrate. He had planned to take the family on a cruise later this year to celebrate his 80th.

Ron was the husband of Valerie; father and father-in-law of David and Amy, Noel and Liz, Dianne and Brian, and Debbie; and pop of Jack, Lucy, Oliver, Ted, Meg, Arron and Derek.

* A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email Charles.riddle@wintec.ac.nz

 - Stuff

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