Low profile Porter Group a huge success

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The big end of town suddenly looks a whole lot more muscular.

The expressway north of Te Rapa is a useful boulevard for viewing the ballooning northern commercial edge of Hamilton, and a particular eye-catcher has been the rise of a pocket of big structures, including a striking office building.

Now their clean lines have been dressed in company logos it’s surprising a few people to see the buildings form one huge precinct for one business – the Porter Group.

If it makes an impact from the highway, it packs more of a punch up close.

From its conception on a drawing board five years ago, this 20 hectare development – including a large lake vested to the city – was intended by Porter Group to be an international-class example of blue ribbon industrial design with operational smarts and efficiency and respect for the environment.

What might further surprise is that Porter Group is 100 percent a Waikato family company, not some big noise squeezed out of Auckland by space constraint.

In fact noise and Porter Group don’t belong in the same sentence. This gorilla of New Zealand’s heavy equipment provider industry whose reach extends into the United States and Australia has always kept a low profile. While well-known within its industry, its public face has been confined to huge shiny yellow machines lining Te Rapa Road, kitty corner to The Base, its trucks moving those machines around the country and a few low key sponsorships.

But Porter Group’s move from eight scattered sites to the purpose-built showcase on Arthur Porter Drive beside the expressway throws a spotlight on one of Waikato’s most successful business stories. It’s one that deserves to be celebrated and I wasn’t of a mind to let the publicity-shy (and slightly formidable) Porter family lads away with a no-comment.

First some basics. New Zealand’s biggest construction machinery company was started by the late Arthur (Arch) Porter out of his Te Kowhai farm shed in 1945, carting hay and sand to local farmers in an old army Chevrolet truck. The third generation of the family is now in the business, which comprises 17 companies supplying heavy equipment to the construction, mining and forestry sectors through 26 service centres in New Zealand. Porter Group also has a presence in every Australian state and in Papua New Guinea and a growing business in California. It is a significant property owner here and offshore, due to its policy of owning the land on which it operates. The group employs more than 500 people fulltime – 200 of whom will work at the new complex along with subcontractors.

Everything about Porter Group is big. From the monster machines it imports, sells and hires to a parts inventory valued at more than $50 million. Of its eight machinery business divisions, Porter Equipment and Porter Hire are the two heaviest lifters, bringing in about 80 percent of group revenues (not a subject for discussion, nor is the cost of the new build.) Across New Zealand, Australia and the US, Porter Hire has more than 3000 machines on offer. The rest of the group is Porter Parts, Porter Haulage, Porter Cranes, Porter Access, which provides construction sector access equipment, Porter Mechanical and Porter Finance.

The family says the new headquarters is a commitment to Waikato, the industry, clients, suppliers and staff. A reflection of the company’s growth in the past 20 years, it’s also a build for the next 50 years in keeping with a philosophy of thinking ahead for the next generation of Porters.

When Arthur Porter moved the business to Te Rapa Road, the family joke is that it was so far from Hamilton then, you needed to take a packed lunch. Nearly 25 years ago with the city creeping closer, the family bought a landbank of 72 hectares of farmland to the north on which the new headquarters stands. Other blocks in the subdivision, which was done by Porter Group itself, has been sold to the likes of Mainfreight and NZ Post or are for sale.

The move under way to the new site will involve 250 containers of parts and 1500 truck movements. More than 1000 machines have to be moved over. Unlike the old Porter sites on Te Rapa Road, the new complex will be closed to direct public access for health and safety reasons. Security and access systems have been provided by Waikato’s Gallagher Group. The complex itself was designed and managed from conception to handover by Hamilton’s Design Management Consultants. New Zealand company Allied Concrete provided the 8300 cubic metres of ground concrete in 1200 truck pours that started at 1am and finished by morning smoko.

Constructed to a 4-star environmental and sustainability standard, the buildings incorporate the latest technology around logistics and health and safety, with sensors and timers controlling water, power and lights. Wastewater will be recycled with special provisions made for handling oil waste. Maximum natural light for staff was an architectural focus, and even the massive parts building, where forklifts operate by GPS, is airy and flooded with light, its roof wired for solar panels.

All going to plan, the family hopes the move will be completed in July. Negotiations and planning are continuing around the future of the old Porter sites.

Consolidating its operations has moved this cornerstone Waikato Inc business squarely into the public eye, a position it may take time to get used to.

But in doing so, it has stayed true to the core value of its business model which dictates that as a family business it must be sustainable, continuing for future generations the legacy of Arthur Porter and his wife Margaret, now in her 90s.

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Andrea Fox is a business journalist, a former Waikato Times business editor, Fairfax Business Bureau journalist and author. Andrea.fox@xtra.co.nz

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