History
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History

TIMELINE

FROM BATHS TO BALL BEARINGS & BEYOND

The story of SAECOWilson – Engineers Extraordinary

Originally written by:
Peter Muller
former editor of the Southland Times

 

TOWARDS THE END OF 1931 the lnvercargill engineering company, Wilson Bros Ltd, completed one of its biggest projects to that time – a Leyland-powered locomotive and carriage for the Ohai Railway Board to carry passengers and haul coal between Wairio and Ohai. This was a major undertaking and the firm was naturally proud of its achievement, but the problem was to get the engine and carriage from the firm’s premises in Leet Street to the railway siding some two kilometres away. How did they do it? They simply drove it there, at night, not directly on the street surface because it had flanged wheels but on 6×4 wooden planks laid on the ground and moved from the back to the front of the locomotive as it inched along.

 

This feat is indicative of the enterprise and versatility that has been a hallmark of a firm which had its beginnings when two Scottish brothers decided to seek new opportunities on the other side of the world. AC (Alf) and W S (Bill) Wilson came out to New Zealand from Scotland in 1913. After their arrival the brothers married Scottish girls who came from the town ofKirkcaldy. Euphemia (Effie) came out on the same ship with Alf and became Alf’s wife while Bill married Jessie. Alf, who had served his time as a patternmaker, found employment with Willetts Implements and Bill, an engineer, began work with Macalisters Ltd, an lnvercargill engineering firm. Not long after their arrival the world was plunged into war with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, and both brothers answered the call to serve their new home­land and joined the Navy.

 

The first home of Wilson Bros Ltd in Leet Street, Invercargill, taken over by the brothers in 1919 and named the Empire Foundry

The head office and showroom of the Wilson Bros Group in Leet Street, Invercargill, with the workshop of Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd to the left

On their return in 1919 they looked about for an opportunity to start a business and found it in Marshalls foundry and pattern shop, which occupied a small building at 49 Leet Street . They formed a partnership, bought the business and renamed it Wilson Bros Empire Foundry. Within about three years they added an engineering workshop. Castings produced were mainly for agricultural implements and the meat freezing industry. Outside of that range they also manufactured cast iron baths which were enamelled and baked in a coke-fired oven.

 

From that small beginning, Wilson Brothers Ltd has developed into a multi­faceted group of companies offering a full range of engineering services with multi­million dollar sales. Staff numbers have grown from two to nearer 102 and the company has established a reputation for integrity and honesty in business and the highest standards of workmanship and customer service.

 

In the 1920s, Southland was a province developing its resources and Wilson Bros developed many opportunities for supplying and servicing the two main industries, meat freezing and timber milling and processing. In 1926 the firm made its first rail tractor to haul logs from the bush to the mill owned by J McIntyre Ltd at Tuatapere. This and subsequent log haulers produced were powered by a Fordson tractor engine and transmission linked to driven bogies front and rear to give a 12-wheel drive. In order to have the same speeds in both directions a reverse gearbox was produced using the Fordson gears. The final drive used the Fordson worm and wheel. Later machines were developed using the Blackstone diesel and later still the GM diesel, but still with the Fordson gears in the special reverse gearbox and final drive wormbox.

An early model Wilson Bros bush tractor powered by a Blackstone diesel engine. The driver’s comfort was ensured by throwing a sack over the backless seat!

A Wilson Bros bush rail tractor ready for delivery from the workshop

In 1938 Wilson Bros began a half-century association with SKF, the Swedish manufacturer of ball and roller bearings, and in the same year Bert Low, who was to play a significant role in the company, joined the firm as an office clerk. Apart from time in the Army during World War II, Bert spent more than 40 years with the company. He recalls that in his early years conditions were tough, for both bosses and workers. At the Empire Foundry in Leet Street the bosses were two dour Scotsmen and the workers were men who were desperate to keep their jobs and have a pay packet coming in. Trade unions were unknown in the early years and working conditions were as laid down by the bosses. A worker who earned the displeasure of his employers might have to sweep the floor for a week, even if it was clean, or carry a two by one­inch bar of steel 20ft long across his shoulder from the steel company’s premises in Spey Street back to the Leet Street foundry. A worker with a bike could ease the load by balancing the steel on the handlebars. Another penance was to wheel heavy bottles of gas from Bath Brothers in Yarrow Street back to the foundry.

 

In the early years there was a small office at the front of the building where all the administrative work was done. It was only large enough to hold a couple of customers and two benches, one for the boss and one for a worker. It was heated by a coal-fired stove. One of the largest areas in the building was the toilet, which ran across the whole width at the back. It was so big it was used as the SKF bearing store, and looking after the store was one of Bert Law’s responsibilities. As late as the 1950s, when Bert was in charge of the office, all the procedures were done manually. There were no adding machines or calculators, just a ready reckoner and a typewriter. Each employee had his own type of tobacco tin into which was placed his weekly pay, without any slip to give details of tax or overtime.

 

Quite early in his employment Bert had to have his appendix removed. In those days this meant a two-week stay in hospital. When he returned to work he had all the paper work of the previous two weeks pushed across the table to him with the comment “Don’t ever do that to us again!” In those days you didn’t argue much because jobs were not plentiful.

 

From the office a door opened directly into the workshop. The stock of steel was outside against the office wall. Trucks simply backed into the right-of-way and dropped the steel off the side. Further back in the building, between the patternshop and the foundry, was a second office used by the brothers. It contained a table large enough to accommodate a fully-opened copy of The Southland Times, and that was all. No chairs, no filing cabinets, just a table where the brothers would read the paper, or on which they would lean to discuss business. Discussion sometimes turned to argument and if the argument ended in stalemate the brothers wouldn’t talk to each other, maybe for a fortnight. In this situation, Bert Low was referee. The firm’s accountant, James (Jimmy) Orr, used to appeal to Bert when he couldn’t get an answer from the brothers. “Can’t you get those two buggers together?” he would implore.

 

Bert recalls the brothers, known by some around the town as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as being quite different. Alf was the patternmaker and foundry chief and the brains behind the business. Bill, the engineer, tended to follow along, in more ways than one. If Alf made a move to get something Bill had to have the same. Alf bought a 1934 Chevrolet car, Bill had to have the same. When Alf changed to a 1939 Chev, Bill changed also. When Alf built a new house Bill built a new house. However Alf later bought a Rover 75 car and Bill branched out into a Daimler.

Another version of the Wilson Bros bush rail tractor, powered by a GM diesel engine through 5-speed transmission and transfer case. It had a top speed of 5 miles per hour and could haul 24,000ft of timber up a 1 in 19 incline with a 100 percent improvement over a similar steam­powered tractor. An additional selling point was that fuel costs were 12 shillings ($1.20) a day compared with 2/10/- ($5) for steam

A bush tractor at work at Mclntyres mill, Tuatapere, showing how the tractor powered bogies both front and rear

At the best of times a foundry is a dirty, noisy place, but it is also a place where the creativity of the patternmaker is practised. Before a metal casting could be made there had to be a pattern, normally of wood, and because metal expands when hot and shrinks as it cools, the patternmaker used a rule that was slightly longer than a conventional rule. John Kellock, now retired in Invercargill, was a patternmaker who came out from Scotland in 1951 to join Wilson Bros and stayed with the firm for three years before leaving to train as a woodwork teacher.

 

Nowadays every job is planned out on paper but in earlier years scale drawings were seldom used. On occasions the outline of the required item would be scratched in the dirt floor with a stick and the staff instructed to “Make that!” Castings were the basic items required in manufacturing as fabrication was still in its infancy. Following World War II the firm used to cast about three times a fortnight using a coke-fired cupola and brass in a coke furnace. When casting was under way, sparks would fly from the hot metal and sometimes land in the boot-tops of the workers. A tub of water was always nearby into which the worker could jump before the red-hot metal could do any damage.

 

During the early years many bush rail tractors were built. These were loaded on to lorries by block and tackle and because there were no overhead rails this was done by swinging the load from rafter to rafter, rather like a monkey in the trees.

 

Harold Dallardjoined the firm in 1945 as an apprentice on a contract requiring him to be paid 16 shillings ($1.60) a week for the first six months, out of which he had to pay his weekly board. His pay rose in six-monthly increments to reach 57 shillings and seven pence ($5. 76) during the final six months of a five-year term. Harold recalls being told by Bill Wilson at an early stage of his apprenticeship that he “didn’t listen” and was “hopeless.” On the contrary, Harold worked for the firm for 25 years, the last five or six as foreman of the engineering workshop. When he began with the firm there were no morning and afternoon tea breaks but some workers brought a thermos flask and food with them and ate and drank as they worked. Heating in winter was a 44-gallon drum in the middle of the workshop burning whatever could be found.

A Wilson Bros log hauler, the first one to be produced with a friction clutch. It was made for Sherriff & Co, Tautapere

A close-up of another model log hauler from the Wilson Bros workshop. It was made for Port Craig Timber at Tautapere

Much of the maintenance work involved travelling to remote bush locations to service bush locomotives or log haulers. Harold recalls riding on a bush railway to a sawmill in the Chaslands and having to get off when a viaduct of questionable strength was reached. The loco driver then set the throttle at low speed and sent the locomotive on its way alone. When it was safely across the viaduct the two men had to race across to catch it up. On another occasion a white metal bearing at a sawmill exploded and hit Harold in the face. The mill owner had to cut away Harold’s eyelashes before he could reopen his eyes.

 

Everything changed in 1946. As Bert Low was biking to work one day as usual someone shouted at him “Why are you going to work?” He shouted back “I always go to work,” but when he turned from Kelvin Street into Leet Street he saw the reason for the remark. His workplace had been burned to the ground overnight. Sparks from a neighbouring joinery factory were reckoned to be the cause of the fire which destroyed virtually all of the Wilson Bros building. It was reported at the time to be one of the most spectacular fires ever seen in Invercargill. The intensity of the blaze caused asbestos in the roof to explode and blew bits of the roofing as far as the city water tower, three blocks away. The fire destroyed some building work that had been completed only a few days previously and the framework was left a mass of twisted steel. Machinery was damaged and many patterns destroyed, although some were saved. In the year before the fire the engineering workshop had been extended to the east with new offices to the north and a 3-ton travelling crane installed.

 

Following the fire a completely new foundry was built along with a temporary workshop on a vacant section to the west of the fire site and the firm made a fresh start. Although it was effectively out of action for about six months, all the staff kept their jobs. Rebuilding was possible only because the brothers had the foresight to take out loss of profits insurance. With the original machine shop back in operation the “temporary” workshop was used as a patternshop for 11 years.

 

Later in 1946 the firm was appointed the first General Motors diesel dealer in New Zealand and a special diesel division was established as a support to the wholesale operation of Wilson Bros Ltd. At this stage upstairs became the bearings and parts store, including an injector servicing room. Bert Low not only did all the office work but he also looked after the workshop tools, the bearing sales and diesel parts, and serviced the injectors. The association with General Motors continues to this day and has been recognized by GM’s head office on several significant anniversaries. Wilson Bros is believed to be the longest serving GM diesel dealer in the Southern Hemisphere. The servicing of diesel engines was carried out by Wattie Froude, who had joined the company after working as a maintenance engineer on the Homer Tunnel construction. As the Diesel Division expanded Wattie was for many years service manager. In 1967, when Allan Crosland was appointed service manager, Wattie joined the team in the parts department.

A group photographed outside the Leet Street premises in the 1950s. Front row (from left) Keith Wilson, Scotty Carnegie, Bert Low, Ian Semple, Alan Crooks, Wattie Froude, Keith Clearwater. Back row (from left) Norm Clearwater, Stan Butson, Nelson Butler, Pat Mulvey, Bill Herman, Harold Dallard, Bill Matheson

A high-tech computer-controlled lathe in use at Wilson Bros Engineering workshops. It incorporates all the features of a manual lathe but also allows one-off manual jobs to be performed. The operator is Russell Dyer

In the early 1950s, Wilson Bros designed and built its first log hauler using friction drum clutches and a GMC war surplus petrol engine plus gearbox with a vee drive to the lay shaft. The order was from Sherriff & Company of Tuatapere. The steel gears were cast in Dunedin and machined by Curries on a site to be occupied much later by the Dunedin branch of Wilson Bros. Bush rail tractors and log haulers were supplied throughout Southland and to mills in the North Island, many powered by GM diesel engines from war surplus Vanguard and Sherman tanks. In place of the first vee drives Renold chains (two strands of one­inch duplex) were used, running in an oil bath. In place of gearboxes, torque converters were often used. In later years log handling gear was exported, including one order from “The Revolutionary Government of Burma” which, to the surprise of some, paid for the equipment promptly.

 

The main demands from the meat industry were for conveyer systems and casing machines, to manufacture sausage skins, and these were supplied to meat plants not only in Southland and throughout New Zealand but to Australia, England, Korea and Japan.

 

In 1953 there was a major change in ownership of the firm after the death of Alf Wilson, one of the founding partners, and the retirement of his brother, Bill. Alf’s son, Keith, bought out his uncle’s shares and the company of Wilson Bros Ltd was formed with Keith as managing director.

 

Keith Coutts Wilson, widely known as “KC”, had joined the firm in 1941 and served his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, beginning on 15 shillings ($1.50) a week. During World War II he served in the Army for 18 months and early in 1948 travelled to Scotland to explore the family roots and gain work experience. For more than a year he worked for a firm which made machines for manufacturing linoleum and he then worked his passage back to New Zealand. He left Liverpool on the vessel Saxon Star and, after three months of hard work, landed at Bluff, to be given one shilling (10c) as payment.

 

Keith rejoined the firm in 1949 as foreman on the shop floor and when he first took over as managing director had his sister Norma as a fellow shareholder. Keith later bought out his sister’s share and continued to manage the business until his retirement in 1991. In the early years the going was tough and he worked long hours and weekends to build up the business, ever on the lookout for new ways to ensure that the firm’s customers had their every want satisfied. Under his control the company made steady, and sometimes spectacular, progress. Jobs were not quoted for but “done to the best price” and the firm gained a reputation for fairness and efficiency.

A modern house-moving trailer built by Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd for Scabies Transport

This diesel locomotive was completely repowered for the meat processing Alliance Group

In 1957 a warehouse, offices and a small diesel workshop were added where the temporary building erected after the fire stood and the patternshop was shifted upstairs above the engineering workshop. In 1961 the firm was appointed Euclid dealers for Clyde Engineering Ltd, covering the GM-powered earthmoving scrapers, crawler tractors and dump trucks In 1963 a separate engineering workshop was established to give a larger fabrication area.

 

In 1961 Wilson Bros Ltd became licensees for a Scottish anti-friction treatment and formed a company called Progreg Ltd. A processing plant was set up in a building leased from Phil Poole Ltd directly opposite Wilson Bros, a site now occupied by a Wilson Bros Group company, Southland Hydraulics Ltd. Cory Wright & Salmon Ltd was appointed a licensee and opened a plant in Wellington. Although the application was successful in reducing wear on moving metal parts in engines, industrial machinery and tools, it did not receive the support expected, especially as import licensing was then easier.

 

By 1969, Wilson Bros Ltd was manufacturing cast iron bearing housings for SKF (NZ) Ltd so decided to stop the Progreg treatment and set up to manufacture the housings. A company called Production Machining Ltd was formed and Russell Kerr, who had been with the firm since the early 1960s as a fitter-turner, was ppointed manager. Castings were being supplied from various foundries, Butlers in Invercargill, Gillies in Oamaru, Masport in Auckland, so it was decided that Dunedin would be more central.

 

In 1970 the plant was moved into a leased building in Ward Street, Dunedin, with Russell Kerr continuing as manager, and in 1971 a further move was made to the vacated Wilson Bros leasehold premises in Ward Street where work continued machining the housings on computerised lathes. In 1986 Wilson Brothers sold its shareholding to Russell Kerr and he continues there machining a variety of components.

 

In 1965 the patternshop and moulding shop were closed when the firm amalgamated with Butlers Foundry Ltd with a 50 percent shareholding and two employees of Wilson Bros, John Foy and George Cottenden, transferred to Butlers. The takeover of Butlers was completed in 1983 when Ormond Butler retired and Wilson Bros took over his shares. When George Cottenden retired in 1987, Wayne Rayner, who had served his apprenticeship with Butlers, took over as manager and remains in that position.

Emergency diesel power for an Invercargill newspaper after the burn-out of a large electric motor

A Detroit diesel engine in the testing bay at Wilson Bros diesel division. Supervising the test is Keith Brook

In 1966 the moulding shop at 49 Leet Street was completely cleaned out, a concrete floor was laid and a new diesel workshop was fitted out. The warehouse store was extended to include the original diesel workshop.

 

In the same year a takeover involving two other firms led to Wilson Bros opening a branch in Dunedin. Andrews and Beaven Ltd took over John Chambers Ltd, the New Zealand agent for Gardner diesel engines. Andrews and Beaven already held the GM diesel dealership for Otago, Canterbury and the West Coast but decided to relinquish it in favour of Gardner. Wilson Bros was appointed GM dealers for Otago and, in November of 1966, opened its branch in Ward Street, Dunedin. It began as a diesel workshop, with Lin Marshall in charge. Early in 1967, Ron Macdonald joined the branch as manager of the parts store and later in the year the firm was appointed SKF stockists for Otago. The branch also became Otago dealers for Cly,de Engineering Ltd.

 

Just over 10 years later the growth of business justified the building of entirely new premises for the Dunedin branch in Thomas Burns Street after some old buildings had been cleared from an area which was described as one of the most unsightly parts of the city and in real need of a facelift. Built in 10 months, the new building certainly gave the area a lift. At that time the manager, Alan Gillet, joined SKF and Allan Crosland transferred from lnvercargill to become manager. He had joined Wilson Bros in 1963 as a diesel mechanic at a time when the firm was overhauling two huge 16-cylinder diesel generator units for the West Arm-Manapouri power project. Originally used in submarines, the units had also seen service during construction of the Roxburgh dam before being purchased by the Manapouri contractors. Allan recalls that work on them involved 70 hours a week for three months, 11 hours daily from Monday to Friday and eight hours on Saturdays and Sundays. The units were so long that they would not fit into the firm’s diesel workshop and so tall that a ladder was needed to gain access to the top of them. Allan rose to become service manager and then moved into sales of engines and bearings before Peter Gouverneur taking over in Dunedin. When he retired in 1996,
Peter Gouverneur was appointed in his place and two years later he also became business development manager for Wilson Bros Ltd.

 

Originally begun as a warehousing operation, the Dunedin branch soon became heavily involved in the fishing, manufacturing, mining and tourism industries. It won the contract to supply all the bearings for the Macraes goldmine project and supplied and fitted engines for the local fishing industry and the river tugs used during the construction of the Clyde Dam. Other customers have included Cadburys, with whom Wilson Bros Ltd won a preferred supplier contract, Ravensdown Fertiliser, Cerebos, Greggs and Donaghys. With the help of an FAG engineer and a mine engineer from Perth the Dunedin branch fitted one of the biggest bearings ever fitted in New Zealand to a mill used for crushing up the gold­bearing material at the Macraes mine. Specially made for the job by FAG, the bearing was a metre and a half in diameter and cost the thick end of $100,000. Installing it was a massive job. Work began at 5pm one day and the mill was rolling again by 10am the next day.

The engine room of the oyster boat Rita after conversion to diesel power

One of two huge 16-cylinder diesel engines from the Manapouri power project which were completely overhauled by Wilson Bros engineers

A completely new diesel workshop was built in Invercargill in 1973 on a section at 50 Leet Street bought from Georgeson Brothers Ltd. The workshop vacated at 49 Leet Street then became a steel store. Less than five years later the new diesel workshop had to be extended. Conversion of trucks from petrol to diesel formed part of the workload and for a time in the 1970s Wilson Bros acted as agents for some makes of truck, including Hino and Daihatsu. A significant project in later years was the repowering of a railway locomotive for the Alliance Freezing Company. It was rebuilt with a Rolls Royce diesel engine and Allison transmission. Key sectors serviced by the Diesel Division include heavy equipment and mining, marine, forestry plant, transport, and general diesel engine servicing. Since 1993 the division has been parts and service dealer for Motor Holdings Ltd, servicing mainly Komatsu earthmoving equipment and it is also agent for Perkins diesel engines.

 

Robin Singleton joined the company in 1984 to manage the Diesel Division and was also responsible for Toyota fork lift truck sales. Since obtaining the dealership for Toyota fork lift trucks when Andrews and Beaven closed, Wilson Bros has sold more than 30 fork lifts of varying sizes to New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd. During the 1980s the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter had mainly Clark fork-lift trucks powered by Perkins diesel engines and it was not uncommon to have up to four Perkins diesels in the workshop at one time. All overhauled engines are dynanometer tested on the only water brake dynanometer of its type in Southland and Otago.

 

Over the years it has done more than 1000 tests. Robin Singleton also continued the firm’s long association with Fiordland Travel, supplying a number of Detroit diesels for new vessels operated on the Fiordland lakes and sounds. He left in 1995 to join a company just outside Picton and Noel Clayton became diesel service manager. In 1978 Lin Booth joined the firm as a sales representative and rose to become sales manager, a job that has taken him all over New Zealand and to many parts of the world. During his early years · with the firm there was considerable activity in the repowering of trucks and taxis with diesel engines. Lin recalls that every time the price of petrol went up cust­omers were “queued up like patients at a doctor’s waiting room.” The firm was the first to fit a diesel engine to a Holden car with automatic transmission and it was tested on Bluff hill to work out the changes under load.

 

Fitting and maintaining diesel engines in boats of the Southland fishing fleet was also an important part of the firm’s work, beginning with the conversion in 194 7 from steam to diesel of the oyster boat Monica, the first to be so fitted. This job was carried out by Keith Wilson and Harold Dallard and the engines can still be seen in the Monica which is now on dry land as part of the Bluff Maritime Museum. Regular maintenance· of oyster boat engines was part of the firm’s work and Allan Crosland recalls being rewarded, after completing a job, with a square cake tin holding 65 dozen oysters. Such generosity would be unlikely today for virtually every oyster dredged has to be accounted for.

 

Offering a 24-hour seven-day service meant long trips and odd hours for some Wilson Bros workers. On one occasion Allan _Crosland went to Milford Sound on a fishing boat service call. It took 10 minutes to fix the problem but it was three days before he got home because the weather closed in and both the airfield and road were closed. Allan also recalls working through the night on Fiordland Travel’s boats at Manapouri, as they were fully occupied throughout the day, and having a constant battle with huge moths attracted by the lights.

 

On another occasion three men, Wattie Froude, Keith Brook and Jim Honeyman, went to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound to install a diesel generator. When they wanted to come home for Easter they found the road closed by fog and snow so walked the 14km over the Wilmot Pass to the West Arm of Lake Manapouri to catch a launch to Manapouri. A somewhat more pleasant assignment, although a hasty one, was Allan Crosland’s trip to Palm Springs in the United States in search of engines for two former Clyde power project tugs bought by aviation entrepreneur and station owner, Sir Tim Wallis.

 

Work on equipment at Ohai, where Dick Collis operated Terek earthmovers at the opencast mines, was a regular task for the diesel mechanics. The firm was also involved in maintenance of the boats which serviced the oil rig of Hunt Petroleum while it was drilling south of Bluff, and also equipment on the rig itself. Diesel engines were also installed temporarily at both Invercargill newspapers on separate occasions when the electric motors went out of service.

Wilson Bros Dunedin branch in Thomas Burns Street, opened in 1976. This completely new building replaced the leased premises in Ward Street where the branch was established in 1966

FAG engineer Dave Dickie astride a huge bearing installed by Wilson Bros at the Macraes gold mine in Otago

Keith Wilson’s two sons, Alfred (after his grandfather) and Alex both joined the firm in the 1970s. After completing a BE in mechanical engineering at the University of Auckland, Alfred began in 1977 as a design engineer under Bob Yardley designing sawmill equipment, log haulers and conveyer systems. Together they developed a skyline-type log hauler mounted on a Mercedes truck and named the Wilhaul. Bob Yardley resigned late in 1978 and Alfred acted as interim engineering manager until leaving for Scotland on a working holiday in 1979. While overseas he worked as a planning engineer constructor on an oil rig called Brent C in the North Sea oil field. He rejoined Wilson Bros Ltd in 1980 in technical sales.

 

Alex Wilson, who also qualified BE(Mech), joined in 1979 for a year in the design office. He returned in 1983, after working in Auckland and overseas, to become engineering general manager and in 1987 left to set up an associated company, Wilson Engineering Systems Ltd, based in Auckland, to specialise in the design and supply (ex New Zealand and overseas) of sawmill equipment. Although it is a separate company, it works closely with Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd in the manufacture and sales of sawmilling machinery. A Melbourne office oversees the Australian operation. A significant project of Wilson Engineering Systems was the design and contract management of a $7 million upgrade of Bright Wood New Zealand Ltd’s Otautau processing plant. It also markets the Savage range of saws which Wilson Bros Ltd was granted the right to manufacture in 1989.

 

Around this time the Invercargill Chamber of Commere set up a “Business of the Month” award to recognize the skill and enterprise demonstrated by Southland businesses. Wilson Bros Ltd was chosen to be the first recipient of the award for its efforts to secure work outside the south. At the time Alfred Wilson was quoted as saying “a lot of development is taking place in the North island and we want a share of it so we need to get known up there, to establish a presence.”

 

In 1982 a property at 54-60 Leet street previously owned by Phil Poole Ltd was bought and this became the company’s diesel sales and parts warehouse. In the same year the Invercargill warehouse was extended with offices upstairs. Bert Low was warehouse manager and Bryan Wood, who had joined the company in 1975, was office manager. He had oversight of computerising the company’s office systems, initially through hiring time on Hallenste-ins computer in Dunedin thr.wgh “‘ permanent telephone line. When Bryan retired in 1990, Kingsley McMillan was appointed office manager. When Bert Low retired in 1983, Keith Turner was appointed warehouse manager and when he retired in 1988 Gregg Blomfield was appointed.

 

Wilson Bros Ltd became distributors for Renold chains and transmission products in Otago in 1983 and purchased the stock and plant of Renold (NZ) Ltd’s Dunedin branch. The next year the firm was appointed distributors for Renold in Invercargill and bought the Invercargill branch’s stock and plant. Colin Phillips, the Renold Invercargill manager, remained as the Renold representative, using an office at Wilson Bros. He retired from that position in 1987. The area vacated by the diesel division at 49 Leet Street was used for Renold products.

 

Norman Jenkins joined Wilson Bros Ltd in 1987 as the firm’s transmission
specialist. With a background in the New Zealand Forest Service he was particularly knowledgeable and worked with the company until his retirement in 1997. Like Bert Low and Bryan Wood he has also helped out following retirement, and this willingness has been much appreciated by the company.

 

In 1987 the engineering division was formed into a separate company, Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd, with Alan Johnstone as general manager and Merv Foley, who had joined the company in 1963, as workshop manager. This marked the birth of the Wilson Bros Group. Dave Davidson was the first engineering manager for the parent firm, holding the post from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. He was followed by Bob Yardley who resigned in 1979 before Alex Wilson took over. Alan Johnstone followed him in 1987 and Kevin Mair, who was employed in the design office in 1990, became engineering manager in 1997, a position he retains today.

 

When the engin­eering side of the business was set up as a separate company, it already had a proud record of service to industries throughout Southland and beyond. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the engineering division manufactured diesel log haulers for use throughout Southland, the West Coast and a number of North Island sites and in the 1970s the firm held a licence from McKee Engineering Pty Ltd in Australia to manufacture specialised sawmilling machinery. It also continued to develop its range of casing machines and conveyor sy stems for the meat industry. In more recent times Wilson Bros Engineering has encouraged its industrial customers to undertake predictive maintenance of their machinery through a procedure known as condition monitoring. The object is to provide information that will keep machinery operating longer at the least overall cost.

The Christchurch branch on a cool day!

An interior view of the workshop of Malcolm Officer Sheetmetal Ltd, a member of the Wilson Bros Group

Developments like the building of the island harbour at Bluff and the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point brought a variety of engineering work for the firm and it has had an ongoing involvement with the smelter with both engineering work and the supply of parts and equipment. Before the start of construction on the smelter the company was involved servicing and repairing equipment for Wilkins & Davies Ltd, the firm which upgraded the road to Awarua Bay to give access to the smelter site. In places the road line had to be excavated to more than six metres in depth and filled with manuka logs to get a foundation for the road fill. On the site itself Wilson Bros was involved with the contractors JC Anderson and O F (Ginner) Howie, both of whom spent some time consolidating the site. At one point a problem arose when a Maori cemetery was partly uncovered but the difficulty was resolved. Travelling to and from the site before the bridge over Awarua Bay was built was often difficult. Travel was by jet boat across an often rough stretch of water or, if heavy equipment was required, by road to the head of Awarua Bay, across the mudflats at low tide and back towards the entrance to the bay, a journey of about two hours.

 

When the smelter was being built, and then commissioned, the firm helped to sort out some of the problems, one being with the main extraction fans. These used eight-inch white metal bearings which overheated and vibrated. An SKF Swedish engineer, Gunner Sunblad, was called in and after a site inspection spherical roller bearings were fitted. Soon after he left New Zealand Gunner and some of his family were killed in a Boeing 707 crash in India. Ayoung daughter was one of the few survivors from the accident.

 

When a neighbouring engineering company, J Johnstone & Sons Ltd, went into receivership in 1989, Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd bought the large fabrication workshop, the office block and the building occupied by Malcolm Officer Sheetmetal Ltd. This latter company was added to the Wilson Bros Group in 1993.

In 1985 Wilson Bros was appointed Southland and Otago distributors for ball and roller bearings produced by the German company FAG and it relinquished the dealership for SKF bearings, for which it had previously won several top dealership awards. In 1990 it won the dealership for Timken taper roller bearings and extended its FAG dealership to cover the whole of the South Island. This led to the opening of a branch in Christchurch, for which Alfred Wilson, soon to become managing director, had the major responsibility. Premises were leased in Craft Place, Cliff McIntosh transferred from Dunedin as branch manager and Keith Turner rejoined the firm as warehouse manager. Ron Macdonald provided initial support in Christchurch and Lin Booth introduced Wilson Bros Ltd to potential customers. This included a trip with Alfred Wilson seeking sub-distributors in Blenheim, Nelson, Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika and Timaru. Such rapid progress was made that new premises had to be built in Annex Road and these were occupied in 1993. From Christchurch company representatives ranged over the whole of the upper South Island gaining important contracts to supply bearings to such diverse industries as Solid Energy in Greymouth, Dominion Salt at Lake Grassmere, the Christchurch City Council’s works department and Nelson Pine Industries, which operates the largest medium density fibreboard plant in the world. The experience for all involved in setting up the new branch was challenging, exciting and, most important, successful. Most recently the showroom in Annex Road has been more than doubled by expanding into a next door building, purchased earlier, which was extended and revamped to accommodate a new range of tools and consumables for the engineering industry.

 

Keith Wilson retired as managing director in 1991 to be succeeded by his eldest son, Alfred, the third of the family to control the company in the 72 years to that time, and it remains today a family firm. During Alfred’s time in control two further companies have been added to the group -Southland Hydraulic Services Ltd, now managed by Brent Gaudion, who joined the staff in 1996 as a sales representative, and Malcolm Officer Sheetmetal Ltd. The sheetmetal firm was bought in 1993 and Peter Johnston was appointed manager.

 

Southland Hydraulic Services began business in 1988 at 176 Clyde Street, Invercargill, and joined the Wilson Bros Group in 1992. The takeover of the business was completed in 1998 and in 1999 it moved to 56 Leet Street, opposite the group’s head office, following a significant redevelopment of the property. In a relatively short time the firm has gained a reputation as a market leader for its technical expertise and innovative hydraulic and pneumatic engineering solutions. Major clients serviced include the aluminium smelter, sawmilling, forestry, marine (both fishing and processing), agriculture and meat processing plants. The firm employs a US-trained hydraulic and pneumatic systems designer, Roger Wolf, and operates 24-hour mobile hose repair, workshop and on-site testing, honing, machining and welding.

 

Staff at Malcolm Officer Sheetmetal Ltd are skilled in all aspects of sheetmetal forming and fabrication, especially in stainless steel and aluminium, and specialize in the requirements of the meat freezing, dairy and food processing industries, making items as diverse as medical cabinets and cabs for forklift trucks.
When Kingsley McMillan joined the company as office manager in 1990 an in­house computer was installed with direct lines to the branches in Dunedin and Christchurch enabling head office to control all the office procedures. A separate computer is used for the associated companies. And in 1999 the firm was launched into cyberspace with the website www.wilsonbros.co.nz. The site consists of a master home page with a map of New Zealand and photographs of all the company’s operations. These are linked, along with a table matrix, to the web pages of the individual companies and branches which contain information on the equipment and capabilities of each and some have links to the websites of key agency suppliers.

 

In 1997 the Invercargill warehouse was modernized on an open plan design with work stations. The following year a new office and conference room were added by raising the roof above the parts department.

 

Late in the 1990s Wilson Bros Ltd was keen to expand its product range and the opportunity presented itself in Dunedin in April 2000. The .firm was selected as Weldwell distributors for Otago and complemented this with a complete range of engineering tools and consumables. Significant alterations were made to the Dunedin showroom and the expansion was launched in June 2000. Invercargill followed in February 2001 and Christchurch in April. The move introduced new skills to the company and staff with knowledge and experience, of the extended product range. As a result the company is capable of supplying most engineering requirements and is thus able to meet customer expectations. It is also able to supply national contracts and in this area works in closely with the BGH Group, based at Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty. The strength of this alliance was proven in 2001 with two major nationwide customers, the New Zealand Dairy Group and Downers Group, giving Wilson Bros the contract to supply all their sites with engineering products and consumables. On the 1st of November 2001, the Diesel Division of Wilson Bros Ltd was incorporated into Southland Hydraulic Services Ltd, enabling full utilisation of their combined resources.

 

Regular sales conferences have been held since 1995, at venues such as Queenstown, Wanaka and Christchurch and, on one occasion, aboard the sailing ship “Southern Spirit.” Nor has the social aspect of staff management been neglected. Each year ends with a staff dine and dance for all and significant individual work anniversaries are recognized by gifts as generous as an overseas trip. Over the years Wilson Bros teams have taken part in inter-house sports fixtures and from 1987 to 1994 the firm was the principal sponsor of the Old Boys Soccer Club. There have also been regular trips to sporting functions and tourist areas like Milford Sound and Stewart Island. Oyster nights have been a favourite feature.

 

Safety has been an important aspect of company policy over its 82-year history and during that time there have been only two serious accidents. In one a Butlers Foundry employee had his hand on the track of a travelling crane when the wheels rolled back on to his fingers. In the other a man working a lathe had all his clothing ripped off when it became entangled in the machinery. His first request after a workmate had turned the lathe off was for a mirror to see what damage had been done. In a non-work accident at Easter 1997, the firm lost assistant warehouse manager Andrew Mouat and his girl friend, Linley, in a car crash on the Lindis Pass road, a tragedy that saddened the entire staff.

 

As the 21st century began, Wilson Bros Ltd continued to consolidate its reputation as a group of companies known for the integrated nature of its engineering and related services. Because of the unique combination of companies within the group and their comprehensive range of skills, the group is able to offer design expertise, manufacturing capability, diagnostic and preventative maintenance and 24-hour service over the whole range of companies. It aims, as its mission statement says, to attract and retain customers by providing quality service, support and technical back-up that meets or exceeds expectations and contributes to the growth, strength and success of both the company and its customers.

 

The group consists of Wilson Bros Holdings Ltd, Wilson Bros Ltd (bearing and transmission specialists), Wilson Bros Ltd – Diesel Division (marine and heavy equipment), Wilson Bros Engineering Ltd, Southland Hydraulic Services, Malcolm Officer Sheetmetal Ltd (stainless steel fabrication) and Butlers Foundry Ltd (ferrous and non-ferrous castings), together with several property companies.

 

Managing director Alfred Wilson sums up the company’s history thus: “The success of the company has always been the people. We have been fortunate to have highly-skilled, dedicated and loyal staff, focused to providing a service that at least meets, and hopefully exceeds, customers’ expectations. We have maintained pace with developments in technology and will change to ensure the companies within the group continue to prosper.”

The Butlers Foundry building in Bond Street, Invercargill. The foundry became associated with Wilson Bros in 1965 and a full member of the group in 1983

The statuary commemorating Kate Shepherd and the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand cast by Butlers Foundry and erected near the Avon River in Christchurch

Even before Wilson Bros Ltd took over Butlers Foundry the firm was in the business of casting statues and has since been involved in some significant projects. During 1963 the Invercargill City Council commissioned a bronze statue of Sir James Barrie’s mythical figure Peter Pan, to be financed with funds from the Bellamy Trust and erected in Queens Park in Invercargill. It was sculpted by Doreen Bricknell of Invercargill and moulded by John Foy and George Cottenden. Both men were qualified moulders who came out to New Zealand from Britain in the 1950s, John from Scotland in 1955 to be Wilson Bros foundry manager and George from England a year later.

 

Because of the time involved it would have been too expensive to have made the statue as a routine job so the firm supplied the bronze and the facilities and John and George moulded it in their own time and then spent countless hours cleaning and polishing it. In 1966, after Wilson Bros had joined Butlers, the statue was erected in the park.

 

Sitting on Peter Pan’s shoulder was a tiny figure of the fairy Tinkerbell and this proved a magnetic attraction to vandals who twice wrenched it off. On the first occasion it disappeared completely and George Cottenden made a replacement. This too disappeared but was subsequently returned and reinstalled on Peter’s shoulder.
George became the moulding shop manager at Butlers in 1965 when Wilson Bros took a 50 percent shareholding in the firm and Ormond Butler remained as managing director. He retired in 1983 and George managed the foundry until his own retirement in 1987. He was succeeded by Wayne Rayner, who was an apprentice at the time of the takeover.

 

Originally, Wilson Bros melted iron in a coke-fired cupola furnace. At Butlers an oil-fired furnace was first used but when oil prices rocketed in the 1970s a half-­ton capacity electric furnace was installed. A smaller unit was used for melting non­ferrous metals.

 

Statues produced by Butlers include one of the New Zealand world champion middle weight boxer, Bob Fitzsimmons, commissioned by Sir Robert Jones, which is erected in Timaru, a series of large plaques commemorating Kate Shepherd and the suffragette movement, erected alongside the river Avon in central Christchurch, plaques at the Invercargill showground erected in 1966 as a tribute to the pioneers of Southland, a statue at Te Anau of the Fiordland explorer, Quintin Mackinnon, and a bronze statue of a tuatara, a reptile described as a living fossil, outside the entrance to the Southland Museum. This was commissioned as the millennium project of the combined Rotary clubs of Invercargill in the year 2000.

 

Producing a statue is a complicated and laborious process. Margriet Windhausen, of Timaru, who also sculpted the Fitzsimmons statue, modelled the tuatara statue on Henry, patriach of the tuatarium at the museum, who is reckoned to be more than 100 years old. After studying Henry in the flesh she produced a clay model from which a wax cast, an exact replica of the clay model, was prepared . This was then cut into sections and outer moulds and a core made and assembled. The statue was then cast in bronze in six major pieces plus the four feet and fettled (cleaned up and polished). As with the Peter Pan Statue, this process was undertaken by Wayne Rayner in many hours of his own time. The pieces were then welded together, cleaned again and the statue erected on its rock base.

 

Statues, however, formed only a minor part of Butlers’ work. The foundry has was widely known for its stylish and finely produced street furniture – bollards, chain posts, rubbish bins, lamp posts and heavy duty seating. It also produced more mundane items like manholes, gratings of all kinds, firebars and flood gates.

This bronze tuatara, a millennium project of the Combined Rotary Clubs of lnvercargill, was cast by Butlers Foundry and erected outside the Southland Museum, which houses a living exhibit of the unique reptile. Alfred Wilson (centre) was President of the Rotary Club of lnvercargill at the dawn of the new century and chairman of the combined committee. At left is the Mayor of lnvercargill, Tim Shadbolt, and at right Warwick Cambridge, of The Community Trust of Southland, which contributed to the cost of the project

The statue of pioneer explorer Quintin Mackinnon, cast at Butlers Foundry, looks out over a tranquil Lake Te Anau

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