To change may be difficult – not to change can be fatal

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The grain stacker under test in Christchurch earlier in the year

A Christchurch engineering company that once specialised in sawmill machinery has landed a major, NZ$25 million supply contract for an Australian bulk grain handling firm that will see up to 50 new jobs created in the firm’s Christchurch manufacturing base.

Southern Cross Engineering chief executive Paul Thorn is unequivocal about the reasons for the firm’s diversification into different fields.

“Survival,’’ he says.

Sixty years ago, ‘’there was a timber mill in every small town in New Zealand,’’ he says.

Not so today, with that industry in a protracted downturn.

But the firm’s strengths – innovation, discipline, efficiency and an X-factor described by Mr Thorn as “lateral thinking” – have turned successfully to other fields, including materials handling and a foray into minerals in Australia.

Australian bulk material handler Graincorp has ordered 25 grain stackers due for staggered delivery up to November this year.

The order will see a new site developed in Hornby, Christchurch, and new employment opportunities for everything from tradesmen to assembly operators, in order to manufacture and deliver on time.The grain stacker in action at one of GrainCorp’s Australian working sites

Mr Thorn says the company hopes to absorb some skilled workers from other Christchurch companies undergoing restructuring, retaining skills within the region. They are also advertising extensively nationwide.

He says Southern Cross won the contract with its innovative edge.

“We broke the paradigm,’’ he says of the design for the mobile stacker, which receives grain from trucks post-harvest and transfers it into storage bunkers.

Existing arrangements had issues with safety, operability and efficiency. Southern Cross’ machine is unique.

It can be transported from bunker site to bunker site – is easily assembled and disassembled – conforms to Australian road regulations – is four wheel drive enabling it to operate in extreme terrain – it is self-propelled with its own electrical generator and controlled by one operator.

The mobile stacker has a throughput capacity of up to 700 tonnes per hour, far exceeding anything currently in use.Paul Thorn believes a uniquely Kiwi understated arrogance drives New Zealanders to do better and never rest on their laurels, as opposed to the more overt Australian self belief

It can also operate in temperatures up to 50C.

An Australian engineer who has worked in New Zealand for more than 20 years, Mr Thorn is also clear on why a New Zealand firm was able to trump Australian competitors for the coveted Graincorp contract.

Price was an obvious factor, he says, but then “we can build 40 per cent cheaper again in China.’’

“Innovation is the key. One of the unique things is we design/manufacture/ install and commission. We’re not a consultancy.

“We market as a one-stop shop – we have a workshop and our designers have a pragmatic view of the world because the workshop guys feed back to the designers about some aspects of design.’’

He also believes a uniquely Kiwi “understated arrogance” drives New Zealanders to do better and never rest on their laurels, as opposed to the more overt Australian self belief.

The current order for 25 grain stackers is due progressively by November, a tight time frame which will see double shifts running in the company’s Christchurch sites – is the result of a carefully cultivated relationship with Graincorp over several years. It is not expected to be the last and the firm is expecting a repeat order, as well as marketing the product further afield, such as in North America.

In another recent project, Southern Cross completed a belly dumping woodchip truck receiving facility at a Victorian port for Graincorp, a project which led to the request for a prototype grain stacker.

Mr Thorn says Southern Cross’ outside-the-box approach to the operating issues with current grain stacking arrangement won it the contract.

A prototype was trialled in Canterbury, then in Australia under conditions replicating an Australian harvest.

Thorn says Southern Cross – 100 staff strong and with offices in Christchurch, Auckland, Melbourne and Brisbane – isn’t small, but neither is it the largest firm in Australasia. They make that size work to their advantage.The stacker, boom and DOG (drive over grid) under construction at Southern Cross Engineering’s Christchurch workshop

“We have to keep ahead on innovation. We can’t afford to waste money on patenting … we change and develop to keep ahead of the competition.’’

Next up for the firm is a continued and growing involvement in the Australian minerals sector.

A project to upgrade plant at a quarry in Kullnara, New South Wales, where rock is crushed, graded and screened for use in concrete, roads and rail ballast has been a huge learning curve, he says.

“There were lots of lessons. The potential is huge. The client is a large competitor in the industry and was very happy.’’

Further mining/quarrying work is inevitable.

For a company founded in 1955 on servicing the timber industry, mining and grain handling seem a long way from its roots.

Mr Thorn says Southern Cross is still deeply involved in solutions for timber processing, but diversification into other industries is ensuring the company’s future.

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