Two decades of creative engineering earns its own rewards



Rodney and Angela Sharp started the first Progressive Group company 21 years ago this month. In that time Progressive has become another name for the leading troubleshooter for the timber and energy industries and a leader in hydraulic engineering.

Rodney Sharp says his company is not the show pony of the industry rather the draught horse which has made steady progress plodding along in “the direction we want to go”.

He sells himself short.

Progressive is in the process of commissioning two year’s work on a large hydraulic contract for the Te Mihi geothermal power project and has recently completed projects for Meridian among others.

Even before that chapter is closed completely the innovative Mr Sharp is about to bring to market a reactionless post driver which he has been musing on for five years, sparked by the need for a rock crusher that was not so harsh on equipment and tools.

New ways to look at old problems

In the last couple of years the project gained traction after a hydraulic company asked him to produce a compliant post hole driver ahead of impending health and safety reforms which appear likely to result in a ban on the use of traditional post hole driving where a big weight is dropped from a height on to the post.

“It’s a whole new way of doing things – simply with only three major moving parts,” says Mr Sharp. “There is a lot of physics involved and we worked with the University of Waikato to seek peer reviews,” he says.

The whole project took two years and resulted in a unit hooked to a tractor which picks up the post and sets it in a tube with a 400mm gap between the top of the tube and the head of the post. That does away with the need for a four metre gantry to raise a heavy weight.

“A controlled hydraulic action compresses nitrogen within that gap and releases it quickly to provide a force equivalent to 270kg dropped from a height of four metres to drive the post into the ground,” says Mr Sharp.

The product was an award winner for Best Use of Technology at this year’s Fieldays at Mystery Creek.

“We looked after the $800 million, 400KV transmission project for BBUG/Transpower. The $2 million quad stringing winch imported from Europe would not work on the long pulls so we redesigned it so it would,“ says Mr Sharp.

“The head board designed to pull three conductors at once didn’t really work either so we redesigned that and sped the stringing operation by over 10 percent and dropped the sheave damage to virtually zero.”

Life in the forests

Back in 1996 Progressive became involved with Materials Processing, an innovative kiwi company processing up to 80,000 tonnes of Kawerau waste stream a year.

“With the Resource Management Act imminent they became worried – up ‘till then they had been dumping everything and they were running out of space,” says Mr Sharp.

“We ran some American hoggers with masses of fuel and wear problems.

“We discovered it was the pumice which was doing all the wear. No one else in the world had pumice and all the trees grown on the plateau in Kaiangaroa were [affected by it]. So we thought if Boeing can spend $8 billion building a 747 when 80 percent of the airports in the world at the time were too small, surely we can spend $400,000 and build a hogger.”

Roadshow for the Weta

The Sharps built the Wood Weta from cash flow between 2002 and 2004 – it was hard yakka.

“We got some work for it down at Pan Pac Forest Products in Napier and it was very successful.

“It is the only hogger in the world able to pre-screen dirt and used a simple but robust trommel screen to do it,” says Mr Sharp.

“We took it around the rest of New Zealand and took it up north – we never found anything that it could not do.

“We were contacted by Norse Skog Tasman to bring the Weta down for a trail.

“The Weta went down to tackle 20,000 tonnes of waste timber which was deemed difficult by the contractor who wanted a premium to process it.

“Norse Skog rang up and asked if they could extend the trial – they did some forest hogging and tried all sorts of tests. It went down to Kawerau where it was intended for in the first place and ended up processing all the material the low speed unit could not cope with – we estimate 40-50,000 tonnes a year.”

The green Weta

These days the Weta has gone green.

“When the government walked away from carbon tax the price fell from $20 a tonne four years ago to 17 cents a tonne,” says Mr Sharp.

“The market was decimated and today we are processing less woody biomass than we were five years ago.”

The sad state of the market forced Progressive to look at the opportunities for processing green waste – driven by pressure on local council obligations to divert it away from landfills.

“The Weta is the only hogger capable of effectively processing flax and palm trees along with softer green waste into compost and this is attracting a lot of attention,” he says.

Energy still provides the power

Despite the diversity of its operations, energy remains a major plank in the company’s development.

Even ahead of the time when the future for forestry began to look decidedly shaky the pair had decided they needed to develop a more stable market like energy. By 2006, things in the timber sector were dire and Progressive capitalised on its reputation as a company which designs and builds the difficult or unusual jobs.

“We had actually done some big projects in the energy sector already – in 1996 we worked on the power packs at the Poihipi power station in Taupo after they had been installed incorrectly and the valves would not work.

From 2002 the focus on energy increased as the writing on the wall for forestry became bigger.

“The energy guys – they pay their bills and they have interesting projects so we focused on that. There’s a lot of hydraulic logic involved and that the company had always been doing design works.”

“We have done a lot of work for Mighty River Power, Genesis, Meridian and Contact Energy.

“We designed, built and installed emergency spillway diesel power packs, new servo motors for Arapuni on the Waikato, governors and instantaneous response valves for Manapouri and power packs for geothermal steam control – all with double or triple redundancy built into them.

“We also designed and installed controls at Aviemore on the Waitaki River and designed and installed new valves to control the CHH PM6 paper machine, the largest in NZ.”

The school of hard knocks

Rodney Sharp honed his skills over the years and is a five star graduate of the school of hard knocks.

“I worked for many years as a diesel mechanic for Caterpillar, spent a few years overseas and came back to New Zealand as a service manager for Cable Price in Hamilton.

“I went to work for hydraulic company Danfoss and we introduced the PVG 32 proportional valve into New Zealand. That was one of the things I was responsible for.

“We put it on the Waratah Processor head and it was the valve that really set Waratah on their path.

“I also did Steel Bros Mark V1 sideloader – the first traversing module side loader in the world and still one of the most successful now.”

After a change of management at Danfoss NZ, Mr Sharp lost his job.

“Angela was pregnant so we went from having two incomes and no kids to no income and a dependent,” he says.

Many of the customers tried to make contact with Mr Sharp after he left.

“I didn’t get to commission the first Mark V1 for Steel Bros before I left – and after a couple of incidents I got a call one day from a very irate (the late) Rod Steel who had a solid reputation for not beating around the bush. He summoned me to Christchurch where I worked out that the system had been changed since the original design and that was creating some unreliability and safety issues.”

The reputation begins to spread

“The long and short of it was that we ended up importing Danfoss valves for 18 months for both Steel Brothers and Waratah. We supplied more Danfoss into New Zealand than Danfoss New Zealand did at the time.”

“Watties had some serious issues with their tomato harvesters in Hastings. They had paid $750,000 for an overhaul of the harvesters but they were only running at about 20 percent of efficiency. So I went down there for five weeks when our baby Benjamin was just three weeks old – and got them going about 30 percent better than what they were to start with.

“Forestry wasn’t booming at that time but there were all the indications that it was going to go ahead.

“We set up in Te Rapa in 1992 – there were seven mines in Huntly – lots of variety – forestry, mining a bit of agriculture we were still doing work in Auckland.

“Ninety percent of the time I was on the road – I would go to Kaitaia for a week of work and people would find out I was there so I’d be away three weeks. We did some pretty big hours.“

“I was already a solo mum,” laughs Mrs Sharp.

Husband Rodney was in his element.

A product to call our own

“We looked after a lot of forestry equipment – we did a lot of Waratah’s work and did a lot of work with Goughs. About this time we started to think it’s about time we made something rather than doing maintenance.

“I had always wanted to build a two roller processing head but we did not have any fabrication facilities, so it was a little bit tricky.

“We had the design and went 50-50 with Steel and Track and set up a company called Forest Systems.

“We made the two roller head I had designed. We designed the first automatic adjust chain saw. We did so many innovative things under Forest Systems. We did all the design work and they did all the fabrication and fitting. Eventually the partnership was dissolved. I owned all the IP on the designs and we moved on to other things.”

We don’t rip people off

“We had always had a bit of a green tinge to us and all our designs have always looked at low fuel consumption, ease of maintenance.

“We ran out of space because we were expanding and so we decided to build this workshop.

“We were borrowing a bit but have always been careful with our business – we have been astute with our purchases – and we plough every cent back into the business.

“Our business has been a defining part of our life and our interest in the environment is part of our business and part of our life,” says Mrs Sharp. “We’ve made money along the way but we don’t rip people off – so we decided to build it in an environmentally friendly way – this was long before it was fashionable.

“We have discovered that an ethical and environmentally sensitive business does not have to be costly and does have a cost benefit. Lean manufacturing and sustainability go hand in hand but you still have to motivate staff.”

Wayne Holmes – a director of the NZ Dairy (predecessor to Fonterra) told Rodney to read a book called Built to Last.

It does not tell you how to run your business – it has investigated businesses that have been successful over a long period of time and it showcased what they are and benchmarked them against the next best in the industry.

“I read the book and it was like someone had turned the light on. I realised we had a company culture – we were real sticklers for quality – it put a label on what we were doing. You either fitted the culture or you didn’t and left. If you liked innovation you fitted very well with us – if you did not you were soon out.

“We have always stuck with high quality, respected hydraulic products like Eaton, Aeroquip, Cassapa and Stauff and reputable machinery like Okuma. This has allowed us to hire the right staff to consistently produce high quality solutions to industry. It may be expensive but it is the only way to go if you are in it for the long haul. The quality of our clients say it all. “