If you ask Bruce Carden, Manufacturing Director of Tidd Ross Todd (TRT), a trailer manufacturing company based in Hamilton on the North Island of New Zealand, there is something special about the Kiwi way of doing business, a competitive advantage deeply rooted in the nation’s economic and geographic seclusion.
“New Zealand has traditionally been off the beaten path, so people have learned to take charge of their own destiny,” he says, emphasising that the country’s ancient can-do attitude is still affecting every aspect of life in the Land of the Long White Cloud. “In business and in private life, we look at a problem from every angle and try to find a way to solve it with the resources we have on hand. We don’t let the problem freak us out.”
That ‘island mentality’ is exactly what has made TRT such a highly effective manufacturing business, Carden argues. Established in 1967, the company is specialised in the design of bespoke heavy-duty equipment, from classic rows-of-eight to so-called house removal trailers, which are fitted with hydraulic lift axles that can carry entire buildings in one piece.
From the first design drawing through to the final layer of paint, every step of the production process in carried out in-house, Carden says: “One of our core strengths is having our entire manufacturing at our Hamilton facility. After processing the steel plate at one end through twin high-definition plasma cutters and press brakes supported by CNC lathes and milling machines, our raw steelwork is put into kit sets before moving off for welding and line boring.
Carden is quick to point out that pre-assembly takes place with Quality Assurance hold points before the weldments enter the blast and paint section, with TRT ensuring they are blasted to a 50 micron profile and painted with 150-200 micron – using a 2k paint system via electrostatic gun within filtered bake ovens. Carden says the complex process was chosen to provide a “world-class surface finish” and ensure paint is applied to those hard to get to areas pre-assembly – indicating just how much control the company has about every detail of the build.
“Every piece of equipment we build is a large-scale engineering project so we need to be able to fabricate whatever we need without bringing in external contractors as many of our competitors do,” he says. “We do keep our production extremely lean, but the complexity of the work we do just doesn’t allow for a plug and play approach.”
The result is a company that is very much anchored in the local community and the Kiwi culture, but with a distinct global edge due to the high degree of product specialisation. In fact, with only a handful of OEMs left in the country, TRT now is the only sizable New Zealand heavy-duty expert, servicing a customer base stretching from Australia all the way to Brazil.
“What the competition does is largely irrelevant to our manufacturing business,” says Dave Wright, TRT’s Marketing Manager. “We do what we do in the specialist sector of the trailer market, and we don’t compete with those serving the general freight market.”
Yet, focusing on its core product doesn’t mean TRT is restricted to trailer building. “It might sound like a contradiction, but we are actually a highly diversified business,” says Robert Carden, Engineering Director, explaining that the second-generation family enterprise is heavily involved in the crane and construction field and also has a strong truck and trailer parts and service operation to complement the manufacturing part.
“TRT started off repowering early petrol trucks with discarded army equipment that had been left behind by US Forces in the Pacific after WWII, so we have a long tradition in the truck servicing industry – expertise that is feeding straight back into trailer building. It’s the same with our crane division. We have a history here that is benefitting both the business and our customers, because we can provide them with a complete solution.
“Looking back, we are proud to have built our reputation on innovation, engineering design expertise and exceeding customer demands over the years. When you choose TRT, you don’t just get our superior design and manufacturing capabilities, you also get our team’s depth of knowledge and our personal attention to answer your needs.”
According to Robert, the company’s history in truck and crane manufacturing has also helped it build a tightly knit international support network that continues to serve it today. “We do a lot of work in the truck servicing field and we also have a driveshaft production line, as well as a parts business, so we are in constant contact with suppliers from around the globe, which is great to bounce back ideas with industry leading businesses and opens up new opportunities for us all the time.”
Wright says the ability to specify a complete solution for a transport task, even including the crane, is a real competitive advantage in that context – not only because it goes hand-in-hand with the Kiwi tradition of getting the job done in the most straightforward way possible. “If you have all the expertise in house, from the smallest part through to the crane control unit, you can tackle the job from a completely different angle,” he says.
“A familiar problem that Crane operators are faced with when purchasing a new large mobile crane is how all the ancillary equipment is transported to site. Think of a Grove GMK6400 with 135 tonnes of counterweight, luffing fly jib and auxiliary equipment – that’s multiple semi-trailer loads that have to be transported to site before the crane can operate at full capacity.”
To provide a full end-to-end solution, Robert says TRT has designed purpose-built lightweight trailers that are able to securely carry counterweights and other crane components without the risk of damage from chains and dogs so they can be delivered to the crane site in the right order to be deployed.”
According to Robert, the counterweight trailers have been so well received that they have been added as a standard item to the TRT portfolio, even if ‘standard’ is a loose term in the company’s line of work. “It’s definitely something that helps set us apart,” he says. “The kind of work we do is always out of line, which is good because it’s not that closely linked to how the economy is performing, but you still need a good foundation to work from. The crane support trailer range will broaden that foundation and give us an edge for the 2015-16 season.”
There is a strong desire to remain independent in the TRT business, Dave Wright says, be it from the ever-present global competition or the economy at large. “We don’t want to be at the mercy of politics, which is why our business is set up the way it is. We build highly customised equipment that you can’t get around the next corner, which is probably why we’re still alive and well.”
Yet, when local journalist Bryan Gould called New Zealand an “economic trade prisoner of China” last month, the TRT management team still listened closely. “There is a lot of talk at the moment of China slowing down and the Australian mining boom ending, so we try to be prepared for it. We do think there’s a lot of scaremongering going at the moment, though. A seven per cent GDP growth rate like in China is still quite outstanding, but the media tend to blow it out of proportion and thereby place unnecessary pressure on business confidence.
“For example, why did no one report on the fact that New Zealand just took presidency of the International Forum for Road Transport Technology (IFRTT)? It goes to show just how highly regarded we are in terms of manufacturing and engineering, but it’s obviously not scandalous enough.”
While the Carden brothers do acknowledge that there is a certain level of confusion about the economy since the GFC swept across the globe in 2008, they say that distancing itself from the frenzy has helped the TRT management team remain clear-headed. “Maybe we do place too much emphasis on the economy when it comes to the success or failure of our own businesses. We don’t know whether or not is has to do with being from New Zealand, but we believe the responsibility is ultimately with us and not the economy.”
With New Zealand currently struggling to recover from what a local newspaper called a “ferocious and unexpected” dairy price drop – the dairy industry had been carrying much of the post-crisis recovery before – that attitude is what is keeping TRT strong, says Robert. “Of course there is a level of influence the economy has on small and medium-sized enterprises like us, but it is just one of many. And it’s about the only one we can’t control. At TRT, we like to focus on the ones that we can control.”
While local media keep arguing that sharply falling dairy prices and the slowdown of construction activity in Christchurch after the devastating 2011 earthquake will damage confidence in New Zealand for the time being, TRT is one local business that does not let economic scaremongering lead it astray. Instead, it is capitalising on the nation’s unique island mentality to establish local trailer building firmly on the global business map.