Privately owned Eastern Bay of Plenty firm, Waiotahi Contractors Ltd, was built by men with big hearts and a colossal work ethic. Like the next generation of owners, MAN’s big 26.640 in heavy haul trim is discovering that if you’re made of the right stuff, big shoes fit just fine.
“G’day, Richard, pleased to meet you,” a hand extended is followed by a better than firm grasp. “What do you reckon? Any good? You need power, power and retardation on that job. They’re the two most important things. Get as much as you can of both. I remember the GUY we had with a Gardner motor, it had 150hp and 24 forward gears. It was a good truck on the flats, but show it a hill, and oh boy.” Just at that moment someone calls out to him, and Richard’s attention is drawn elsewhere. “Good on you, I’ve gotta keep moving.” Another handshake and he starts walking. “It’s a good machine all right,” he says as he strides off, pointing to the 26.640 MAN we’re standing beside. “Driver comfort too!” His voice fades as he gets further away, and he’s gone.
Photos For Rex and the MAN it’s one machine after another.
We’ve just met the man known throughout the company as ‘Father’. Richard Claydon, majority shareholder of Waiotahi Contractors Ltd, is about six-foot-tall, one of those wiry types with boundless stamina. Today he’s gumboot-clad, energetic and enthusiastic, walking around a run-off pond overseeing a digger and ground crew at the company’s Blue Rock quarry just out of Whakatane. Richard Claydon is 83, and still puts in a full day, every day. And he’s not alone; there must be something in the water here. His business partner of over half a century – and also company chairman – Robbie Peterson, is 80.
The day-to-day running of the business in senior positions now falls on the shoulders of three of their combined six children. Henry Claydon is managing director, ‘Spike’ Peterson runs the Opotiki branch, and Stephen Claydon Waiotahi Transport Ltd, but the impact the patriarchs have on the company and its culture is evident everywhere. Let’s back up five or so hours from our ‘Richard encounter’. As per Stephen’s instructions we arrived at Waiotahi Contractors’ yard in Whakatane just before 6am on a calm morning. Looking magnificent on the left-hand end of the line-up of trucks catching the first rays of light was the reason for our journey, the company’s 11-month-old TGX D38 MAN 26.640, the only one like it in the country. A big bopper MAN rated to cart 120 tonne. While we were waiting for driver Rex Stephens to start, other members of the Waiotahi family were arriving. Three in every five greeted us and asked if we were okay, and everyone appeared to tip bonnets, cabs, or open flaps, and check oil, water, and then thump tyres. All while chat and laughter was being exchanged and cups of coffee drunk. This was oldschool; for us this felt like home.
Rex arrived, again greetings were exchanged. He opened the door, and the cab lit up. If you’d forgotten to do your hair and needed a mirror, any of the gleaming rubber floor mats, the dashboard, or the seat backs would have done fine. While we set up our stuff Rex went about his pre-checks and closed up the three rows of eight MTE transporter. At that point pilot and general hard case Phil Patuwai arrived. The two men would keep us heartily entertained for two days. As we said, this MAN is unique in Aotearoa. When it came time to replace their aging Western Star transporter, Waiotahi approached Penske Commercial about MAN’s bigger offerings. What they needed wasn’t available ex stock in Australasia so they went for a stepped solution. They bought a TGX 26.540 in the meantime that Rex drove for 12 months and when the 640 came mid last year, the 540 pensioned off the Hino transporter in Opotiki, and voilà, here we are.
Photo: The subtle touches on this truck result in a clever combination that is restrained yet spectacular.
A ‘trained’ ear
Knowing straight-up whether you’re in a truck that’s a try-hard or a play-hard is often down to sound. Once settled in, Rex twists the gear knob on the TipMatic, injects some unburnt fuel into the cylinders with his right foot and as the MAN heads for the lane leading onto Valley Road, the cab fills with a beautiful rich note from below, one of the best we’ve encountered for a long time, and it doesn’t go away. Our eyes lit up. “It sounds like a train, eh?” said Rex. “Yeah, it does too. That is a lovely note isn’t it?” “Yep, you don’t get sick of it.” First big tick MAN, don’t over-sterilise the driving experience.
Rex and his MAN make up part of the Waiotahi Contractors Ltd team – Waiotahi Transport Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary – and along with the TGX 26.540 transporter based in Opotiki, they ensure the company’s 100- plus machines of all shapes and sizes are where they need to be, when they need to be there. Every minute a digger’s not digging or a bulldozer’s not pushing is earning time you’ll never get back, so relocating them as skilfully and efficiently as possible is paramount. A task that requires a lot of truck, and a lot of operator. Leads are often as short as 10km, but on occasions can be as long as two or three hundred kilometres, depending on company and outwork requirements. In terms of company work there can be four or five moves in a day that might comprise relocations, something new to go fetch, something old to take away, or something to take for repair or refurbishment. On the odd occasion when there is nothing to do, Rex will help in the workshop or maintain his unit, something he’s largely responsible for.
Photo: One 35 tonne Hala digger delivered. Phil tends to the chains on the left-hand side.
“I do outwork, but not stuff too far away usually. It’s no use me being away when our own gear needs moving. I move skidders and processors for local bush crews. I can’t do haulers as I don’t have a dolly, although we’ve just bought a 48 tonne digger so there’s one in the plan. I’m cut with a 45 tonne machine on in this set up.” Today is a typical one for Rex, moving a 34 tonne Doosan digger and extra bucket from Waiotahi’s Ratahi quarry in Awakeri, up the road about 30km to their Blue Rock Quarry on the outskirts of Whakatane. And then a 35 tonne bush rigged machine to be relocated in the Ruatoki Valley. Rex has been on the transporter work for the eight years he’s been with the company. Immaculately groomed, polite, and great company, you’d say he’s of the same calm and unflappable mould as Mike Ruki-Willison on the John Baillie Volvo we reviewed in February, although Phil was adamant Rex is all hard case at heart and the life and soul of a party if you’re throwing one.
Cool, calm, and considered is a demeanour absolutely essential in this job. His grass roots grounding in trucks at King Country icon PGF is clearly evident from the get-go, and his time at Waiotahi has certainly made him a more than proficient machine-man. The company has put him through his NZQA L4 Heavy Haulage Transportation qualification as part of his personal development. He’s the consummate professional and a great bloke to boot. In terms of travel time and comfort over the 20-odd clicks out to the first pick-up point, you couldn’t have done any better in a top-end car. At the Ratahi site Rex wriggles the unit into position, drops the ramps, gets the chains out and jumps on the machine. It’s his job to get the beasts of burden on and off the transporter, and he locates the extra bucket just where he wants it. He and Phil then set about chaining it all on, something Rex is fastidious about, “Some people say, ‘why do you put so many chains on, so-and-so puts half that amount on’. I say ‘Um…because it’s the law?’ There’s some hard cases out there, eh?” Rex fitted the stylish ‘over size’ signage to the front of the MAN. Everything about the truck appeared well thought out, and efficient. It has to be, considering the number of shifts a day’s work can contain.
Forty-five minutes after the silver Lion on the grille breasted the gate, it was leaving again. Not really a test as the run to Blue Rock was flat, but certainly an indication. At 60 tonne all-up, the MAN’s ability to keep Phil in the Triton pilot wagon clearly in sight was staggering. Apart from the slightest lift as it picked up through the gears, there was no indication there was much in tow. “You have to be careful,” said Rex. “She’ll even wheelspin loaded for a split second if you’re a bit heavy handed. It’s a bloody impressive machine.” We turned right at Awakeri village to avoid some road works and shot down to the Taneatua bridge, turned left at the squash club, and back to the outskirts of Whakatane to the Blue Rock site.
King of the MAN jungle
If you want to shift heavy machines around quietly and efficiently, then MAN’s top offering may be hard to head off. As an OEM they have a long history of behemoth trucks able to shift behemoth bits. Under the boards is the company’s Euro 6 15.2-litre D3876LF09 6-cylinder engine poking out 478kW (640hp) and 3000Nm (2213l/ft) of torque. It’s an electronic high-pressure common rail injection system with two-stage turbo-charging, two-stage EGR cooling, and topdown cooling, said to be effective in thermal stress reduction and energy conservation. Being Euro 6 there’s SCR also. Like all engines in this category, its output figures would once have seemed ludicrous. Peak torque is flat from 900rpm through to 1400rpm, at which point the engine is making 440kW (590hp). And at peak power (1800rpm), torque is still at 2500Nm (1844lb/ft).
Behind the big furnace is MAN’s TipMatic 12 30 OD Heavy-Duty 12-speed AMT transmission for applications in the 70 to 120 tonne GCM. Hardware-wise it’s a ZF TraXon, and application software-wise it’s a MAN TipMatic, meaning ZF make the bits and MAN breathe the life into it. With the retarder on the back, it’s a lovely piece of kit and not only increases the ease of Rex’s day exponentially, but once again also belies the fact you’re roaring around half the time in the mid-60 tonne bracket.
Front axle is MAN’s VOK-09 with parabolic springs, shock absorbers and stabiliser bar rated at 8000kg. Out back is the HYD-1370/HY-1350 rear axle at 3.70:1, with diff-lock on the rear axle. The drive units sit on MAN’s 8-bag ECAS (Electronically Controlled Air Suspension) with hefty stabilisers front and rear. Combined rating of the suspension is 23 tonne. The truck has disc brakes and the wheels are Alcoa Dura- Bright. The front is shod with 385/65 22.5 and the rear 295/80 22.5 tyres. One of the reasons Waiotahi have gone for MAN is a preference for Euro technology and safety, as well as driver environment. Even 20 years ago, successfully dealing with the output of a powertrain like the one in the MAN on a daily basis would have been the reserve of a select few drivers, ironically the ilk of men like Rex, but now technology mitigates the gaps between enthusiasm, situation, and resource on hand. Technology helps keep things like tyre life, bushes, and fuel consumption in a more than acceptable state, not to even go near things like panel beating and chassis straightening. And when you are talking artificial smarts, with Volkswagen’s bag of tricks to draw from, the MAN has…
…technology in abundance
The truck lacks for nothing from a safety standpoint. The 26.640 has MAN’s BrakeMatic EBS system – so ABS obviously. Lane Guard, Adaptive Cruise, and Emergency Brake Assist 2 (EBA2). EBA2 combines bumper-mounted radar and a dash-mounted camera, working in unison, to validate the situation presented to man and machine. The Driver Activity Detection system can assess speed, direction, and driver activity, determining if Rex is busy working his way through the village and adjusting response times to emergency brake events accordingly. There’s Anti-Jackknife in there too. But emergency braking is a glass half-empty approach to life, and braking by drivers like Rex is inevitably a serene experience. It’s the ‘help me go’ that’s of real value in work-aday life, getting all that bogey through a minute contact area between the mother ship and Mother Earth. In that context the ECAS, Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Anti Spin Regulation (ASR), Launch Control, and EasyStart (hill start function) help most. Rex said the MAN’s traction was just superb, an essential requirement for the line of work he’s in.
Photo: MAN’s big offering has the ability to match the workload.
Photo: The MAN 15.2-litre motor has Neil Diamond syndrome … what a beautiful noise.
Poetry in motion
With the Doosan off it was into the Ruatoki Valley behind Taneatua for the relocation of a bush-rigged 35 tonne Hala digger. Pick-up point was Paki Nikora’s farm just out of town. A nasty entrance requiring a sharp left turn of almost 170° off a three-way junction, down over a grass camouflaged culvert, through a narrow gate into a gravel drive. Just the thing a spaced three rows of eight transporter loves…not! It was here that you learned everything you ever needed to learn about Rex Stephens. Taking a wide swing the MAN snuck past the right-hand fence post and dipped into the drive.
Photo: The bridge at Taneatua. Was a time you had to be very sure the single light in the distance was a motorbike.
Alas, the swing wasn’t quite enough, and MTE’s finest wasn’t coming in under any circumstances. Rex inched the MAN back, past the post, the traction aids doing their bit, and the truck came back out and up on the road with the trailer ending up almost alongside the left-hand side of the cab. With the right steering inputs Rex set it up so the truck was inching back but the semi was creeping ever-so-slightly forward, essentially increasing its turn-in swing by the metre or so he needed for…‘Paki’s entrance take 2’. Rex flicked the truck into forward and came at it again. This time the left rear of the semi slipped by the fence post. All Rex said throughout the whole manoeuvre was, ‘”Ha! Bugger, she’s not coming in. Took it too cheap. Oh well.” His concern then turned to … “I hate coming here, I have to come too close to the nice garden past the house and sometimes run over the plants. I feel bad.” Yep…that’s Rex. The rest of us would still be on Valium to recover from the previous three minutes.
We quickly learned Rex’s life is pretty much putting his MTE transporter in places just not designed to receive such trailers – places like farm tanker turntables. The big German’slock (18.2m) and visibility certainly assist. But it’s no easy life for the MAN. As big and brutish as it is, many days are spent in the truck equivalent of a contortionist freak show, and again it says it all, that after 11 months there’s not a mark on it. The Hala and bits had us at 62 tonne, but it was just heading up the valley to a river bed gravel extraction and again the road was flat. “There’s strict rules up the valley, the locals manage the truck traffic closely. They’ll ban you if you break them,” said Rex. “It’s good, keeps everyone safe.”
Rex Stephens in his busy and immaculate office. Constant communication with Phil in the pilot vehicle is essential.
One down, and sadly, one to go
Day one down and it was an early knock-off and time to snap some pics and chat to Rex. “The trailer’s eight years old, it’s a great piece of kit, never misses a beat. If we get the dolly it’ll open me up to more outwork potentially. The truck’s built for it so why not, as long as I can do what I need to do. For us it’s just a case of increased opportunities.” Rex’s role is an interesting one and he’s an integral part in the running of the transporter. He’s involved in scheduling and pricing a lot of its work; it’s very much an outcomes-based role, and a lesson in giving good people responsible positions. That’s what you get when those at the pointy end started their careers at the coalface. In Waiotahi’s case, on draglines, diggers, and trucks.
Day two saw two rounders to Galatea to relocate a bulldozer and digger, the bully to Ohope and the digger into Whakatane. The machines were on Troutback Road preparing the stream bed for sheet piling and the replacement of a bridge destroyed by Cyclone Debbie in 2017. Out on the beautiful Galatea road the MAN strolled along at 90km/h and 1300rpm. In-cab noise was about 67 to 68dB, and as with most big Euros, never really moved. Coming out of the T610 last month it’s a case of acclimatising to a Euro ride again, with the big cab on its 4-airbag setup soaking up the divots as European trucks do. Apart from roundabouts, judder-bars, and gateway gutters, each generally a nemesis of a European truck’s ride, the antiroll bars do a great job of firming up the corners. It was very… Actros-like. The MAN steers and brakes like the cars in its German parent’s stable of brands, with a brick outhouse chassis and hefty bottom end setup that delivers bags of reassurance in the corners. At no stage did the Doosan, Hala, or Komatsu assume ownership of the situation, and that’s saying something because Rex is a ‘get shit done’ sort of guy. Like Craig Kelly last month, he doesn’t wet-nurse a truck.
First up today was the bulldozer, a D61 Komatsu with cab and blade, about a D6-size machine, it only had the MAN grossing 45 tonne. ‘Only’ being a relative term as that’s still top of the pops outside the ‘wonderful’ world of HPMV. The onboard scales take the guesswork out of load placement and Rex can place with pinpoint accuracy any machine. “With permits and that it’s got to be bang-on.” Heading back toward home the two obstacles in our path were Rabbit Hill off the one-lane bridge over the Rangitaiki River at Waiohau on the Galatea road, and of course the Ohope Hill. Neither allow a run-up. With blade widths and bridge ratings to consider, Rex came across the Rangitaiki River bridge cautiously into the base of the hill, a nasty wee beggar, maybe in line with the steepest section of the Hiwis? A bit steeper possibly? The green section on the tachometer runs from 900rpm to 1800rpm – that’s interesting – but the highlighted bit extends from 1000rpm to 1400rpm – that’s more like it. There’s no question the truck itself is a torque-fest and loves the lower end of the workbench. Believe it or not, the red line sits at 2400rpm!
Like most drivers we’ve encountered working AMTs in higher weight brackets, Rex takes control while the truck’s loaded, preferring to be in charge. “Relocating empty is one thing, but when it’s loaded, I just prefer being in control.” The throttle has a kick-down option when pushed to the bottom. Adaptive cruise will disconnect, it’ll drop a couple of gears and get ‘growly’. The MAN accelerated away from the bridge straight into the grade, and in the steepest part of the climb sat happily 1350rpm, in 8th at 37km/h.
Power and retardation
Remember Richard Claydon’s two leading truck attributes? Well we’ve sorted one, but as exhilarating as its forward moving prowess is, the MAN’s ability to hold the show up is arguably more impressive. The EBVec (Exhaust Brake Valve electronically controlled) provides 630kW (844hp) at peak revs – if you’re game enough to go there. Essentially electronic management of the exhaust gases upstream of the turbo builds pressure on the one hand, and via clever routing increases exhaust gas turbine speed, therefore increasing intake, increasing pressure and so on – it’s a roundabout effect. Better heat dissipation by getting shod of some exhaust gas means there’s no loss of hold-back. Add the gearbox retarder, and it’s little wonder there are cobwebs around the brake pedal. “I rarely touch them unless we’re up to max and it’s steep or just to bring it to a stop completely in a normal day,” said Rex. The whole package, gear changing and auxiliary braking, is controlled via an innocuous little wand on the right of the steering column.
Dropping down onto the Matahina Dam, and later off the Ohope Hill, the effect of both auxiliary mechanisms was staggering, and there was even one more stage left in the 6-stage pantry. In fact, on the descent of the Ohope Hill, the auxiliary brakes slowed the truck down for the 50km/h zone. Of course there’s brake blending on the descending control function, if it’s ‘serious’ that you’re after. Through Awakeri and Whakatane, we head for Ohope. Fuel consumption to date is sitting at around 1.4kpl, which you might raise your eyebrow at, but only for a moment. Yes, it’s probably well off even a 70% load factor, but there’s a lot of heavy start/stop work, short leads, axle dragging under load, and generally horrible situations. Hours spent on low rev cruise work would be as rare for the Waiotahi MAN as Eskimos winning the beach volleyball at the Summer Olympics.
Phil Patuwai: another hardcase Waiotahi Contractors character, and an integral part of the MAN’s daily operation.
A MAN’s army
Rex still lifts the front panel each morning and checks coolant. As with most modern Euros there’s no dipstick for the oil. The cab up and the protagonist in the beautiful noise creation department is revealed. It’s a big chunk of engine, nestled between the rails with all its twenty first century jewellery in the form of electronic modules and emissions gear hanging off it. There’s no grease nipples on the machine, and the 60,000km service intervals mean there’s not much for Rex to do at all, but the fact he’s old school and lifts, looks, pushes, pokes, checks, and wriggles is a credit to his grounding.
“Maintenance intervals, no grease nipples, fuel economy and price point,” said Stephen Claydon. “We have the comfort of a European truck, and drivers like them. We have six new units, three tractor units and three tippers ranging through 480hp, 540hp and 640hp. We operate over a wide variety of terrain, on-highway and off-highway. It’s early days, but if they pan out how we envisage, then there is no reason why we won’t buy more if the time comes and all things being equal. Penske have a good dealer network for backup if required.”
Along the beautiful coast road east of Ohope, and another farm turnaround, more contortions. Phil had been doing his best to stay in front of us for two days, and was again on hand to help unchain. In typical Waiotahi form, helping a workmate appears to still be the norm – we won’t say expectation, that’s not how it presented – and banter continued as it had done from the start. Phil shook his head and rolled his eyes at our hopelessly inept local place name pronunciation. He then asked what the headlines on the test might read. “What about, ‘Dave is overcome by big MAN’?” Laughter erupted. Needless to say, the suggestions continued, as you’d expect.
Packed up, signs away again, and it was back to Galatea for the 20 tonne digger.
Photo: The Matahina Dam has been a source of opportunity for the company over the years.
Once you’re in a truck that’s in the 3000Nm of torque club it’s always a whole new world. The capacity for greenhorns to get themselves into all sorts of strife in these machines is significant, as a 35 tonne earthmover on the back of the Waiotahi unit may as well be a bag of groceries in the boot. Your 1969 Hillman Minx with Mum, three kids and a bootload of holiday vitals would have had twice the issue cresting the Ohope Hill back in the day compared with 60-plus tonne of MAN transporter and load today, metal surface or not. Safety features and driving aids ensure the mass management is contained as well as any OEM can do at this juncture in history. We have to say that as an office from which to orchestrate proceedings, the MAN is again its own space and on the money, as you’d expect from a European ‘Big Seven’ player – and that sound… fantastic. Richard Claydon, too, is on the money when he says power and retardation, both in significant quantities, is the key to efficiency. But again, you can’t put enough emphasis on the fact they’ve also chosen their Lion tamer carefully too. With Rex Stephens and the MAN TGX D38 26.640 on the job, the Waiotahi earthmoving machines will likely make their next gig professionally, safely, and with time to spare.
The cub house
The top bunk flipped up, there it is, the MAN silver lion printed on the underside. Being a MAN the cab’s a cube, and again, like no driver capsule emanating from the continent. As with Scania (ironically) MAN have evolved their shape from as far back as the current generation care to remember. Each new iteration a step, instantly identifiable, completely different. In MAN’s case that’s saying something; after all, how much can you do with a near-perfect box…lots evidently, and the TGX D38 is a handsome MAN indeed. Like its Euro counterparts the MAN is very much a forward control beast, more so than some of the others in fact, and that’s hamstrung it in Australian B-double operation. It does make for plentiful entry space though, and a lower floor height than say the big Actros, whose occupant’s altitude almost requires oxygen support. Even compared with the APL Direct NTG Scania with comparable cab option, the MAN is a convenient 200mm lower in the overall height – how the hell they get the radiator in is a miracle. Materials in the interior are for the most part excellent, with the usual heavy rubbers, vinyls and plastics, the one exception being the slightly frail-feeling plastic compartment lids front and centre. There’s a wee hump through the tunnel but she’s a stand-up affair no question.
Photos: The central expanse opens to reveal abundant storage, although the doors will take some looking after. A crystal clear, nice looking and functional dash, with switch gear and climate.
Storage is adequate, with lockers front overhead, above the doors, under the bottom bunk, accessible from outside and in. There’s a pull-out cool drawer with cup holders and rubbish bin, but no lockers in the rear wall of the sleeper, just nets. Rather than an island that reaches out from the dash and partitions the driver and passenger slightly, the MAN has more of a thickening that runs uniformly across the cab front, providing an oddments tray and accessory inputs on the top, and the three stacked, front-opening long storage compartments – the ones with the lightweight plasticky lids. The top one contains power slots and an ashtray. When they’re closed it’s a very clean, flat look.
In front of the driver is a proper binnacle with six clear gauges in two groups of three, separated by the vehicle metrics, trip, scales, and driver feedback data screen, a standard in the 21st century lorry. Like Scania, MAN still make a cockpit that looks and feels like a truck, even though that’s no longer a requirement. Well done. There’s no wrap, and the audio and coms navigation centre sits to the left of the main binnacle on the dash, with the switchgear and climate management below it, angled toward the driver courtesy of its placement at the curved end of the console housing the storage compartments. Clever really, the wrap you have when you don’t have a wrap. On the steering column are wands for indicator, wipers, and dip on the left, and as we said, the innocuous little shifter and retarder wand on the right. Obviously, there’s a smart wheel with the usual functions, cruise, menu management, and phone, and the to the driver’s lower left is the forward reverse dial (think DAF-a-like), hydraulics, park, and trailer control, all in a neat tower. Both driver and passenger get fully adjustable airsprung leather seats. One cool and quirky feature is the pull-down footrest in the passenger footwell.
Photo: Forward and reverse control in a tidy tower that includes park, trailer and hydraulic controls.
Photo: MAN think of everyone. Even the vertically challenged passenger.
Photo: No issues with the entry, and large external lockers both sides.
The D38 cab’s biggest drawback is the A pillar clearance. The mirrors are great in terms of visibility and functionality, but placement means clearing left-right at intersections needs careful consideration. It’s the bane of the modern uber-safe trucks, and it’s looking like the cure may be cameras and screens replacing mirrors. Sad. Colour-wise it’s black, beige, and an extra light creamy beige around some of the high traffic dashboard areas. In Rex’s world it looks like it’s just emerged from the showroom, but if you put a ‘grub’ on your beautiful new MAN, you might just be in strife. Testament to the man in the MAN, considering the messy machines and the risk of an accidental close encounter with a greasy hydraulic ram is never far away. Interior lighting is plentiful. Few cabs in the modern era suffer the need for a torch clamped between chin and collarbone to assist with entering a start time in the good book. Cab access was great, with four steps into the cab, and there are side lockers on both sides.
Looks-wise on the outside, a MAN is a MAN. It’s a big cube and you’re either a fan or not. There’s no doubt their most unflattering side is their profile, a very chunky look that MAN break with textured moulds on the sleeper panels and skirts. There’s no doubt the Waiotahi machine is a superbly goodlooking example. Rex said they originally had a plan of how they wanted it to look, but Steve (‘Birdy’) from Signs Direct in Whakatane said, “Nope, leave it with me”. The result of his craftsmanship is a visual treat and enhances the company’s image no end.
The MAN cab is a classy office. Some of the lighter tones lend themselves more to a fastidious operator if they’re to stand the test of time.
Photo: Front panel opens. Rex is old school and still checks his machine over. Levels may not need checking on the modern machine but trucks are still trucks and things fray, rub, and come loose.
The Right Stuff
Forty-two-year-old Rex Stephens started his career with a wash brush and a pressure hose, at PGF Transport in the King Country. The perfect start in the perfect place. Although his Dad, Robert, worked in and around trucks with the Ministry of Works and relief driving, it was with his uncle, Stan Otimi, on the big stock units at PGF that Rex spent most of his ‘truck-mad-kid’ years, traveling all over the country into every nook and cranny. “I learned on high horsepower trucks, CAT powered Fodens and that. It stood me in good stead hanging around that gear.”
His first driving role at PGF was on a 380hp Hino, truck only. “I really liked that truck, eh. Then they put a trailer up its arse and I didn’t like it any more!” he laughed.
Photo: Rex Stephens. His grounding in grass-roots Kiwi trucking in the King Country clearly evident.
Rex progressed up the ladder and spent a total of six years at the iconic King Country trucking firm. “It was a great place to work. The guys in the workshop all had engineering and mechanical diplomas, so you learned everything about maintenance. We went everywhere; you were always away. I was on an XF DAF, a truck I really liked too. It was an honest machine, comfortable.” It was the long hours spent away from home and the desire to break out and see what else was out there that lead Rex to Waihi around the turn of the century, where he did a year with Gary Edwards on stock and general, with a bit of transporter work thrown in also. From there came the move to the eastern Bay of Plenty and Opotiki Transport’s livestock division. “I had experience on stock and the boss wanted me to go on a new Volvo, but I wasn’t doing that as the new guy, so did a year on an older ERF. Then after that I went on the Volvo.”
The eventual sale of the company’s livestock business, along with the desire for a better work/life balance that allowed more time with wife Renee and sons Kobe and Kyle, triggered the move to Waiotahi Contractors Ltd. That was just on eight years ago. It was an excellent move and Rex isn’t looking at going anywhere in a hurry. “Renee works as a chef at a local berry farm, she loves the job and has done really well. I said jokingly ‘I could come wash the dishes’ and she said the first truck would go past and that would be that!”
A true truck man, we asked Rex about his life on the road to date, and considering it’s been dominated by stock trucks and transporters, where had he found the rewarding challenges, the toughest gigs? “Carting stock off the East Cape, up Tologa Bay, inland from there, and Ngamatea Station on the Gentle Annie Road. Places where you have to be on point as a driver. Yep, that’d be it.” Reflecting on his current role: “No, it’s a great place to work, good people, good gear, good atmosphere. I pretty much look after myself and plan my day; as long as it gets done, they leave you be.
“There’s good work/life balance too. I’ve had two nights away in the last year. There’s Saturday work on occasions but often not. Yeah, it’s pretty good all right.”
Draglines, diggers, development and determination
“Back in the day there were times Dad would work all day, sleep under the dragline, get up, and just keep going,” said Henry Claydon, managing director of Waiotahi Contractors Ltd. The Waiotahi Contractors’ story is your classic Kiwi tale of endless resolve, energy, and making the most of opportunity. It started in 1957 when Richard Clayden’s uncles, the Bennett brothers, were frustrated over being so far down the waiting list for the local dragline to come and drain their boggy landholding at Waiotahi near Opotiki. The solution? Buy one yourself. So they did.
The machine was that busy that they ended up back at square one, unable to do their own work on account of other bookings. The obvious solution was to double the size of the dragline fleet, and in 1962, 26-year-old nephew Richard came on board to operate the second machine. There was no interest in the business on the uncles’ side of the family, so Richard began progressively buying the contracting operation. Fate aligned the final ducks in 1965 when transporter driver Robbie Peterson joined Richard at the fledgling company. The duo that would oversee the next half a century of growth was now in place. What contributed hugely to the company’s early success was foresight, and the realisation that the future lay not with slow and cumbersome draglines, but with the new generation of hydraulic diggers. With the support of Federated Farmers the partners lobbied the government and won an import licence to bring machines in, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The improved efficiency brought opportunity and more work, and just over six decades after that first dragline, the privately owned quarrying, contracting, and civil construction company employs 200 people and is a beacon of local commercial endeavour.
Although the two men created a business and a brand that put food on the tables of hundreds of Bay of Plenty families and contributed much to commercial life in the region, their greatest achievement will surely be the fact that by the time this issue appears on the shelves, all six children, five Claydons and one Peterson, will work in the business. That alone speaks more of their character as men as anything.
Henry’s own start came about in classic Claydon style. Working on the diggers as schoolboy in the holidays, his Dad extracted him from the schooling system permanently following the 1986 Edgecumbe earthquake to man a digger in a quarry and load trucks working to rebuild the damaged Matahina Dam. But as we saw with Rex, the company values personal development. Henry gained his NZCE (Civil) and spent time amassing experience outside the family firm. He returned in 2002 with fresh ideas, successfully managing many projects. In 2016 he graduated with a Batchelor of Business degree and in 2017 was appointed to his role as MD. In 2019 Waiotahi Contractors Ltd comprises four divisions: quarries, contracting, transport, and sheet piling, with offices and/or depots in Whakatane, Opotiki, Kawerau, and Mt Maunganui.
Henry (48) cites people as key to the success of the business, with many experienced and long-serving employees. The company also understands the importance of upskilling to keep pace with modern practices, a passion of Robbie Peterson’s from a long way back in the company’s history when he gained his registered assessors’ ticket with the New Zealand Contracting ITO, allowing a pathway for employees entering the company to gain qualifications. “There’s nothing we can’t do in terms of land development, roading, drainage, and agricultural contracting,” said Henry. “We can take a greenfield situation and have it ready for housing, with all amenities in place. We build roads, stopbanks, we drain land, sheet pile, supply aggregate; it’s endless really.” The company has won awards for its work, at times against fierce competition, an example being the Civil Contractors NZ/Hirepool Construction Excellence Award for a project valued at under $5 million, won in 2017. The culture that built the enterprise appears to be well in place looking ahead too, with Stephen Claydon and Daryl ‘Spike’ Peterson holding directorships and senior management positions.
Richard Claydon and Robbie Peterson have made the most of their opportunities through incredibly hard work. They’ve built a successful business, and in Robbie’s case, served for a long time on local government in Opotiki. They’ve developed the skill base of local people, and now oversee the passing of their baton to future generations. Waiotahi Contractors Ltd – Kiwi business done well.
Lively livery and a symbol
of success For decades Waiotahi Contractors trucks and utes in particular wore red and white livery with a yellow Waiotahi written clearly on the door. In 2013 that all changed with the decision to give the brand a new look. “We decided on white as the base colour, and to introduce a logo and graphic that could be applied. Painting is costly and all vehicles come in white. Easy really,” said Henry Claydon. The result is spectacularly good in terms of design and message, a credit to the design team. Here’s the Waiotahi Contractors Ltd logo decoded.
The overall diamond shape reflects the company’s “Built Proud” philosophy and realisation that every job has a lasting legacy. Within the big diamond are four smaller diamonds representing the four divisions.