End of long era at Aitkens

Third generation local family business hands over to multinational building firm.

Third generation local family business hands over to multinational building firm.

END OF AN ERA: Aitkens Concrete has been sold to Firth, part of the Fletcher Building group, and the last of three generations of Aitkens, Dave Aitken (left), is looking forward to more boating, hunting, fishing, travelling and spending time with his family. He is pictured with Hawke’s Bay Firth area manager Lester Wagner at the Aitkens Concrete yard. All the staff remain and the name will stay the same. Picture by Paul Rickard
This picture and the next show the range of products made in the early days of Aitkens Concrete, among them troughs, concrete rollers, coppers, offal cookers, laundry tubs, commercial incinerators and arcadia flower urns.
Aitkens Concrete

IT IS the end of an era for a Gisborne business built on concrete and evolved through three generations of family ownership.

Aitkens Concrete has been sold to Firth, part of the Fletcher Building group, and while it means an end for the Aitken family, the name will stay the same and it will still operate from its Awapuni Road site.

The Aitken family, first George, then John and for the last four decades David, have always dealt in concrete. But the men took the business in three vastly different directions over the past 111 years.

“It has been an evolving business — the challenge has been to keep going and change with what ever the demand was,” says its third generation owner.

His grandfather George started the business in 1906, mostly making products from concrete moulds. Then called Geo Aitken, the business made troughs, concrete rollers, coppers, offal cookers, commercial incinerators and arcadia flower urns.

Also a joiner, he built several stately homes around Gisborne and in rural areas. He developed Konka board, which was a concrete veneer incorporating pumice from the demolished Nelson Brothers freezing works, and this proved a popular signature building material for a time. Many houses here still feature the durable board.

George also developed precast brick columns as well as having a tiling yard to make concrete roof tiles — another feature still seen on many roofs around the district.

His son John was the next owner. A bomber pilot in World War 2, he returned from the war having seen the beginnings of the rebuild of Europe, said retiring owner Dave Aitken.

“He saw they were using masonry instead of bricks. With an abundance of coke, the by-product of coal, they developed breeze blocks.”

Awapuni Road site

John had bought a block machine in 1956 from America and, in 1966, Aitkens concrete moved to its Awapuni Road site from Carnarvon Street, where the Department of Conservation is located now.

“With the change to concrete blocks for building, it was easy to put them on pallets and on a truck to a building site.”
It was the early 1970s and the “heyday” of Watties and the freezing works.

Dave Aitken was called back from Canterbury University, where he was three years into an engineering degree.

“In the early 1970s, it got very busy here and Dad (John) called me back to help. The plan was to do that for a year and make some money — that was 40 years ago and I’m still here.”

Brother Ron worked with the company for a while, then left to pursue an accounting career.

When Dave was called back, there was huge demand for concrete blocks from industry like Watties and Gisborne Refrigeration Company, as well all the local industry growing in the industrial subdivision.

“Watties really kept us going — building a canning and labelling plant, then the fish factory, and coolstore and warehouse buildings. There was a lot of other local business also developing.”

Watties and the freezing works closed in the late 1980s early 1990s, and the demand for blocks suddenly dropped.
By this time Dave was in charge.

“I could see the slide and by 1993 I was thinking something has got to happen. Watties, the freezing works and the abbatoirs were about 75 percent of our masonry production. Fortunately, we were also doing a lot of paving work for Gisborne District Council footpaths.

“Around this time I was mentored by Golden Bay Cement and Firth into building a ready-mix concrete plant, and we had that operating and delivered our first load of concrete in 1994.”

Masonry plant closes

The masonry plant finally closed in 2014 with “concrete tilt-up panels” a new favoured building material.

“Staff had reached the age of retirement and we had a million-dollar plant that was not worth carrying on.

“The change to supplying ready-mix concrete for driveways, house slabs, commercial floors and foundations took off.”

Tilt-up slab panels used in buildings in recent times are made in bigger centres like Auckland and Hawke’s Bay, then trucked and craned on to the site. The wastewater plant in Stanley Road and LeaderBrand’s new salad house were made like this.

A recent highlight for Aitkens was making the large precast retaining units for Port Eastland’s upper log yard walls.

“It was challenging and a nice job to do. It made us very proud of what we achieved there — aesthetically pleasing. Something like that had never been done before.”

Another highlight was working with architect Graeme Nicoll building homes and an office with concrete masonry incorporating passive solar design — using concrete and direct gain from the sun to get thermal heating and cooling.

Dave has always been a member of the New Zealand Masonry Association and held the president role for some time.

The three Aitken generations had each taken the business along the same base but all headed in different directions: Grandfather George precasting; father John carrying some of that on and extending into masonry and concrete blocks; then Dave taking the business into ready-mix concrete.

Staff will remain

With three daughters, there has been no one in the family wanting to carry on the business.

But he is pleased the staff will remain and the family name is staying on the wall.

Hawke’s Bay Firth area manager Lester Wagner will oversee the new branch, while Aitkens employee for the past 20 years Steve Burke will be the plant manager.

Mr Aitken said his focus had always been on trying to retain good staff.

“I liked the offer from Firth because it fully guaranteed all 12 staff would be employed in their same roles.”

Mr Wagner said Gisborne was one area Firth was not represented and they had always hoped to buy Aitkens one day.

For a while, Dave will be hanging around to see the transition goes through smoothly.

“But my aim now is to do some fishing and hunting, to learn to play golf and use a set of clubs my son-in-law Izzy Dagg gave me, and to travel around New Zealand. I have seen a bit of the world but never too far from my cell phone. It will be nice to go away with that totally relaxed feeling. I would also like to teach my grandchildren things about camping, boating, hunting and fishing that my father taught me.”

With Daisy and Israel in Christchurch, Laura and Willy in Auckland, Sarah and Tim in Gisborne and five grandchildren, Dave and wife Trudy can see plenty to fill their time in retirement.

IT IS the end of an era for a Gisborne business built on concrete and evolved through three generations of family ownership.

Aitkens Concrete has been sold to Firth, part of the Fletcher Building group, and while it means an end for the Aitken family, the name will stay the same and it will still operate from its Awapuni Road site.

The Aitken family, first George, then John and for the last four decades David, have always dealt in concrete. But the men took the business in three vastly different directions over the past 111 years.

“It has been an evolving business — the challenge has been to keep going and change with what ever the demand was,” says its third generation owner.

His grandfather George started the business in 1906, mostly making products from concrete moulds. Then called Geo Aitken, the business made troughs, concrete rollers, coppers, offal cookers, commercial incinerators and arcadia flower urns.

Also a joiner, he built several stately homes around Gisborne and in rural areas. He developed Konka board, which was a concrete veneer incorporating pumice from the demolished Nelson Brothers freezing works, and this proved a popular signature building material for a time. Many houses here still feature the durable board.

George also developed precast brick columns as well as having a tiling yard to make concrete roof tiles — another feature still seen on many roofs around the district.

His son John was the next owner. A bomber pilot in World War 2, he returned from the war having seen the beginnings of the rebuild of Europe, said retiring owner Dave Aitken.

“He saw they were using masonry instead of bricks. With an abundance of coke, the by-product of coal, they developed breeze blocks.”

Awapuni Road site

John had bought a block machine in 1956 from America and, in 1966, Aitkens concrete moved to its Awapuni Road site from Carnarvon Street, where the Department of Conservation is located now.

“With the change to concrete blocks for building, it was easy to put them on pallets and on a truck to a building site.”
It was the early 1970s and the “heyday” of Watties and the freezing works.

Dave Aitken was called back from Canterbury University, where he was three years into an engineering degree.

“In the early 1970s, it got very busy here and Dad (John) called me back to help. The plan was to do that for a year and make some money — that was 40 years ago and I’m still here.”

Brother Ron worked with the company for a while, then left to pursue an accounting career.

When Dave was called back, there was huge demand for concrete blocks from industry like Watties and Gisborne Refrigeration Company, as well all the local industry growing in the industrial subdivision.

“Watties really kept us going — building a canning and labelling plant, then the fish factory, and coolstore and warehouse buildings. There was a lot of other local business also developing.”

Watties and the freezing works closed in the late 1980s early 1990s, and the demand for blocks suddenly dropped.
By this time Dave was in charge.

“I could see the slide and by 1993 I was thinking something has got to happen. Watties, the freezing works and the abbatoirs were about 75 percent of our masonry production. Fortunately, we were also doing a lot of paving work for Gisborne District Council footpaths.

“Around this time I was mentored by Golden Bay Cement and Firth into building a ready-mix concrete plant, and we had that operating and delivered our first load of concrete in 1994.”

Masonry plant closes

The masonry plant finally closed in 2014 with “concrete tilt-up panels” a new favoured building material.

“Staff had reached the age of retirement and we had a million-dollar plant that was not worth carrying on.

“The change to supplying ready-mix concrete for driveways, house slabs, commercial floors and foundations took off.”

Tilt-up slab panels used in buildings in recent times are made in bigger centres like Auckland and Hawke’s Bay, then trucked and craned on to the site. The wastewater plant in Stanley Road and LeaderBrand’s new salad house were made like this.

A recent highlight for Aitkens was making the large precast retaining units for Port Eastland’s upper log yard walls.

“It was challenging and a nice job to do. It made us very proud of what we achieved there — aesthetically pleasing. Something like that had never been done before.”

Another highlight was working with architect Graeme Nicoll building homes and an office with concrete masonry incorporating passive solar design — using concrete and direct gain from the sun to get thermal heating and cooling.

Dave has always been a member of the New Zealand Masonry Association and held the president role for some time.

The three Aitken generations had each taken the business along the same base but all headed in different directions: Grandfather George precasting; father John carrying some of that on and extending into masonry and concrete blocks; then Dave taking the business into ready-mix concrete.

Staff will remain

With three daughters, there has been no one in the family wanting to carry on the business.

But he is pleased the staff will remain and the family name is staying on the wall.

Hawke’s Bay Firth area manager Lester Wagner will oversee the new branch, while Aitkens employee for the past 20 years Steve Burke will be the plant manager.

Mr Aitken said his focus had always been on trying to retain good staff.

“I liked the offer from Firth because it fully guaranteed all 12 staff would be employed in their same roles.”

Mr Wagner said Gisborne was one area Firth was not represented and they had always hoped to buy Aitkens one day.

For a while, Dave will be hanging around to see the transition goes through smoothly.

“But my aim now is to do some fishing and hunting, to learn to play golf and use a set of clubs my son-in-law Izzy Dagg gave me, and to travel around New Zealand. I have seen a bit of the world but never too far from my cell phone. It will be nice to go away with that totally relaxed feeling. I would also like to teach my grandchildren things about camping, boating, hunting and fishing that my father taught me.”

With Daisy and Israel in Christchurch, Laura and Willy in Auckland, Sarah and Tim in Gisborne and five grandchildren, Dave and wife Trudy can see plenty to fill their time in retirement.

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