Building a legacy

In April 2024, Features36 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMay 6, 2024

In today’s economic climate, a business reaching its 30th anniversary is something to celebrate. Considering the owner is still in his 40s, that’s even more of an achievement.

Quality Demolition and Contracting owner Shane Gray says when he joined his father in the demolition industry as a teenager, he never envisioned Quality Demolition and Contracting (QDC) would be the successful business it is today.

Its beginnings were humble: “When we started off, we were probably grateful if we got a Mazda B16 ute that didn’t have rust in it! It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at what we have now; we’ve got some of the best gear in New Zealand. And, no, you wouldn’t have envisioned it becoming what it’s become. You’d never have seen it being a freehold company.”

Shane’s father, Gavin Gray, established the Wellington-based business in 1994. Before that, Gavin had owned ACE Demolition, but Shane says the company had an unsustainable debt level and was liquidated by QDC.

“It was pretty dead in the water, and that ended all the driftwood and previous shareholdings, and we moved on from there.”

QDC initially focused on strip-outs and manual demolition. It had a small crew of about six staff and six or seven diggers and trucks.

The business was originally based in Wellington, with a salvage yard in Rongotai and a yard in Ngāūranga Gorge. QDC also owned the T&T landfill. About 20 years ago, QDC moved to its current site in Seaview, Lower Hutt, buying the land and building a workshop.

Today, the company has about 55 staff and more than 40 vehicles. Shane’s sister, Cassandra Christensen, joined the team about 18 months ago and oversees administration.

Shane began working with his father when he was 15, admitting that “school wasn’t a strong point” for him. He worked as a general labourer and ran crews of general labourers on demolition sites.

Working with his father was fine in the early days, but Shane says they had differing views on the direction the company should take. “It didn’t bother us then because we had nothing to lose and a lot to prove. We really just got on with the jobs and got it done. But then, when we moved into the future, it became a real stumbling block with him wanting to stay in the 1980s and me wanting to move into the next generation.

“We worked together until about 2009, holding our ground with a small crew of guys and a reasonably small crew of trucks. It was at that stage that I wanted to grow the business, but the old man not wanting to move forward consistently held back the business.”

Unable to agree, Shane left and set up Demon Contracting. “I ran that until 2011. I started from nothing, and it was quite a successful company as well. We had four staff, and were based in Wellington.”

About this time, Cassandra’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Shane says Gavin understandably found this hard to deal with.

While the company has branched out over the years, demolition remains at the core of QDC’s business.

“It all seemed to be all too much for the old man; he couldn’t comprehend the whole thing. He slowly ruined the company, and just about everybody left. I came back in 2011 to pick up the pieces and get the ball rolling again. That was when it became QDC (2011) Ltd.”

Shane says his father reluctantly stepped down from managing the business, although he still had day-to-day involvement. “At that point, we probably had approximately 15 staff. Today, we’re running at about 55; last year, we had it up around 100. It’s been anywhere from 120 down to 55, which is probably our minimum.”

Gavin died in 2017, and Shane says this had a huge impact on the business. “It freed us up; it definitely pulled the handbrake off. And we bought the long reach at that stage, which was a big no-no in his eyes. He was hell-bent that we shouldn’t have one – we didn’t need one. And it was actually the making of the company. We expanded into owning the quarries, and it’s allowed us to be more efficient.

“We predominantly stick to demolition, but in the past, we did have a huge presence in the house-moving market. We’ve probably toned that down a bit in the past 12 months just mainly because of staffing.”

The pandemic didn’t affect the business much, with Shane saying it was quite good to have an enforced break. “It just freshened everybody up, and we came back with a vengeance. We didn’t lay off any staff; we looked after them all and kept them all on board.”

He says finding good staff isn’t easy because of the nature of the job. “It’s not hard to retain those who enjoy the work, but it’s been very hard to find those people in the first place. We generally find that we train them and then they move on. Some of our younger staff members have gone away and become very successful business owners, and others have been very successful in their own lives because they’ve been taught good work ethics.

“It was quite interesting at the Wellington truck show [See page 44] how many people came up and said, ‘You know, my son’s doing this now and doing that now and we’d just like to thank you for driving into them good work ethics’. But what generally happens is we start driving them and pushing them harder and then they find an easier job elsewhere.”

Shane says the demolition industry is very hard, very hands- on. “And generally, I don’t like to come second. So we’re pretty much pushing forward with what we do and that’s where we lose our staff. But, hey, if it teaches them good work ethics at a young age, then good luck to them. With our 30 years coming up, we hope some of them will come back to help us celebrate.”

QDC mostly undertakes work in the North Island, although it has been involved in several large projects in the South Island. “We did the Fryatt Street sheds in Dunedin. It was a kilometre of buildings in a row, and we brought them down in a pretty short timespan. ATL Group headed the project, and we did all the demo work for them. We’ve done a few other projects down south, too – Nelson Hospital years ago, and some work in Picton.”

QDC also worked in Gisborne before Cyclone Gabrielle and in Hastings with the clean-up afterwards.

“Arlington Apartments in Wellington was another big one for us. During the earthquakes, CentrePort was a big ongoing project; there were numerous projects we took on. We also worked on 85 The Esplanade, Petone – that was a big project for Maycroft.”

In its early days, the company undertook some of the demolition work at Parliament, and several jobs at Wellington Hospital over the years.

Rather than dwelling on completed projects, Shane always has an eye to the future. “Yesterday has been and gone in my eyes. It’s good fun while it lasted.”

Shane says the industry changed immensely after the turn of the century. “In probably the early 2000s, we went through a big pricing change, which I think was detrimental to a lot of companies because they didn’t allow for the pricing of the new health and safety regulations. Everybody slowly learnt that way, but it was the demise of a few companies around Wellington.

“And then, every year there’s something new – asbestos has been one of them. Back in our early days, nobody even cared, they just smashed it, loaded it out and it was gone. And look at the asbestos market now; it’s one of the biggest in our industry.

“We’ve pretty much got one, sometimes two, crews consistently removing asbestos. You can just about guarantee every house prior to 2000 has got asbestos of some sort in it.”

The demolition side of things has moved with the times and QDC now has a focus on recycling as much of the material as possible. “We’ve diversified into quarry management, as well as a lot more concrete recycling and asphalt recycling. The company has taken a bit of a look on the green side, and the quarries have been great for us. It gives us the capacity to crush concrete and recycle concrete, and having yard space of our own in the Wairarapa gives us a foothold in the Wairarapa market.”

As well as QDC Aggregates in the Wairarapa, the company also has a 50% partnership in Ohau Quarries near Levin. Ohau was owned by Shane’s close friend Carl Gibson. Following Carl’s death last year, his wife Michelle took over as shareholder. Ohau Quarries will likely suffer reduced capacity at some point in its future because of the planned route for the Ōtaki to north of Levin expressway.

“We won’t be supplying aggregate to the motorway project; we’ll be keeping to supplying local contractors and residential. We’ve seen that [large roading projects] as the demise of most businesses. They try and fight that fight with cost. And then it just gets to the stage where you’re doing it for nothing, and that’s a market we won’t be heading for. We’ve never bowed down; we’ve always stood our ground and held our prices where they should be in our eyes.”

QDC’s fleet today stands at about 25 trucks, including nine Kenworths for day-to-day use as well as Nissan and Isuzus. Shane says he tends to go for bonneted Kenworths and has specified some unique trucks over the years with the help of Southpac Trucks salesman Mark O’Hara.

“We’ve been predominantly Kenworth. We basically busted our arses to buy our first new Kenworth and then we bought three of them.

“Mark has been a huge asset to Southpac; he’s been the reason we’ve stuck with them. If we need something sorting or something doing, Mark just gets it sorted, it never seems to be a problem.

Today, QDC has 55 staff and more than 40 vehicles.

“We’ve had just about every option of Kenworth, and we still have some of the first ones we bought. We tried to buy one of our original Kenworths from the ACE days and we couldn’t get it, so then we bought the one from Gary Tudor that became DEMO06, but it doesn’t really have that value because it’s not one of ours. It was just a truck that filled the gap.

“We also purchased one of those early Kenworths that we had sold back from Laing House Movers, but in a weak moment of my thoughts of house moving, I sold it again. I sort of regret that I didn’t keep it, but life moves on.”

Shane also has a few collectibles, including the classic 1988 Kenworth K100E in L&P colours, and a 1989 Pacific P10 previously owned by Milton Durham. “The Pacific was a uniquely cool truck with a New Zealand iconic family behind When Milton died, Dixie [his wife] made contact through Noel, one of our drivers. I’ve wanted that truck even when Milton crashed it the first time. I’ve always wanted that truck and I think Dixie understood what it meant to us, but it also meant a lot to her that it was going to stay in their colours.”

The L&P truck took out the Best of Show Award at the Wellington Truck and Transport Show in February. “The L&P truck is a unique icon that everybody’s familiar with. It’s just a Kenworth without those colours on, but in their day, those trucks were a force, and they were so well known.”

Shane says QDC has always been known for having good, top-of-the-line gear. In addition to the trucks, it also has about 17 excavators. Komatsu is the dominant brand, then Hitachi and a few CAT excavators.

About 90% of maintenance is done in-house, with the other 10% subbed out. The workshop has four staff – a diesel mechanic, an engineer, one apprentice and a general fill-in.

“A lot of the newer machines are still under warranty, and they cover their own maintenance period. Komatsu takes care of us and looks after our equipment.”

QDC offers a wide range of services, covering demolition, asbestos removal, siteworks, earthworks, concrete (cutting, drilling, breaking and crushing), house and building removal and relocation, plant hire and strip-outs.

“Oddly enough, I enjoy everything that we do. It doesn’t really bother me what we do, whether it’s sweeping the workshop floor or pulling down a 10- to 15-storey building. It’s all exciting, and it’s all fun. If it becomes a drag, it makes it hard for you to enjoy doing it when everybody doesn’t have the motivation that we need to do the job.”

Shane’s passion outside of work is truck racing, and he competed for the first time in 2007. “I’ve always been interested in it. And the old man had a big interest in it; he used to cart Malcolm [Little] around and sponsor Malcolm’s race truck and make things happen. Although, as soon as I bought one, it seemed to drop off and then he hated the whole idea!”

Shane’s race truck, The Punisher, is based on a Kenworth T409 SAR cab with a custom-built chassis, CAT C15 engine, twin turbo and intercooled, built to push out 1864kW (2500hp) and 6800Nm (5000lb/ft) torque. It has an Allison World Series automatic transmission and Meritor rear axle with disc brakes all round.

It also has EBS brakes and torsion bar suspension, plus a lot of specially built items and a few ‘secrets’ that make it stand out on the track.

Hayden Spencer spent five years designing and building the race truck and has now been on the track for two seasons.

So far this season, Shane is top on points in his class (A class) and sitting second overall in the championship.

House moving is an important part of the company’s history.

A family affair

Cassandra Christensen, Shane’s sister, worked briefly at QDC in her teens before moving to Rotorua and spending 10 years in property management.

“I did that right through to managing my own team, and then there were management difficulties with the owners, and it just got to a point where it didn’t align with where I felt things should be. Given my upbringing around how we look after staff, that just didn’t fit anymore and I wanted to come back home.”

Cassandra says after some long conversations with her truck driver husband, Dylan, about moving, it finally happened. His family is from Levin, and the couple moved there last October.

“I was commuting for a year from Rotorua to here. I was doing fly-in fly-out three days a week for a year before we moved. An hour’s commute is better than five and a half, and the drive’s not too bad now with the new expressways.”

Cassandra says her role in the business is to “do whatever needs doing – whatever I’m told to do! The paperwork and administration for the operation, all the safety paperwork, site docs, day works, that sort of thing.”

At this stage, the third generation of Grays isn’t lining up in the wings to take over, and Shane is fine with that. “My nine-year-old son Jacob doesn’t really show a great interest, although he’s always looking and always learning, and he’s getting some theories on how you pull things down and how you do things.

“But I think I’d just prefer to see him be a kid and do his own thing instead of being dragged into it like we were. If he chooses to do something different, then so be it.”

30 years and counting

The fact that QDC is celebrating 30 years in business is proof that Shane and his team are doing something right. “We’re not going to change because I think what we’ve done over the years is a proven success. All these people come up with all these great ideas and great plans and great visions and, sometimes, it’s the demise of a business. I’d like to see a few things on the management side change. But, in general, what we do and how we do it seems to be quite successful.”

Shane says he’d like to thank all the staff, past and present, who have helped QDC get to where it is today. “And their wives and partners for putting up with the long hours and stuff to allow us to do what we do.

“We’ve had some good staff and some loyal guys who have helped us get to here, and some have gone off and done their own thing. Take Bryce O’Sullivan with (Wellington-based) Bosco – he was with us from school. And we taught him what we knew. And to see what he’s grown into now is pretty cool, as is the fact that he still respects where he started.”

The actual anniversary is in November, and Shane is already looking at what they will do to mark the occasion. “That’s been one strong point of our company, being able to organise a decent piss-up! Around the November mark, we will be doing something, and it’ll be a huge function.

“We’d like everyone, previous employees and anyone who helped us get to here, to come along. We’ll start planning that at some stage and let everyone know when it’ll be.”

Giving back

Through the business, Shane and his wife Georgie are great supporters of community events such as the Wellington Truck and Transport Show, and Ohau Quarries sponsors Little Trucker Down Under magazine.

“Carl’s daughter Baylee (8) and my son Jacob (9) are of a similar age. So we thought it would be a pretty cool thing to get involved in. And it’s pretty cool what they do with the magazine; the kids get some value and get acknowledged for the effort they put in. Jacob has written a handful of stories in that, too.

“We sponsor a lot of the kids’ cancer events – anything to do with trucking and kids’ cancer, we’re real strong on that. You look at some of those kids, they haven’t had a chance to live and it’s sad, and in the end, you get a chance to do something and make something good for them. Special kids’ Christmas parties – we’ve been a strong supporter for many years. It’s hard to do everything but you try and do something for everybody.”

Following the death of Cassandra’s mother, QDC also demolished the old art and craft building at Te Omanga Hospice free of charge.

The story behind the Legend

The newest truck in the QDC fleet is a 2023 W900 SAR Legend that has been put to work as Shane’s race truck transporter. It was originally the dream truck of Carl Gibson, but he died before the truck arrived.

“It was always earmarked as the race truck transporter in my eyes, but Carl had visions of moving the odd digger with it because Carl’s business was quite different from ours. It was always going to be Carl’s truck; it wasn’t really something that floated my boat, if you know what I mean. I have more of an attachment to the old Pacific because it’s unique, and it’s cool to see that back on the road, same with the L&P truck. But it’s got a lot of meaning – more so than the truck – because it was Carl’s dream.”

Following Carl’s death in January 2023, the truck was painted as a tribute to him. It bears the registration plate GIBSON and the bug deflector reads ‘Pukeko’s Last Ride’.

“We always called him Pūkeko. He had a few other names, but we nicknamed him that because we made him nervous. He was quite a reserved sort of person, and you could always see that side of him when we took him out.”

Shane recalls a Southpac Trucks event in Auckland where some of the guests were much more outgoing than Carl. “You can see Carl doing the old pūkeko walk in the background thinking, ‘I’m a bit out of my depth here and these guys are all pretty loose.’ It was an amazing night, and I was probably one of the last ones to go to bed. I got up the next morning, and I’d lost my phone charger, my wallet, my jacket. I hadn’t slept for very long and then Carl was there with Panadol, bottles of water and a phone charger. He was the man, you know.”

The friendship had been in place for some time before the opportunity to buy Ohau Quarries came up, and this made the friendship even stronger.

“We had similar interests with the trucks, especially the old trucks. Carl’s passion for old trucks was probably where mine was 10 years ago. And then one morning, I just woke up with the shits on old trucks and gave all my stuff to Carl. I just decided that it wasn’t me anymore, and I wasn’t doing any more of them.

“Carl picked up all the pieces and he put them in the shed and dispersed them to people who needed parts for those old trucks. He was a very generous guy, but also very structured and unique in his way. He was a good mentor and teacher.”

Shane says Carl’s dream truck was the L&P K100E, and he always had an interest in truck racing.

“He said to me one weekend, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking that L&P truck.’ And I said, ‘If you take the L&P truck, you’re towing the race truck.’ And then that was it; he just fitted into the picture quite nicely. We didn’t have to worry about anything; we were told that we needed to be there on whatever day and that truck just turned up. We don’t really know how he did it, or what he had to do. He just got it done. We had a couple of phone calls, and that was it, it was just done.”

The T350 8×4 was a world-first.

Generational relationships

Southpac Trucks’ new-truck salesman Mark O’Hara says his family’s involvement with the Gray family started in 1972 when the O’Hara family moved to Greytown, and his father and Shane’s father Gavin came to know each other.

“I started in truck sales in 2000 at Southpac Trucks looking after the lower North Island and had called into Quality Demolition’s Lower Hutt yard many times.

“Gavin was always a hard- ass and busted my chops every time, stating, ‘Overpriced Kenworths and Nissans are all we need in our business.’ Plus, if something broke or had gone wrong with the trucks, he would pick up the phone and give me an absolute dung-out!

“I would get in my car and drive over to see what the issue was and sort it straight away. That was all he needed – to fix it right then and there. Then we would go into the smoko room, have a coffee and he was a happy man again.”

Mark says that over time, he and Shane became good friends, and once Gavin had buggered off to the office or the other end of the yard, they would talk over Kenworth options and models.

“I’m sure he knew it but didn’t give anything away. Finally, the ice broke and Gavin said he needed a frontline heavy haul tractor unit for their house-moving business, and Shane said the T404S with 600hp and auto transmission would do the trick.

“I spent a day or so specing up the unit as they had asked, went down to present the deal and info and they added a lot more extras. This was one of the first trucks to have disc brakes fitted. With the auto- shift 18-speed with clutch pedal, it was state-of-the-art gear back in the day.

“Shane got all sentimental and bought this truck back a few years ago, but then an offer came from a house mover to take that and the house trailer, and the deal was done. I think he kicks himself now, but you can’t keep all of them!”

Mark says that over the years, QDC has purchased a fair few Kenworths from him that have come and gone, but the other world-first to be built from the Kenworth factory in Melbourne was the T350 8×4 twin-steer.

“This truck was to make use of the maximum axle rating and long body for around the Wellington district without requiring a trailer to tow. It was called I am Different because of it being the first twin-steer bonneted Kenworth built for New Zealand. I’m not sure why but I even remember the chassis number – 430555.”

Mark says QDC has purchased a total of 12 Kenworths and Shane’s ‘do it once and do it right’ attitude means he goes into great detail to make sure that it is always fit for purpose – no short cuts.

Mark says the presentation of the QDC gear has always been high on Shane’s radar. “When you’re on show in the worst place – the middle of Wellington – pulling buildings down or undertaking siteworks, the public perception is of dirty, smelly smoke-blowing trucks and diggers.

“QDC’s gear is far from that, making a statement in the industry that the dirtiest jobs can be done in Quality Demolition-style.”

Mark says being part of the QDC family is all about loyalty and hard work. “This means the most when the chips are down and something needs sorting right away. It has been a pleasure to work with the QDC Group and being involved in the race truck team over the past 25 of their 30 years.”