“Life’s too short!”

In Short Story March 2023, March 202316 MinutesBy Dave McCoidApril 18, 2023

I was playing in the sandpit with trucks and diggers when I was three, and I’m still doing it now at 68!” said Road Metals managing director Murray Francis in a podcast interview mid-last year.

Spend an hour or two in Murray’s company, and you’ll come away with a manuscript for operating a business in New Zealand – in any generation. Hard-working, people-focused, quality-driven, presentation-conscious, innovative and resilient are all hallmarks of the Road Metals story, as they are of any of our iconic national brands.

“Are we allowed to talk about what’s happening in Oamaru, or is that a secret?” I asked at the time. Then came another valuable lesson.

“Absolutely. We don’t run the Secret Service. When we run our regular meetings, we start with what’s happening and what’s going on. I like staff to be involved. I remember when I ran an earthworks job at Culverden years ago showing the operators the plans, and a foreman asked why I was doing that. ‘The next thing, they’ll want to run the job,’ he said. ‘That’s good. What’s wrong with that?’ I replied.

“Half the good ideas in a company will come from the staff. And that’s great.”

Son of Road Metals founder Stan Francis, Murray’s three-plus decades at the helm has not in any way been a beer and skittles. In fact, his entry into the highest echelon of the company was traumatic.

1) North Otago Road Metals in 1955. The chap on the far left is not identified, in the middle is John McCoy, and on the right Theo Moynaham.
2) Road Metals managing director Murray Francis on the mic at a company open day. He still loves trucks, machines, and moving gravel as much now as he ever has.

“Dad died in 1992 – a heart attack out of the blue. It was a huge shock. His GM, Allan McDowall, had also recently left after 26 years with the company and went to Fulton Hogan, so it was an incredibly stressful time. We’d lost our No.1 and No.2 within eight weeks. I had to come off the trucks and machines and run the company. I remember gathering all the staff and telling them the situation – that things were a bit tight, and I needed their support and if they gave me that, I’d give them my support back. Many at that meeting are still here today.”

As intimated, Murray Francis has surrounded himself with trucks and machinery since before he could walk. He spent every waking moment of his formative years with the company’s drivers; riding, learning, having a ball. “You have to be having fun in whatever you’re doing. Life’s too short to spend it doing something you don’t like.”

He still cites finally getting his HT and progressing from driving around the quarries and sites, into the outside world as one of the great days in his own life book. “The cop came around home, and we had a KEW Dodge and trailer there. We did the whole thing – heavy traffic and trailer all at once. I was so excited.”

The Road Metals story begins just after the war in the Waitaki village of Duntroon. A young Stan Francis was in the business of trapping rabbits and carting his and the pelts of other trappers to Twizel for processing. It wasn’t long before he realised there was more of a killing to be made in the transport side of the operation, and in time, he started a local general-carrying business.

Hard work was not something Stan was shy of, and so he took the opportunity to expand early on via the acquisition of Tokarahi Transport, about 30km to the south. Interestingly, its livery was brown and tan.

He won a local contract to cart gravel to a screen, and there appeared to be a lot less back-breaking effort in hauling something that could be tipped off. Likewise, there was a lot of government and local bodywork to be had doing it, and that meant consistent and predictable cashflow. In 1955, Stan sold the rural carrying business and started North Otago Road Metals.

3) A Thames Trader and ‘Noddy’ trailer hard at it, spreading metal
4) Road Metals doing what it does best, making quality material and delivering it to the customer. This photo taken at Twizel, by Murray Francis. Photos: Road Metals collection.

“The first big job was the flood-free at Henley [between Dunedin and Milton]. We had trucks that could cart six yards at a time,” laughs Murray. “In time, we had ‘Noddy’ trailers [simple trailers].”

The young enterprise grew steadily, amassing trucks and plant. As we all know, timing is everything, and Stan couldn’t have been better placed in terms of position and strategy, with the sun about to rise on some of the largest infrastructure projects the country has ever seen in the form of Waitaki, Manapouri, Twizel, and then Clyde.

“Twizel was really the making of us in terms of scale and dimension. The government had a scheme called Plant Advance, whereby you listed the new kit you would require, and they provided finance interest-free over the life of the contract. For Twizel, we got four new Macks, three Volvos, a CAT 980, a Michigan 175, and a scraper.”

But Twizel was only one – the list of projects that had the North Otago Road Metals stamp of contribution against their name throughout this era of prolific construction is impressive: the Mararoa Weir project, stripping coal mines at Nightcaps in Southland, roading at Cascade Creek in the Hollyford Valley, the Opua Dam for Doug Hood, Clyde in the late 1980s early 1990s and aggregate processing at the Manapouri second tail race tunnel. In fact, North Otago Road Metals was the largest single supplier of aggregate back in the 1980s, producing 6,000,000 tonnes of sand and aggregate for the Clyde Dam (that’s 240,000 25-tonne payloads).

It was also an era where Murray learned the family craft, running jobs from the driver’s seat, his level of responsibility increasing over time. “It’s interesting because although Oamaru-founded and based, much of our work over the years has always been outside the Oamaru area.

“It was a great period in our history, with fantastic camaraderie. Often, we’d all be away for weeks, living and working in the same place – places like the Holyford. Then when we did get time off at home, we’d go out together on Saturday night again. Recently, I was talking to some of the crew from then who are still here today, and we all reckon we wouldn’t change a thing.”

An impressive statement. The new company facility taking shape alongside SH1 on the north side of Oamaru.

The company could see that once Clyde finished, there was a possiblity things might get tight, with no further projects of that scale forecast. That being the case, in 1989, the first quarry, Yaldhurst in Christchurch, was purchased.

The move was another great example of inherent foresight. Once completed, many on the Clyde project relocated to Canterbury. In 1994, the company rebranded to Road Metals to remove the chance of any implied regional constraint in the eyes of potential customers. Then, of course, in 1997, the genesis of Kiwi Concrete added yet another arm to the company’s construction portfolio.

Today Road Metals operates 10 quarries in Oamaru, Central Otago, Twizel, Christchurch, and Kaikoura, while Kiwi Concrete operates in Christchurch, Kaikoura, Oamaru, and Twizel.

Sometimes, of course, fate deals you a hand you’d rather not have had, and there’s no escaping the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes has ensured there’s been no end of work.

“Yes, it’s an awful thing and something no one ever wants to experience. I remember seeing a wave roll through the ground from the office here. Frightening.”

Interestingly, the earthquakes themselves left the quarries unscathed. The reality is tip trucks, concrete, aggregate and earthmoving machines are the plaster casts of infrastructure in the wake of events such as earthquakes.

Speaking to the subject of ‘some things never change’, taking a walk around the operations today demonstrates that the inherent pride in the brand and its presentation hasn’t changed. Like his father and grandfather, general manager Dan Francis started his journey in the company behind the wheel and has inherited the understanding and importance of appearance.

“I remember going out to find him one night when he was living at home. There he was at 9.15pm on a Friday, under the truck washing the diffs. That’s a bit overboard,” laughed Murray. “Dan buys the trucks now and I see the orders come over my desk and there’s a bit of extra shinny stuff. I might ask the question, but it’s great for the image and helps attract staff in this era.”

Succession is well in hand, with Murray’s youngest brother, Johnny, also a shareholder, and son Dan set to take the reins.

A company that celebrates its milestones, Road Metals has now marked 40, 50 and 60 years in operation. In the not-too-distant future, 70 candles will need blowing out. “I think you have to. It’s not easy reaching those milestones, and a lot of people put a lot into getting there. My vision is for a 100-year-plus company. I won’t be here for it, but it’s important to set the goal,” said Murray.

The Christchurch 2022 Christmas pic. Photo: Road Metals Collection.

There’s a certain irony when a company whose life has been reshaping the land for others battles to keep its own home from being taken by the sea. But that is what has happened at Road Metals’ home address on Caledonian Street, Oamaru. “Yes, I never thought I’d see it my lifetime,” says Murray. “Some time back, we bought a plot of land on the northern side of town on SH1 in preparation for the inevitable. That came a little quicker when the old site needed new wash and refuelling facilities to meet requirements. It made no sense to spend the money at that site. We’ve been battling the encroachment for years. It was time to give up and move on.”

Almost three score year and 10, the fabulous facility taking shape at the new site sends a clear message of intention and motivation for the run to 100 years. It proudly celebrates a home-grown brand and all that can be achieved when you love what you do.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the people – whether customers or staff. Our company mission statement is simply, ‘A company you’ll enjoy doing business with’, and that applies to everyone inside and outside the company. That’s exactly what we want Road Metals to be,” said Murray.

“Me? I’ll retire when they screw the lid down. I’m having too much fun.”


Road Metals is, without doubt, one of those companies that genuinely loves what it does, shown by the enthusiasm extended whenever we knock at the door. To Murray and Dan, thanks, as always, for your time, trust and the flood of images and stories.

Aaron McGrath, thanks for your time in a busy job and teeing up an awesome couple of days. To Bruce Weaver – fantastic company and a crazy level of accommodation for whatever we wanted.

And, of course, Ben Gray from Volvo New Zealand, who obviously loves the trucks he sells. (Congratulations, Dan, from all of us.)