Patchell celebrates 50 years

In October 2023, Features14 MinutesBy Mike IsleNovember 2, 2023

Driven by aspiration – and a little rebellion – Ian Patchell set out to make something of his engineering design talents. His path led him to open Patchell Industries. Fifty years later, the company is one of the most recognisable names in the industry.

Ngakuru is a quiet little village in the Whirinaki Valley southwest of Rotorua.

It has a church, a machinery workshop, a community hall, a school and little else. Not that it needs much else. Most of what’s needed is produced locally. It is a world and a generation away from the noise, bustle, expertise and history of the country’s largest heavy transport trailer and equipment supplier. Nevertheless, Ngakuru is where the Rotorua-based, internationally recognised Patchell Group, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has its roots.

Many residents of Ngakuru, past and present, remember Ian Patchell, the young, tousled-haired kid who lived on a farm with his family just outside of the village. He was hardly a standout academically. Except for Mr Blandford’s engineering class and Mr Petchell’s technical drawing class at Rotorua Boys High, he didn’t enjoy any of the schools or classes he attended.

But where Ian stood out, even among the resilient and innovative farming community of the time, was with his engineering and design drawing prowess and enterprise. At nine, he accidentally broke the only toy he was fond of – a metal truck. He welded it back together using the sun and a magnifying glass. He was only 10 when he started driving the family’s farm truck and organising a successful team of three men to transport hay bales and make a profit. At 12, he built a canoe and then, without his father’s knowledge, appropriated the Villiers engine, complete with its centrifugal clutch, that powered the family’s 15in Morrison reel-driven lawnmower and used it to power up the canoe.

Pictured from Mangatete Road, the farm cottage and Patchell home circa 1955. The farm’s six-a-side milking shed is in the background.

The original Ngakuru schoolhouse shown here relocated to Ngakuru village, with its first extension accommodating a second classroom at the rear of the original building.

There came a time – inevitable perhaps – when the rigidity of school and even his life on the farm became at odds with the rebellious and aspirational youngster. In 1968, and telling no one, including his father, Ian threw off his school uniform, hid it in the bush, put on his best jeans, and set off to take on the world.

Today, the Patchell Group is a multi-million-dollar operation that came through the global financial crisis and Covid-19 largely unscathed. It employs upwards of 240 staff in seven plants around its View Road Rotorua headquarters.

Its tentacles are spread worldwide, mainly through its iconic Swinglift sidelifters brand and its equally iconic Patchell mudflap, which is omnipresent on New Zealand roads – testimony to the group’s prolific and proficient production output.

Was it meant to be that way? Was that what Ian Patchell intended when, in 1972, he opened his first general engineering workshop after working in various jobs in New Zealand and Australia, including a highly paid stint as a boilermaker at the Kinleith mills?

Ian certainly had the faith to make a go of it. But any lack of belief and confidence the newly married Ian Patchell had in 1971 was more than compensated for by the support he received from industry legends such as local contractor Tom Henderson and transport operator Geoff Perfect. He also had the backing of larger-than-life characters with massive egos and prodigious work ethos, capable of consuming copious beers in the Lakehouse pub – characters such as John Scally, Joe Hose, Sandy Caulfield, John Beazley and Sonny Barns, and their mates, the Hunter brothers; transport operators all, specifically logging.

These men were generous enough to allow Ian to carry out minor jobs for them in their workshops until he could rent his own, part of an abandoned wool store at 73 View Road, which he rented from well-known retired local wool buyer, Harvey J Hornblow, who Ian knew from his Ngakuru days.

Hornblow was among a group of contacts that gave the young boilermaker a leg up to start his business. In Hornblow’s case, it was three months’ grace on the rent.

Ian approached Bernie Jones, the general manager of Firth Industries, during this period to seek additional work. Ian already knew Jones from Goodwin Homes, one of Ian’s earlier jobs, and Jones knew of Ian’s capabilities.

Jones immediately introduced Ian to the influential Firth Industries’ resident director (Rotorua), Peter Humphrey. Peter introduced Ian to Tom Perfect, Firth’s yard foreperson in Rotorua. Humphrey and Perfect would then weigh in with Ian’s first experience with general repairs to machinery, building modifications, repairs and maintenance and modifications of new and used concrete moulds for many designs of piles and troughs, manufacturing shed doors for Firth’s concrete killing sheds for farms, and significantly, structural repairs and maintenance of Firth’s vehicle chassis repairs.

The latter was Ian’s first foray into road transport vehicle-structure repairs – where Ian would truly make his marque. Firth Industries was a fertile hunting ground for the fledgling Ian Patchell Ltd.

When Firth opened a new block plant in a failed opposition’s block-manufacturing facility at Okeraka in the Bay of Plenty, Patchells was commissioned to install Firth’s new machinery and develop and supply new hoppers, conveyors and much of the ancillary equipment – in effect, taking an empty shell of a building and filling it with the support equipment Firth needed to begin production. The same was done at Firth’s new Silverstream plant in Wellington and its existing operation in Rotorua, which Patchells upgraded. Firth’s new concrete mixing plant was a much larger job on the corner of Old Taupo Road and Tallyho Street in Rotorua. Many of the Patchells hoppers and conveyors used in those jobs are still in use almost 37 years later.

Hard on the back of the ground-breaking and often back-breaking Firth contract, other big names started rolling in for the (then) fledgling Patchell Industries: NZ Steel at Glenbrook, Caterpillar in the United States (earning Patchells the much-coveted – and rare – designation of auxiliary equipment manufacturer), Pan Pac and its owner-drivers in Hawke’s Bay, plus long-term relationships with some of the largest logging operators in the country.

Along the way, Ian diversified, in 2004, acquiring a failed stainless company from its liquidator and in 2005 he purchased Rotorua Stainless and combined both into what is known today as Patchell Stainless Ltd. In 2005, the intellectual property for Rob Wynyard’s innovative Swinglift brand of sidelifters was purchased, and earlier in 1995 he had started Si-Lodec Onboard Weight Systems, now managed and part-owned by Ian’s nephew, Shaun Morse.

Ian Patchell was on top of something special here, and he knew it. The last thing on his mind at that time – even in recent times – was celebrating its 50th anniversary. But using the occasion to sit down with him and talk about those 50 years offers a potential insight into the man and the companies he created.

Ian is a dichotomy – there are no two ways about it. He is unyielding and often tough to work with and for. He can be forgiven for that; he won’t compromise on quality and expects others to follow suit. Yet he is widely known for being compassionate and generous with his staff, friends and acquaintances. He and the Patchell Group are philanthropic, and what they do for the Rotorua community often goes unnoticed, and that is how Ian wants it.

At a function in the Rotorua Event Centre on 8 September, more than 400 guests celebrated the Patchell Group’s 50 years in business. They weren’t there to pay homage; they, or most of them, were there out of respect and, for many, friendship.

State-of-the-art design and engineering has always been a Patchell trademark. Here, a chassis-welding machine with its two robots welds a chassis, and the Patchell Stainless workshop manufacturing tank barrels.

They included politicians who talked of the group’s contribution to the community, former and current Patchell employees who spoke of the company culture and their passion for their work. There were customers, of course, who universally complimented Patchells on its quality of work over the years. There were old friends of Ian’s, some going back to schooldays, who spoke personally to Ian under the privacy and pleasure of reminiscing. Chief executive Brent Whibley spoke warmly of the “team” at Patchells, saying it was all about people. In saying that, Brent stole Ian’s thunder – somewhat. In a private conversation with New Zealand Trucking earlier, Ian had said much the same thing about the people – Patchell people.

There is a common thread here. Ian and Brent don’t talk about the product, the bottom-line financial performance, market conditions or even the brand equity of the ubiquitous mudflap. They talk about people.

People have been the driving force within this company and the cornerstones of its success and growth. Ian has never doubted it nor even overtly celebrated it. It was just there – that passion for product and performance, permeating the group from its earliest days. Ian started and encouraged it but has never taken credit.

Even so, as a doyen of the industry, Warwick Wilshire, who was at the function, says: “Ian’s legacy to the industry won’t be the trailers or the forestry equipment he and his team built over those 50 years, it will be the team he built around him.”

So, what now for the Patchell Group? And what now for Ian himself? At 74, he must be approaching retirement? Ian alluded to those questions in his celebratory speech to the 400. He called it the “elephant in the room”. He expressed his belief that whatever happened and whenever it happened, the Patchell name would live on. It would live on in the current employees and future employees. It would live on in the memories of those who have worked there or purchased plant there. It would live on in those who supplied the group and competed with the group.

“It will live on in the people,” Ian said. “Patchell people.”