Dennis Hey began his working life as a fitter and welder. But in 1999, after 14 years with one company where he ended up in a client liaison role, he and wife Julie set up their own business.

Tauranga-based Conveyor Industries now manufactures a range of sophisticated bulk material conveyors for blue-chip clients in New Zealand and internationally.

Conveyor Industries recently completed its biggest project to date, supplying 64 conveyors for a new feed stock manufacturing plant just outside Melbourne, which saw the company shipping 10 40-foot containers of customised and locally made equipment across the Tasman.

"I never had any formal training in design or management, I just learned on the job," said Mr Hey.

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Born and brought up in Tauranga, Mr Hey left school after gaining School Certificate. Following a six-month pre-trade training course in Rotorua, he became an apprentice fitter and welder, going on after completing his time to work for a quarry.

He then joined a Tauranga firm as a fitter and welder, but soon moved into administrative and then sales and marketing roles.

After 14 years with the company, he decided it was time to run his own business.

Mr Hey and his wife, who still manages the accounts for Conveyor Industries, started out from a small home office, but the business was kick-started with a contract from Heinz Watties.

For the first few months, they sub-contracted any manufacturing work, but found they couldn't control delivery times because their business was too small for the companies they were subcontracting to. So they began their own manufacturing operation, initially on a small scale.

Conveyor Industries now has a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Papamoa, with a staff of 16. The company utilises design principles developed by Cema, the leading authority for conveying systems, said Mr Hey.

It also has its own in-house design service with two draughtsmen using innovative 3D modelling software, with Mr Hey playing the leading role in designing the company's conveyor systems.

"People come to us, buy core equipment and then we figure out how to link it all together," he said. "We will lay the project out in 3D with the core equipment the client wants and the space they have available and make the system fit and work to achieve the outcome they're looking for."

Conveyor Industries is focused on the bulk materials sector, working for clients that include fertiliser giants Ballance Agri-nutrients and Ravensdown, meat companies like Affco and Graeme Lowe, Fonterra and other major companies.

"We don't do finished packets of product going along a conveyor belt," said Mr Hey. "We build specialised conveyors to handle bulk products in their raw state, which need to be circulated around an industrial plant to finish up in a processed state."

Typical examples were limestone processing operations, where the raw material began in rock form and finished up as a powder, or meat rendering plants that turned offcuts into bonemeal.

The company also manufactures the ancillary steelworks, including walkways, platforms, ladders and stairs.

Mr Hey said it was challenging in the early days of the business as a new, small player, and the family home was at one point mortgaged to provide working capital.

But the company had been fortunate to attract well-established businesses as clients and had largely been able to grow from the cash flow from progress payments, he said.

As well as its direct business in New Zealand and Australia, Conveyor Industries also works on international turnkey projects, and has partnered with other New Zealand companies in Asia, South Africa, South America and the UK.

Mr Hey said he had benefited earlier in his career from advice from a mentor in the steel fabrication trade who he worked closely with during the first few years of establishing the business.

He also retained a professional business mentor for 12 months to work on business development and help recharge his personal batteries, after returning from his first holiday away from the business in Europe after the initial seven years of operations.

"Building the business has been a very rewarding journey," he said.

Vaughan Chaffey, an industrial engineer now working for a major Conveyor Industries' client in Christchurch, has known Mr Hey for more than 20 years.

"I respect him immensely for his professionalism and also his moral standing, having worked for him, with him, and having been a client as well," said Mr Chaffey.

"He will only provide you with a solution that meets your needs, not something from his catalogue of products. You get a bespoke piece of equipment guaranteed to work without any sort of issues."

Right staff key factor

Dennis Hey says the hardest thing about running his business has been attracting and retaining the right staff.

"We're fortunate to have a talented crew.

"But skills shortages are a huge and constant challenge from the workshop floor to skilled design draughtsmen."

One problem, he said, was that schools were increasingly focused on areas such as IT and no longer seemed to encourage young people to take up apprenticeships in traditional skilled trades.

Mr Hey said that Conveyor Industries competed in a global market, and faced competition for New Zealand project work from Chinese and Thai companies with lower cost structures.

"Driving an efficient business is key for survival and you need good staff for that," he said.

Adventure on two wheels

Dennis Hey is an avid traveller and motorcycle-touring enthusiast.

The owner of a Ducati and a Kawasaki, he has toured widely in New Zealand as well as throughout Australia, California, Colorado and Utah.

"The US was fantastic and great to tour on a bike," said Mr Hey, who has booked another tour for September.

A recent hobby is restoring motorbikes. His garage holds three British vintage projects, two Coventry-Eagles and a James, plus a classic Honda.

He and Conveyor Industries co-owner Julie - whom he described as a "pillar" of the business - have three children. The oldest son is a chef in the UK, the second son is working in the family business on the tendering side and training in design, and their daughter is studying journalism at university.

Dennis Hey

Role - co-owner and managing director, Conveyor Industries

Born - Tauranga, New Zealand

Age - 50

First job - apprentice fitter and welder

Currently reading -

Twisting throttle America

by Mike Hyde