Leading Whangarei businessman Dave Culham honoured

Leading Whangarei businessman Dave Culham, who has been awarded the Queen's Service Medal for services to business and the community, says his activities through life just evolved as he "rolled up his sleeves and got into it".

The award completes a unique trifecta over the past year - an honorary fellowship from NorthTec for services to industry; being named the 2011 inductee into the Northern Advocate Business Hall of Fame for his contribution to Northland business; and the QSM.

Now 80, he founded Culham Engineering in 1958, aged 27, and immediately took on an apprentice. Even in hard times the company has never deviated since from a policy of taking on apprentices and has become a leading New Zealand trainer of steel fabrication apprentices.

Mr Culham said youth training was dear to his heart, the foundation for successful lives.

Culham Engineering has been involved in all construction work at the Marsden Pt refinery since inception in the 1960s, as lead contractor. When the New Zealand Refining Company announced in the early 1980s that it planned to extend the refinery, Mr Culham took on 24 apprentices.

By the time the company was enlisting workforce for the project, the Culham apprentices were well into their training and able to participate in the unique experience of helping build a refinery.

Today's 160-strong company has trained more than 500 apprentices, currently has 20 and expects to take on more next year.

"They are all very respectful, good kids. We wouldn't have had half a dozen failures in 53 years."

Mr Culham said he never wanted to go to university. Times were hard when he entered the workforce and there were "a lot of doctors and lawyers who couldn't get any work."

In the 1980s, Mr Culham decided to enter local body politics, feeling it was time "to roll up his sleeves" on governance issues. He stood for what was then the Whangarei County Council against sitting chairman Ken Munro. He lost twice, the second time by just one vote. As always stickability paid off and the third time he stood for election he won a seat on the Whangarei District Council when city and county were amalgamated under a local body reform programme in 1989, serving three terms.

He still has strong views about the need to control debt.

"You must live within your means, even when it is difficult. I know how hard it can be - when I started out I was being paid 34 shillings a week and I had to pay 30 shillings for my board."

He was also a foundation member of the Northpower Trust and served six terms, retiring in 2010. He grew up on a Taipuha dairy farm and became a boarder at Whangarei Boys' High School at 11.

After leaving school, he completed a five-year boilermaker/welding apprenticeship with Tapper Engineering; eight years later he started Culham Engineering. At the time, he was the only qualified pressure welder in Northland and within weeks, was employing four people. He took up flying, buying his first plane, a Cherokee in 1973.

When Culhams secured its biggest ever job, building the tubular space frame truss for an extension to Air New Zealand's hangar at Auckland International Airport, he flew a team to Auckland and back every day for 18 months, missing only one day because of bad weather.

He is proud of how Culhams handled the project - manufacturing the 68-tonne truss in Whangarei and then towing it on a barge from Whangarei around North Cape and into the Manukau harbour.

A former footballer, he is keen on rugby. Among good causes important to him, along with youth training, are North Haven Hospice and the Kawakawa railway. He's also managed to combine all his other activities with running a farm near Sandy Bay for many years, breeding Angus and Hereford cattle.

He recently semi-retired to a 6.5ha property in the Bay of Islands with wife Gay but remains governing director of Culham Engineering with son Shane as managing director. He made sure Shane completed full apprentice training with the company, as has Shane's son Steven.

- Northern Advocate

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