Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: In the frame for the Olympics

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Steel tech from Auckland will be used for Games buildings in Russia

Nick and Hamish Coubray at Howick Engineering, a specialist in steel building framing. Photo / Chris Gorman
Nick and Hamish Coubray at Howick Engineering, a specialist in steel building framing. Photo / Chris Gorman

When the flame is lit for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, among the snow and ice will be structures built using technology from Auckland.

Howick, a 35-year-old engineering firm headquartered in its namesake suburb, sent containers packed with its innovative steel roll forming machinery and structural cold rolled framing technology to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to construct buildings for the Games village.

The structures created from light-gauge steel are not only fast to construct - the machines take a computer-generated design and spit out framing components ready to be clipped together with Howick-designed end bearings - but are strong enough to withstand heavy snow loads.

The contract to supply four framing machines to the builders in Sochi came on the back of work for the London Olympics, says business development manager and co-owner Nick Coubray.

"I don't know how else you'd build some of [the buildings] because they're remote as well.

Some of them are miles up in the mountains so getting big heavy construction machinery up there is quite difficult."

Being able to unpack a building factory from the back of a container has seen the Howick machines used everywhere from the Arctic Circle and Mongolia to the Australian Outback.

That's not to say the machines can't be used in more conventional locations. Travelodges and Premier Inns throughout Britain have been erected with the technology, and New Zealand's Golden Homes builds solely with steel framing using Howick machinery.

Ninety-five per cent of the company's business comes from overseas, with Australia and Russia important markets, but Coubray says its New Zealand market could grow with the Christchurch rebuild and plans to increase the height limits of buildings in parts of Auckland.

He says using lightweight steel framing for three- and four-storey buildings is cheaper than concrete structures, and faster and lighter than timber. "That falls into a nice little niche."

It's a long way from the firm's beginnings as a two-man band making butchers' mincing machines, the business bought by Coubray's father, Bruce, and grandfather, Keith, in 1978.

Bruce Coubray says the business had a history of roll forming steel to make roofs and gutters but alongside his brother, Alan, who joined the firm a few years later, it built one-of-a-kind machines for other companies.

Along the way, Howick created sheep-skinning machines, fruit graders, a 30-seater bike and tube-bending equipment for Fisher & Paykel.

"We knew for the business to have any long-term value it had to have a product, and because we were building one-off machines the business was only worth the people in it, who were my brother and myself mainly," says Bruce.

About 15 years ago, a customer brought in a broken, Australian-made framing machine which the Coubrays took apart and discovered was never going to work.

After building a new machine and contracting someone to write software for it, they realised this was the business opportunity they had been looking for.

"I thought in five years we'll be smoking, but it's been a long process. It's really just starting to happen now in any volume."

He says the building industry is about 70 years behind the car industry in adopting automation, and the company hasn't been good at marketing its innovation.

It's the third generation of Coubrays - Nick, 32, and younger brother Hamish, 29 - who are taking the lead in promoting the company. Both know the business inside out having worked for the firm since they were children.

Bruce Coubray says the $10 million business, which is now employing 25 staff, could grow to $50 million, "no problem at all".

"I don't know anybody that builds a better product, framing machine, anywhere in the world."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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