When the Scottish billionaire owner of an Auckland ferry service flies to Wanganui in his private jet to have a first-hand look at a company he's about to spend big sums of money with, you know he means business.

That's what Sir Brian Souter did when the Fullers Group was looking at getting Q-West Boat Builders in Wanganui to build a ferry for them a few years ago.

That connection and the job Q-West delivered has earned the Castlecliff boat yard a $16 million contract to build two more ferries for the company.

Myles Fothergill, managing director of Q-West, says Sir Brian, a majority shareholder in the Fullers Group, was a likeable man.


"He loves the company, wants New Zealand to benefit from it and he's committed $100 million to invest in it. And Fullers is a company that's very good to deal with," Mr Fothergill said.

But no one should undervalue Q-West's role because without its persistence, performance and productivity, we wouldn't be telling this story.

Q-West had struck up a relationship with Fullers a few years ago when that company was looking at a new ferry, and in 2013 it built the Te Kotuku, a 34m long twin-hull 334-passenger ferry for services on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

The point is, Fullers was so impressed with the Te Kotuku that when it wanted two new ferries, it didn't bother going out to tender; it simply got in touch with Mr Fothergill and his team. The first boat is due to be launched in October next year and the second in April, 2017.

"We knew the price made us really competitive with whatever could be priced anywhere else in the world," he said. The fact Fullers went straight to Q-West speaks volumes.

"They had the confidence to build the first ferry with us and that was a big project for them. It had been the early 1980s when Fullers last built a boat in New Zealand and the early 1990s since they last built a new boat.

"Now they've made a commitment to modernise their fleet, lift their image and provide better service to the public," he said.

Fullers is a big player in the Auckland transport market, with a fleet of 16 vessels. A numb f them are very big.


Success with Fullers is paying dividends for the Wanganui yard and presupposes that as the Fullers looks to replace or refit its fleet, Q-West will be first cab off the rank.

The 18m catamaran the Clipper V, built for Sealink.
The 18m catamaran the Clipper V, built for Sealink.

Over more recent years, Q-West has secured contracts worth millions of dollars. So how has it done it?

"With any client you get one opportunity to demonstrate what you can do. A lot of our previous clients have been one-off contracts and we've got some very good customers like that. But we regard repeat business as the single biggest aspect of our operation.

"Whale Watch Kaikoura is a classic example of that. We've built five boats for them but at the beginning we had one chance to demonstrate our capability. Subsequently we've built another four boats for them and do all their refits. And they're now revisiting their plans for fleet replacement.

"It was a big thing for Fullers to build a new boat but it was bigger thing for them to commit to a yard in New Zealand to do it," Mr Fothergill said.

He said there was a perception among some in the ferry and tourism market that New Zealand doesn't have the ability to build boats bigger than about 24m, "but we've certainly demonstrated that's not the case".

What also gives Q-West an edge is the fact it's only yard in the country with that capability. Other yards could do it, but they are not geared to building commercial boats.

"There's a big difference between building a commercial boat and a super yacht. It's a time matter and the super yacht builders can't get their heads around that concept."

Q-West has found its niche. Just like knitting - know what you're good at and stick to it.

In those heady days of the America's Cup, when New Zealand won it and retained it, Q-West made a strategic decision not to get swept up in the super yacht-building frenzy.

"It bothered me a bit because it was an opportunity, but I knew one day we wouldn't have the Cup, one day the dollar wouldn't be 50 cents US, and one day we'd have to go back to our roots, which is commercial boat building. It turned out to be a sound decision."

Boats provide peculiar construction demands; a bit like an aeroplane, they have to be completely, self-contained, able to provide their own power, and carry their own waste management systems.

"We've simply got to get it right first time. Unlike a Boeing jet aircraft, we don't create prototypes before we build the finished product."

The company can't afford to rest on its laurels. It's always looking for innovation to keep ahead of the competition.

Q-West lives and breathes fostering and maintaining close relationships with its customers. Having a satisfied customer doesn't start and end with just one boat.

General manager Colin Mitchell (left) and Myles Fothergill, Q-West managing director.
General manager Colin Mitchell (left) and Myles Fothergill, Q-West managing director.

"We've built eight boats for Pine Harbour Ferries (Auckland) and though they sold their business to Sealink, we've built a new boat for the new owners since then. We've moved from one relationship to another seamlessly."

Another aspect of the relationship cycle is having key suppliers in Wanganui, some of whom Q-West has worked with for more than two decades. They include Central Glass, Extol, Robert Wheeldon Engineering and Ali Arc, all of them offering skills Q-West relies on.

"It's one of the reasons Wanganui's such a good place for us to operate in," Mr Fothergill said.

But the most important component by far for Q-West, and main reason for securing the Fullers contract, is its staff.

Colin Mitchell, the general manager, is the face of Q-West. He's the one dealing face-to-face with the clients and manages pretty much every aspect of the business. Mr Fothergill's job is to deal with tasks that would otherwise distract Mr Mitchell from running a successful business.

"Colin's been with me for 21 years now. We have an exceptional relationship where we complement each other in our roles. He's an hugely respected in the marine industry."

Mr Fothergill acknowledges pastures often appear greener over the fence and he doesn't shy from mentioning New Plymouth, Tauranga and Whangarei as potential bases.

"Sure, they look attractive, but if I look at Wanganui and what it's got - our staff, the infrastructure - it's not really too much of a barrier in convincing customers to come to us.

"We managed to convince a multi-millionaire Scottish businessman to come here and see us before his company signed that first contract with us. He and his family flew here and he could see we could to put this project together. So being in Wanganui is not an impediment."