Business Of The Month For October
- C. W. F. Hamilton and Company Ltd
- Dorothy - 2/10/97
A business that has grown from a small country business to a worldwide
network through Kiwi skills, ingenuity and flexibility.
William Hamilton, founder of the company, was born in 1899 in South
Canterbury. He was brought up on Ashwick Station near Fairlie. A lover of
the Canterbury countryside, in 1921 he bought his own farm - Irishman Creek
Station, a sheep run of 10.000 hectares near Lake Tekapo in the remote
Mackenzie country which is in inland Canterbury at the foot of the Southern
Alps. It was difficult to develop the farm at this time of depression
following the First World War.
Need for machinery - ingenuity at work
Farming in this type of country needs earthmoving machinery for developing
the land. Being just as interested in engineering as in farming he decided
to develop his own heavy machinery. He built a workshop, developed an
excavator with an earth scoop and built a dam to supply water for a hydro
electric plant to supply power for domestic use and for his engineering
He began his manufacturing business in the workshop at Irishman Creek in
1939. They built runways for airports, including the airstrip at Mt Cook.
During World War 2 the firm opened a workshop in Fairlie and produced
ammunition and parts for armoured personnel carriers. They closed it down
after the war.
Move to Christchurch
The word of their success spread, and such was the demand for the machinery
that he bought ten hectares at Middleton on the edge of Christchurch and
established the business there in 1948. It is still there but not on the
edge of development - rather in the middle of a growing industrial estate.
From here major power projects were supplied with heavy machinery including
bulldozers, scrapers, excavators, hydraulic machinery and major
Research and development
This has been a key factor in the company's success from the beginning. The
workshop at Irishman Creek was now not needed for manufacturing, so it was
developed as a research and development centre, devoting energy to the
development of the Hamilton waterjet.
Boats a passionate interest
As a boy William Hamilton spent much time canoeing on the rivers of the
Mackenzie Country and dragging the canoe upstream against the strong
current. His dream was that one day he would invent a boat that could
travel fast against the current. As the business grew and more staff were
taken on he was able to spend more time on research and development. In
1953 he achieved his dream of the boat that would travel fast upstream with
the development of the waterjet. I use the term development as he insisted
that the inventor was really Archimedes. William Hamilton has to be given
the credit of applying the idea to the propulsion of boats and making it
Think Big projects
After the firm moved to Christchurch and had larger manufacturing premises
it was heavily involved in the Think Big projects, building railway wagons,
penstocks for the Twizel power schemes, steel works for the Wellington
Postal Centre and the New Zealand Steel mills and other large contracts.
This meant that the firm was very busy in the heavy engineering area.
Growing popularity of the jet boat
Running concurrently with that the jet boat had become very popular both in
New Zealand and overseas. World wide publicity came from such achievements
as the first boat to travel up the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon
and expeditions up the Zaire River to retrace Stanley's footsteps, and in
Recognition for William Hamilton
In 1961 his work was honoured with the award of an O.B.E. (Order of the
British Empire) and in 1974 he was knighted for 'valuable services to
In the mid seventies the Government imposed a heavy sales tax on boats and
this coincided with the oil crisis. These factors seriously affected the
industry for leisure boats and caused a great downturn in the boat
production. At the same time many of the Think Big projects were coming to
The company had to look at a new direction for its future. This was a time
when Christchurch saw a number of its large well-established engineering
companies close - companies like Andrews and Beaven, and Andersons
At that time there was a fledgling export market for the water jet. Market
research convinced the company that the commercial use of water jets was
going to grow, primarily because they are suited to higher speed boats.
The whole world wanted to travel faster at that time and the desire for
speed included transport on water ways. At that time in the late
seventies the company was 90% heavy engineering and 10% water jets
manufacturing. It invested in developing the water jets which proved to be
the right decision.
The company now functions as three divisions with Hamilton Jet handling
about 95% of the company's business. Hamilton Marine manufactures jet
boats for the domestic market - pleasure, fishing and tourist-type boats.
The Hydraulics division imports and distributes hydraulic equipment to the
The market for Hamilton Jet is the world - 99% of its product being exported.
The target vessels for the water jets are work and patrol boats and fast
passenger ferries up to about fifty or sixty metres long. Work boats
include pilot boats and fire boats, and patrol boats include vessels for
military and para-military organisations like coast guards, search and
rescue, and fisheries protection.
Communication by email
Because most of the customers are overseas, communications are a vital part
of the business. The fact of New Zealand being a day ahead of the rest of
the world gives the business quite a competitive edge. Hamilton Jet can
provide an overnight turnaround in answering inquiries from almost anywhere
in the world. Inquiries arrive overnight and are answered while the
customers are in bed. This gives the staff the full day to attend to the
requests and a reply in the evening means an overnight service to the other
side of the world. This is faster than most overseas companies can get in
their own home towns.
The technical nature of the product
A lot of computer generated drawings and speed predictions are being
transmitted. Being able to do this by email as a computer file gives
compatibility with customers overseas. In this technical industry the
customers are people like naval architects and marine engineers using
computer systems to design the boats into which the water jets will be
fitted. The fact that they can receive a computer file which can be
integrated into their computer designs makes it very convenient for them.
The low cost of email is an added advantage.
The company's Internet site
This is very new and was established as an additional doorway into the
organisation as the company has seen the rapid growth of the Internet.
Waterways in city transport systems
The waterways of the world are being used more and more as part of the
transport infrastructure of cities like San Francisco, Seattle and New York
and in the Scandinavian archipelago. Anyone using ferries to commute or
travel on business is going to want to cut down the time involved and will
choose the new fast ferries in preference to the older slower vessels.
Reaching the clients
To service its markets Hamilton Jet has its head office and manufacturing
facilities in Christchurch, and offices in Seattle and in the United
Kingdom. In addition it has distributors in forty countries around the
world. They are the front line contact for the customers. Just the fact
of servicing such a geographically wide area requires very good access to
the company and the Internet is ideal for this type of communication.
Because of the broad geographical area that is covered all communication is
in English. The distributor companies are selected very carefully, and one
of the requirements is that they can communicate effectively in English.
Good local representation is important for success in overseas countries,
especially for the type of product that Hamilton Jet exports. The local
representatives can deal with the commercial intricacies in their own
The company has distributors throughout Asia, Europe and North America and
is completing a network of distributors in South America.
Servicing the change in direction to the water jet has involved
considerable resources being put back into upgrading the manufacturing
plant. It was designed as a heavy engineering facility to meet the demand
in the seventies and eighties. It has had to be redeveloped as a
production facility which has involved the purchase of sophisticated
machines and new plant.
Keeping ahead of the competition
For Hamilton Jet to stay ahead of the competition, research and development
plays a big part. There is a full time research engineer on the staff and
in addition to in-house research and development, joint research projects
are done with Canterbury University and international organisations like
the Marine Research Institute of the Netherlands.
The world wide demand for waterjets is growing at about fifteen per cent
per annum and Hamilton Jet has a good share of the market.
As with any growing market there is competition. The company's philosophy
for dealing with competition is that in the marine industry it targets
niche markets that suit its product. There are other companies who are
strong outside this niche and these are respected competitors. There are
people who copy the Hamilton product. Instead of using resources in
fighting such an issue in the courts the company's strategy to combat any
threat is to use resources to improve the product through research and
development, so that they are well ahead of their imitators.
There is little encouragement for exporters in the free market economy in
New Zealand, yet exporters generate wealth and put spending power into the
community. This company has a stable and skilled workforce of a hundred
and fifty. The government has given the company some assistance with
research funding, but the company has carried the bulk of the cost.
Continuing growth in use of the waterways
In areas like Scandinavia travel by ferry is an accepted part of daily
life. In Norway travel from one fjord to another is by ferry. Driving is
As population centres grow if water is the main access there is a need for
high speed ambulance boats and service boats.
Water jets are becoming more popular for these types of applications
because at over 25 knots they are more efficient than a conventional
propeller. In the fast ferry industry the water jet is becoming the
predominant propulsion of choice.
In the Gulf of Mexico the fleet that services the oil rigs was due for
replacement and water jets have been put into use there.
In Asia the future looks bright. With China's huge population and numerous
waterways there is great scope for growth. Hamilton water jets have been
fitted to the first Chinese S.E.S. Fast Ferry designed and built in China.
Still a family business and a private company
The qualities of ingenuity and adaptability which made Sir William
successful have continued to be a strength for the company over the years.
Sir William was a natural engineer. He encouraged his son John to go into
the business, but to get an education - more than his father had received.
John Hamilton is the present chairman and although semi-retired goes to the
business on most days. His son, Mike Hamilton, is the chief design
engineer. It is still a private company.
A company with a significant world wide role
Those who associate the name of C. W. F. Hamilton and Co Ltd only with
little boats making a big noise on a Canterbury river need to update their
view of this company.
The company is the largest single exporter of marine equipment in New
Zealand. The brand name, Hamilton Jet, is recognised as a world leader.
Visit the Hamilton Jet Web site