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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.

Rural beginnings
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 projects.

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 hydromechanical components.

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 work.

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 Papua-New Guinea.

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 manufacturing'.

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 an end.

Changes needed
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 Engineering.

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 domestic market.

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.

Finland - Oil Recovery /Rescue/Fireboat

Catamaran ferry 'Friendship'

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 systems.

The company has distributors throughout Asia, Europe and North America and is completing a network of distributors in South America.

The future
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 not considered.

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.

First Chinese S.E.S. Fast Ferry

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

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