AKL Harbour Bridge

Six decades of vision, boldness and excellence

A bold decision can sometimes lead to an impressive legacy; especially when it’s the result of calculated risk, unfettered passion and great confidence.

Peter Taylor, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Auckland, had those attributes in spades. Along with technical gravitas, he also had a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit which had seen him undertake geotechnical testing for private clients in his university lab. When he met engineer Ralph Tonkin, he recognised a kindred soul and suggested they establish a civil engineering testing business. The timing was impeccable. It was 1959, the Auckland Harbour Bridge had just been opened and New Zealand was in the midst of a boom.

All the same, the establishment of a testing business was a gutsy move because engineering testing work was traditionally carried out by the government’s Ministry of Works. However, the full extent of the entrepreneurial vision came to life six months later, when Ralph Tonkin persuaded Don Taylor (no relation of Peter Taylor) to follow him into consulting. The remarkable end result was an engineering consultancy, Tonkin + Taylor, with its very own testing facility, Geotechnics – the proverbial marriage made in heaven.

Diversification and independence

Buoyed by the auspicious start, Geotechnics proved its mettle as an in-house facility and in 1976, recognising the importance of a quality system, became the first independent lab to achieve TELARC accreditation. This achievement was initiated by the Lab Manager, Wayne Litherland, who was instrumental in the early years of Geotechnics’ development, which also included the establishment of on-site project laboratories throughout New Zealand. With a few external clients already on board, it didn’t take long for Geotechnics to formalise the diversification of the company in the early 1980s on a path towards independence.

It was around this time when a promising, young technician joined the company, started doing fieldwork and quickly became invaluable. The young chap, Vic O’Connor, became Manager in 1985, Managing Director in 1990 and was fueled by a vision of a successful, highly diversified lab that could withstand the inevitable economic bumps. With a personable leadership style that brought out the best in his team, Vic forged ahead. A quintessential people-person and an impeccable judge of character, he would nudge people to go beyond their comfort zone, then give them responsibility and trust.

This approach has manifested impressive change over the years, growing the team, the market and the service offering. Usually it was propelled by opportunities and a keen interest to take advantage of them. The chance to purchase a competitor’s pavement testing truck in 1995 is a case in point. It added another service layer and sparked the company’s pavement investigations service which has been led by Ian Waite, whose drive and business acumen has seen this division grow into a comprehensive road testing and investigation business unit.

Several other Geotechnics veterans also played leading roles in the growth of the company. With energy, passion and vision, they developed additional testing and monitoring capabilities which grew the service repertoire and the reputation of the company. This includes the work of Instrumentation Team Leader, Chris Ransley, who delivered significant advances in geotechnical instrumentation. Similarly, Triaxial Laboratory Manager, Helen Wang, made tremendous contributions to Triaxial and geotechnical lab testing. Soils Laboratory Manager, Sim Tirunahari, made his mark by developing specialised soil testing.

Over the past 20-odd years, they have championed notable developments in their respective disciplines and helped Geotechnics to mature as a comprehensive service provider.

However, other departments also gave rise to significant developments. This included a number of ‘firsts’ such as the first in-house developed profilometer (by the Instrumentation group) and the aptly named poofilometer for measuring sewer profiles, which was developed by the Christchurch team.

A new division

Then there was the prospect of a sales division which had been quietly percolating. Geotechnics had to import equipment, components and consumables for their own work and saw an opportunity to sell supplies which other labs wanted also. This vision was brought to life by Brigitte Sargent, Geosales National Manager, who joined as an office junior and steadily grew her responsibilities. When Vic hired her, he knew instantly that he’d found his future sales manager and said so to his incredulous wife that evening. Time proved him right. Brigitte started with a modest inventory, held in a basement storeroom (“the dungeon”) and a ring binder that proudly contained all the sales for a year. Soon later, she hit the road, visiting clients and going to conferences. “It just grew from there,” she recalls. “We made sure we stocked interesting products, knew what was happening overseas and secured some key agencies.” She also credits solid client relationships, many of which have endured for decades. It goes to show that it’s a people business after all.

Eventually the sales empire encompassed a full range of geotechnical instrumentation for the field and lab testing of soil, concrete, aggregate and asphalt. The addition of the Measurement and Calibration Centre and a hiring facility became a natural extension of the Sales Division which thrived thanks to an incredibly motivated and talented team of people.

Growing the base at home and in Australia

With a keen eye on the Australian market, Tonkin + Taylor purchased Melbourne based Chadwick Pty Ltd in 2006. Regarded as specialists in the field of geotechnical and environmental services the company (along with Managing Director, Tim Chadwick) was brought into the fold as Chadwick Geotechnics and continues to develop testing services and meet specialised market needs in Australia. A phased integration program is in place to deliver a seamless transition between the two companies within an overall consolidated operation.

Closer to home, the purchase of MCC, the Measurement and Calibration Centre (originally the metrology laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) in 2007 heralded another lateral expansion, this time, as the name suggests, into calibration, measuring and machinery alignment for a diverse client base including healthcare and manufacturing. This prudent new addition was a perfect fit for the existing stable of services and thrived under the focused attention.

Expanding into the regions

With its original base in Auckland, the company had also wanted to expand geographically across the country. When Executive Leader, Paul Burton, joined in 1997 he found himself empowered to do just that and consequently led a judicious expansion into six regional centres. “But we never expanded for the sake of expansion,” explains Paul. As is typical for Geotechnics, it tended to be as a result of project opportunities such as the PJK project which gave rise to the Tauranga office, or the Canterbury Earthquake which prompted a permanent Christchurch presence.

Mind you, in light of the unprecedented demand for geotechnical investigation services in post-quake Canterbury, the establishment of the Christchurch office was a character-defining experience. With sole responsibility for the management of some 7,000 investigation points (including co-ordination of access, testing to standard, maintaining safety and quality, ensuring auditing etc.) this was clearly not for the faint at heart. Within the blink of an eye, the Christchurch office grew from one to 40 staff, tasked with the management of what is perhaps one of the largest single geotechnical investigations ever carried out in the world.

But amidst all the challenges, it also allowed the company to shine by not making a hard-nosed commercial decision and instead opting for the greater good. “We showed our willingness to collaborate by seconding people onto the project from other companies and creating a shared system,” notes Paul. This essentially fast-tracked the immense project and ensured high levels of safety and quality. “It meant we could contribute towards a positive outcome for the residents of Christchurch,” he says.

Industry leadership

From an industry/peer perspective, it also showcased leadership. Close observers might have been reminded of developments in 2006 when Geotechnics funded and organised a Civil Engineering Laboratories Conference (CELC) in an effort to bring the industry together. Paul spearheaded the post-conference call to create an industry organisation and served as inaugural chairman of the Civil Engineering Testing Association of NZ (CETANZ). With its focus on providing training, industry events, qualifications, development of standards, along with technical and career services for members, CETANZ immediately proved its worth and continues to be of great value to the industry. With conferences held every two years, the association is now firmly embedded in the civil engineering testing landscape, not least thanks to active leadership involvement from other Geotechnics employees such as Brigitte Sargent and Steven Anderson.

Some might suggest that initiatives such as this are indicative of an enduring pioneering spirit bestowed by the company’s founders.  Of course, it might also be the outcome of Geotechnics’ culture of empowerment and allowing people to “do their thing”. Regardless of the root cause, at Geotechnics it’s the normal state of play to have people championing initiatives. This notion enhances the firm’s technical agility by pioneering technical methods and innovations such as crosshole sonic logging (for the Tauranga Harbour Bridge), 3D Tomography, or use of automated monitoring equipment such as shape accel array. It goes some way to explain why Geotechnics has become the go-to company for the trickiest of testing or calibration problems.

Longevity and change – the long and short of it

Occupying a leadership type position speaks volumes of the quality of experts and the wider Geotechnics tribe which, according to Brigitte feels like a big caring family. It’s unsurprising then, that so many of them seem to stay for the long haul. Steven Anderson, Operations and Technical Manager, is one of the many who joined well before the millennium; he was as a fresh graduate in 1983 when he snagged a 6-month contract as lab technician working on the Marsden Point Oil refinery. He says his career reflects a typical path at Geotechnics which wouldn’t be possible without the culture which allows people to prove themselves. You’d think it goes someway to providing an answer for the sheer number of employees that have a company track record of two decades or more.

Such tenure is a rarity nowadays and, no doubt, the result of an equally rare underlying ethos of integrity and a deep sense of responsibility – for each other, clients, stakeholders, the industry, the world we live in, and the company as the vehicle for change. It fosters collective confidence in doing the right thing, irrespective of trends.

 “We were diverse long before diversity was a thing,” quips Steven before citing numerous long-term staff members and their remarkable variety of backgrounds. In doing so, he succinctly demonstrates inclusiveness in action, borne from genuine care.  

He values employment longevity because it gives you a wider, historic perspective which he finds relevant in terms of change. While this can be illustrated with changes in technology (think of worksheets that used to be drafted on transparent paper), the biggest lessons, he says, are embedded within the concept of evolution. “You can’t keep doing what you’ve always done. Things change and you have to adapt to the environment.” He sums it up, “It’s evolution or extinction!”

Needless to say, the extent and implications of change resonate deeply with all executives. Vic, who’s been leading the company from strength to strength for the past 28 years, anticipates notable changes in the contractor landscape. He acknowledges this will disrupt business-as-usual, but he’s also confident that agile thinking will continue to help uncover new opportunities.

There’s no question in anybody’s mind that technology will be a huge differentiator; big data along with the internet of things will accelerate the use of technology such as remote sensing. But in an age where organisations are already drowning in data, it’ll be more important than ever to help clients make the most of the data they have. That’s why the company has a strategy in place to prepare for it.

If the past is anything to go by, Geotechnics looks to be uniquely placed to overcome future hurdles with flying colours.  Deeply ingrained entrepreneurial spirit, keenly calculated risk and a penchant for bold decisions in a vibrant and fun workplace may well help them stay ahead of the pack for the next 60 years.


Written by Sylvia Zlami