Profile: JCL Asphalt Ltd

By: Cameron Officer, Photography by: Cameron Officer and Tim Dickson

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At just 30 years of age, James Craw of JCL Asphalt Ltd has achieved a lot. With a team of around 40 and a yard full of hard-working gear, Craw has quickly grown to exemplify the new breed of contractor putting Christchurch back together again.

Profile: JCL Asphalt Ltd
Smooth operator!

Here's a heads-up to the nation's mobile telecommunications providers: if you want a head-turning poster boy for a promo campaign featuring a hard-working, mobile phone-dependent, self-made man, then contact James Craw from JCL Asphalt Limited - he's your guy. Errr... That's if you can get through, of course.

I recently spent a busy morning riding shotgun with Craw in his Hilux as we toured a few of the worksites his teams are managing in busy central Christchurch. The mobile phone affixed to his dashboard barely stopped ringing.

As an owner/manager who likes to have his finger on the pulse, Craw took every call. He has a big crew, so knowing where each team is at and what they're moving onto next is crucial.

"I'm predominantly in the office these days which is a bit of a change for me," he says. "When I started out, I was on the tools and I was pretty fussy about everything. The challenge is to keep your quality of work consistent and, now that I'm in the office a lot more, I guess it's something I've always got in the back of my mind.

"It's not just our work I'm talking about. I mean the quality of the prep work done by other contractors who we are sub-contracted by to lay their asphalt. I've got Heath, my asphalt supervisor, spending most of his day touring around sites and checking the prep work has been done well. There are a lot of newer contractors around town since the earthquakes and some of them like to take the fast and easy route. So we have to check any site is good to go before we set up to asphalt."

"It's easy to get a bad name in this game," Craw suggests. "People don't often mention it if you do a good job, but people start talking pretty quickly if you stuff something up. No one's perfect, there might be the odd mistake made, but keeping our quality up and making sure we're not taking the rap for any shoddy prep work is important."

Things have certainly progressed for Craw (who has, rather astonishingly, only just celebrated his 30th birthday) and JCL Asphalt Ltd, especially in the last couple of years. Since leaving Fulton Hogan and starting his company nine years ago with a wee five-tonne tip truck and his parents support, Craw has experienced a lot of positive growth. As he himself attests to though, the earthquakes that rocked his home region in 2010 and 2011 changed everything.

"Like a lot of construction-focused companies, we were doing it hard before the earthquakes. The recession was biting pretty badly. The work we do is very seasonal too, so you'd have a good summer and then it would slow up in the winter. It's a bit different here now."

From humble beginnings with the five-tonne tipper, a six-wheeler Mack Midliner his father hired to him (which, incidentally, is where the familiar JCL blue colour scheme comes from) and mates helping him out with yard space, Craw has grown JCL substantially. Today his distinctively-liveried trucks and machinery are a familiar sight on Christchurch's streets and ubiquitous work sites - he even has a full-time painter at his yard, ensuring newly acquired gear gets rendered in the familiar blue almost as soon as it arrives.

"It's been a long process, but we have definitely seen massive growth," says Craw. "I used to have 12 staff before the 'quakes but now I have 40. We've bought a fair bit of gear to keep up too, which comes with its own challenges.

"The investment in gear is crucial and I have to be pretty strategic about how I buy equipment. I don't buy new trucks, for example - never have. I can't justify the spend because a lot of the time the guys will only do a few loads of asphalt a day: not even 100km some days. I just do my research and make sure I get good quality second-hand ones."

While showroom-shined rigs aren't on Craw's shopping list, the equipment doing the harder yards day in, day out - the rollers, loaders and excavators - is always bought brand new.

"Goughs looks after me - it's my main supplier for excavators. I have a good relationship with the team and I've bought three Cat diggers off them in the last wee while. I've also got one Cat roller - a small four-tonne combi we use for construction - but generally, when it comes to rollers, I'm a Sakai guy.

"Goughs gives me a bit of stick about that," he laughs. "But I like Sakai rollers for asphalt work. I bought a new seven-tonner last year. I also bought a Hitachi loader last year - I was very lucky with that, as CablePrice leant it to me as a demonstrator and we were so busy on jobs at the time it took us about three months to get it back to them to do the pre-delivery on it! We liked it so much we just kept it."

Craw admits to not being too hung up on brands when it comes to machinery, but just wanting gear that'll go the distance.

"At the end of the day, I paint everything blue, so no one really knows what brand of gear I'm running half the time anyway," he laughs. Although, he adds, when it comes to smaller road-going gear, he is very loyal to Volvo and Isuzu trucks, as well as Toyota utes.

Craw says JCL still undertakes all manner of work, and even though big 'quake recovery projects get the headlines (and utilise manpower), the company also remains busy completing contract work like private driveways and car parks, such as the one at the Christchurch Football Club sprucing up its Mairehau clubrooms in anticipation of its 150th jubilee celebrations when we visited.

Despite the huge amount of work on for JCL - projects both big and small - Craw likes to keep on top of everything going on.

"Growing the office has been a challenge in itself as I used to do all the pricing, and to let go of that is hard," he says. "I employed a senior estimator in October 2011 and that was one of the best things I've ever done. He always CC's me into job quotes, but unless it's a really big project, I'm happy with him sorting the pricing.

"I'm basically operations manager now, especially for the asphalt side - I still order every load of asphalt. I might not go to every job site, but my site supervisors' email me photos so I can get a good idea of what the job is going to be like through the photos. I then work out the quantity of asphalt we'll need based on the square metreage of the job. It's a system that seems to be working well."

That's understating it for this young business owner with a clear set of goals and achievements in mind for himself and his company.

I go to ask Craw for some more insight into the JCL operation, but he has another call coming through, and sorry, he just has to take it.

Big blue

Think you've seen a Kenworth 404 like JCL Asphalt's big distinctive blue rig? Think again.
So with a hugely busy operation and a need for top-line equipment, you'd be forgiven for thinking James Craw likes to swap out his equipment regularly for newer kit, right? Wrong.

Rather than the hoarder's instinct, it appears Craw just values good gear and does his research on what he buys - and when he buys something, he goes to the effort of making it shine. Take the most recognisable part of JCL Asphalt's fleet, for example:

JCL's big 550hp Kenworth 404 ST is instantly recognisable and Craw is quick to admit it's his favourite piece of equipment - to both look at and drive.

"We bought it late 2009 and it had already done nearly a million kilometres. It used to be a Goodman Fielder truck, doing a milk bottle run between Nelson and Christchurch. I especially love it because it's unique - it's an ST, with the 'T' standing for 'traditional'. You see a lot of sloping-bonnet 404 Ss around but, personally, I haven't seen another ST with the flat bonnet yet," Craw enthuses.

When he purchased the 404 ST, he also purchased a new TMC three-axle transporter trailer and a tipulator, and Craw juggled the two trailers between it. The purchase of a Volvo tractor unit last year saw that become the dedicated tipulator truck, with the Kenworth 404 ST solely responsible for machinery transportation now.

The transporter unit looks fantastic with additions like neon blue back-lit stainless steel doorsteps with the JCL logo stencilled into them, similar cut-outs in the air-cleaners, and an aggressive visor set-up. At the recent Global Trucking Show & Shine in Christchurch, the Kenworth won the Best Lights award in the night show, as well as looking awesome during the day as part of the JCL fleet on display.

But the 404 ST's transporter trailer is just as unique too.

"It has all the extras," says Craw. "It can fit four bits of gear on it - the bottom deck has hydraulics too, so three metres of the deck can flip up so we can chuck a roller on the goose-neck.

"As a combination unit with the trailer included, the Kenworth is probably one of our most expensive pieces of equipment," he says. "I absolutely love it, though - I hope it's good for another million kilometres!"

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