At last year’s Heavy Haulage Conference, industry veteran Sandy Southcombe sat with MARY SEARLE BELL to reflect on his long career as a house mover.
SANDY SOUTHCOMBE HAS been moving buildings in Taranaki for very nearly 50 years. His first move, in late 1967, was an office building, which he hauled on a Thames Trader truck and a $50 trailer. Sandy’s grandson Chris now leads Taranaki Building Removers, which boasts a fleet of International trucks and trailers, as well as a yard full of second-hand buildings, but Sandy is still very much in the thick of things.
His passion for the industry began when he was a young boy at school. He would keep scrapbooks, collecting pictures of “anything to do with wheels”.
“I’d pinch the odd day off school and watch a house being moved,” he says.
After Sandy finished the fifth form at school, he started working in his father’s sawmill in Opunake. When he got his HT licence he began delivering the timber.
After his father died, Sandy carried that mill on for a while, but then, at the age of 23, he “put a bit of a trailer together” and he was on his way.
“The house moving started off bloody slow so I had to do other things,” he explains.
Sandy spotted a gap in the market and began building hay barns and implement sheds for farmers. He would sometimes prebuild the sheds and then transport them to site.
“It sort of all evolved from there,” he says. “As you got better known you got more of the house removal work.
“But the big hold back in those days was actually getting a transport licence. They were like a court case. They had a kind of judge – an air vice marshall, and I used to say, what the bloody hell would an air vice marshall know about road transport?”
The regulations at the time allowed you to transport things you made yourself – and Sandy prebuilt and shifted things like car sheds – but working for someone else was classified as hire and reward, and that, says Sandy, is what he needed a licence for.
“You could get a temporary permit, but your opposition could still oppose that,” he says. “But I soon got the right to get temporary permits unopposed, which allowed me to build up a bit of a business.”
The country was divided into zones back in those days, and Sandy’s zone in Taranaki – Zone Six – started at Mokau in the north, stretched right over to include Taumarunui and extended south to Whanganui.
“The good licences were for the whole of the North Island. For years they would have been your retirement scheme when you sold your business – but that’s all gone now. So guys that paid for them had bought nothing,” he says with a wry chuckle.
“In those days, once you got a transport licence, it was compulsory to belong to a recognised association. That was Road Carriers, but they didn’t do a lot for us house movers because of what we did.”
Fortunately, in 1979, house movers were invited to join the Heavy Haulage Association, and Sandy says he couldn’t get there quickly enough.
“Straight away you were in with guys of a similar sort. Your problems are similar. I’ve been to every single conference since then and made a lot of cronies over the years.
“I’ve always said about the association, ‘don’t underestimate the social side of it’. You could be glaring at some bugger for years then get talking to him and find he’s no different to you.”
Taranaki Building Removers has made thousands of shifts over the years. Over the course of a few months in the early 1970s, Sandy moved 25 houses and 15 cowsheds for Kiwi Dairy Company. During the 1970s and 1980s the company hauled more than 500 brand new buildings for Keith Hay Homes.
However, it hasn’t all been buildings. Sandy says the most unusual thing he has moved in his career is a 42-tonne concrete pioneer monument in New Plymouth.
“We only had to move it a few yards but it was years and years old, and we didn’t know how robust it was. I said to the crowd I priced it to, ‘if it falls to bits I’ll probably have to leave the country’.”
Fortunately, it didn’t and he was able to continue doing what he loved.
“I enjoy something a bit different – rolling a house sideways and the like. It makes you stop and think about how you’re going to do it. Whereas with hydraulic jacks and hydraulic trailers nowadays, it can make house moving a little bit ho-hum. But something out of the ordinary, I enjoy that.”
These days, Taranaki Building Removers has a team of five, with Sandy’s grandson Chris “stepping into the breach and running the show”, as Sandy terms it.
“I don’t do the manual work that I used to, but I go on most of the moves.”
Now aged 72 – or “64 plus GST” as he puts it, Sandy still lives in the company yard at Bell Block in New Plymouth. He and his wife Kaye bought it from Keith Hay Homes in 1993 and a few years later shifted a house onto the property.
“We enjoyed living there, and I still do.”
Kaye died about six years ago, and now Sandy’s 19-year-old grandson lives with him, an arrangement that suits them both nicely.
Four years ago Sandy got the Gus Breen Memorial Award for services to the industry. The accolade came as a big surprise. (His award was covered in the November 2013 issue of Contractor).
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life. I didn’t do anything towards deserving that.”
Seems Sandy’s peers disagree. It’s clear to see that 50 years on, Sandy is still dedicated to and passionate about things on wheels – especially buildings.