Without leaving the shop, yet again I had another great encounter. I’m always on the listen-out for interesting stories, and Allan Martin (the Martin in ‘Mead and Martin Joinery), could tell a few. I was supposed to be on duty, serving customers, so I asked Alan if I could interview him at his work.
Two things piqued my interest: 1) A local firm with a reputation for excellence. 2) A partnership that has lasted for forty years. The first is gratifying. The second is rare.
Never have I been in a less pretentious office. It must be twenty years since I last saw a manager’s desk without a monitor on it. Allan did have a computer on his desk a few years ago, but found it to be an intrusion. It is over his desk that customers talk about their requirements, and Alan felt that a monitor acted as a barrier. If he needs a computer, he walks to another room. The business uses computerisation for invoicing and payments, but it’s still yellow, pink and white pages of a triplicate pad for taking orders. The system works, so why change it? Alan showed me a tidy shelf where he could access records of all the jobs done in the last twenty years. That shelf was the only joinery in the room, the offices of Mead and Martin are strictly utilitarian.
‘Keep it simple and find the most efficient way of doing things’ is a maxim by which the business is run. The premises and yard, just off Beach Road in Richmond (you’ve driven past it countless time as you travel down the Richmond deviation) occupy about half an acre., and includes one very large building, open-air shelters for storing timber, and some shipping containers, and I was gob-smacked when Allan told me that they only had three employees. They get through a prodigious amount of work.
The shipping containers are kilns for drying wood. Achieving the correct moisture content is critical, too dry and, as Allan puts it: “It’s firewood’. There’s fancy equipment to help you achieve optimum moisture content but there’s nothing fancy associated with the kilns at Mead and Martin. They are just clever. It never fails to amuse when Alan explains how his technology works. His shipping container kilns are warmed by heat pumps. Water driven off the wood then condenses on cooling coils and the water is channelled to a tube which leads outside. “What’s with the 20-litre container at the end of the tube?” I asked Alan. “Where’s the monitor telling you the woods moisture content? “others ask. He explained that at the start of drying, easily removed moisture fills his 20- litre container in 24 hours or less. As the wood dries, it yields less and less moisture. With his years of experience, Alan is able to judge the appropriate time to stop drying by how much water ends up in his container each day. It’s low-tech, but Allan’s kilns and his expertise yield excellent results and a steady stream of work.
Since its start in 1979 the company has morphed from house building to joinery to specialising in timber that can not be bought off the shelf. As housebuilding raced towards standardisation, Mead and Martin moved into customisation, shaping timber to customers specifications. For an idea of the sort of work they do, step into the lobby of the Theatre Royal or peer in the window at Tonic Hair Salon, on Queens St, just up from Cambridge Street. Mead and Martin do timber detailing the like of which was readily available when Queen Victoria was in charge.
Tonic Hair Salon
Allan was born in Southland in 1955, but when he was six years old his father, Rupert, was offered a job managing a farm in Nelson, or more correctly what was to become a farm. The property was owned by Sir Jack Newman’s company, Transport Nelson. It was 3000 acres of gorse where the flats of Redwoods Valley become the Moutere Hills (on the left when you’re heading to Motueka).
Rupert was a tiger for work, a great thinker, innovator and best friend of young Allan. Allan received his formal education at Appleby School, Waimea College, Waimea Intermediate, and Nelson Polytechnic, but Rupert is responsible for the total man who is Alan Martin. While taming his gorse infested landscape and transforming it into a model farm, Rupert was also moulding Alan’s character. Rupert questioned everything, shared his thoughts with Alan, and by example showed Alan how to be successful in life.
Rather than take up farming, Allan decided he wanted to be a builder. He obtained an apprenticeship with Wilkes construction. That lasted four years including attending Nelson Polytech to earn his trade certificate, and studying by correspondence to earn his advanced trade certificate.
It was at Wilkes that he met Geoff Mead. Geoff was his foreman, and two years after Alan completed his apprenticeship, Geoff invited him to go out with him building in their own right. At the time Geoff was 32 and Allen was 24.
Before they knew it, Geoff and Alan were running three gangs of builders. But as hard as it may be to imagine, in the current boom, building is cyclical and as sure as the sun rises, slumps will follow booms ad infinitum. To protect themselves from the down-turns Geoff and Allan built resilience into their business by diversifying into joinery. It was a lot to cope with when business was running hot, but the payoff was that it enabled you to retain key staff if the housing market slumped.
Big house building companies came to dominate, and rather than meet them head on, Mead and Martin focused on joinery, and in particular custom mouldings; architraves, skirting boards, tongue and grove flooring, hand rails, balustrades; in short; any shaping of timber that you can imagine. They make their own knives, so there is no limit to the shape of mouldings they can make.
Allan talks about retiring. He’s 64 and still excited to go to work each day, but, as it is in any game, even the game of life, it’s a good to retire while you’re still performing at a high level.