Contractor profile: Leney Contracting

By: Lyndsay Whittle, Photography by: Lyndsay Whittle

Meet Roy Leney who got involved in ag contracting some 60 years go, and is still going strong at the age of 89

Not long after receiving a tip-off from a local who suggested an article on Roy and his contracting operation, I gave him a call.

Knowing that Roy had been in business since the early 60s, I was quite surprised to hear that his business was still operating with him at the helm, and it was even more unexpected when such a youthful voice answered the phone.

Half expecting him to be in his office at 9 o’clock in the morning, he challenges my assumptions yet again when he apologises for taking some time to answer his phone: "had to climb off the quad bike to get my phone out of my pocket" he says, as the loud mooing of cows briefly blots out our conversation.

Naki and Roy taking a well-earned break

After the usual pleasantries, it was time to ’sell’ the idea of writing an article to the man, suggesting that a story of someone who’d been in business for 60 years would be hugely inspirational, with a by-product of a bit of free publicity/advertising for his business.

The response was immediate and in the affirmative, although Roy said that he didn’t need the advertising, as he already had more work than he needed, besides which he was trying to retire.

Early days

Backing up the bus, or in this instance the tractor, Roy was born in West Hoathly, Mid Sussex in 1932 and arrived in New Zealand on his 17th birthday.

He laughs when he says that having a bird drop its business on you is meant to be a sign of good luck, so he took it as a good sign when he alighted the train in London before boarding the ship to come to New Zealand when a seabird performed that very act right on his head.

Upon disembarkation in Wellington, Roy must’ve felt that his luck was really in, because a hovering seagull had identified its target and gave the young man a most unconventional welcome to his new country of residence.

No job is too big

Having been a carpenter’s labourer for a year or two back in England, Roy soon found building work in Wellington. However, on a trip to Auckland with his friends Roy and Doris Escott who were responsible for his coming to New Zealand, he found Auckland’s climate was much more to his liking (the weather was fine and warm for the two weeks he was in the big smoke), so he stayed.

(Writer’s note: A few older readers, especially Aucklanders, may remember some of the early radio jingles – ‘It’s a Reid, it’s a Reid, it’s a Reid Built House’ and ‘Broke my Dentures’ for Geddes Dental renovations. These jingles were written by Roy Escott for whom Roy Leney was the occasional sound engineer – just thought you’d like to know)

Business beginnings

Around 1960 and now in his early 30s, Roy Leney bought a 30-acre farm on Forest Hill Road in West Auckland, as his previous 10-acre holding had become too small for his pig farming operation.

Now, of course, everybody knows that one of the first things that any farmer needs is a tractor. However, tractors aren’t of much use without implements, so I guess you can see where this story’s leading.

Roy bought a Ferguson 28 with a rotary hoe, with the intention of it being for his own use. However, when a few of the locals got to hear about his new acquisition, requests for him to come and do work for them started to roll in.

For most of the 20th century, a plethora of orchards and vineyards dotted the West Auckland landscape, and anyone who had a tip truck, a bulldozer, or a tractor never needed to worry about finding work for their machinery.

A small mishap – happens to even the best operators

With so many sources of work within an easy driving distance for a tractor, Roy eventually managed to make enough money to buy himself a Lamborghini – not an expensive sports car, but a four-wheel-drive tractor.

Quite early in the piece, he could see the obvious advantages of operating four-wheel-drive tractors. In fact, when he secured a contract on the new international airport runway at Mangere, other contractors on the job looked on in disbelief as his 4x4 Fiat towed a set of giant discs on the site.

Other non-farming related work that came Roy’s way include working on the formation of the lower Huia Dam and dozens more subdivision sites than he can remember.

But it was farms, orchards, and vineyards that were the backbone of his operation, so much so, that in the 1970s, he planted grapevines on his own property, a venture that enjoyed a fair degree of success.

The grape harvester he purchased in the mid-1970s was never short of work and on one occasion gave Roy and its operator, Roy’s son David, a bit of a fright when a drain collapsed under its weight, tipping it on its side.

The cause of the grief was due to a common practice of the day of cutting both ends out of 44-gallon drums, which were then placed in a trench to form an enclosed drain.
The only problem was that when the drums eventually rusted out, they left an unseen crush hazard, especially for operators of top-heavy grape harvesters.

European tractors have taken the place of British machines

On the day of our visit, we met at Roy’s house for a quick chat about how this whole thing started. It’s hard to comprehend that I’m sitting across the deck from a man who’s about to celebrate his 90th birthday in a few months’ time.

You could easily be forgiven for thinking you’re in the presence of a man who’s
20 years his junior, especially as he’s still active in his business, although, he does say, that most of the work he performs these days is carried out behind the wheel of a tractor.

He reckons that his days of wielding a chainsaw for any length of time are pretty much over, but he’s still capable of throwing his leg over a quad bike.

Time is obviously of the essence, so after about half an hour of fielding inane questions from an inquisitive magazine contributor, Roy suggests that it might be time to take a trip down to the part of the farm where all the action happens.

We hop in Roy’s 1991 Mitsubishi Super Saloon that he bought as new; it’s a vehicle that he says is built like a brick s**/house – it must be to have withstood the rigours of the farm track and the notorious West Auckland roads for nigh on 30 years.

During the kilometre or so trip to the lower reaches of the farm, Roy’s cell phone rings a couple of times with clients on the other end wanting to know when they’re going to see a representative from Leney Contracting on-site.

I can’t help but think how reminiscent this is of a recent trip I took with a much younger business owner whose phone also rang incessantly with clients wanting work done. Fat chance Mr Leney has of retiring anytime soon I think to myself.

Firewood is now a major player in the Leney operation

While it’s obvious that in spite of the dwindling rural nature of the area, there’s still tractor work to be had in these foothills, Roy says that his main operation these days focusses on the supply of firewood with a little bit of stump grinding thrown in for good measure.

While in days gone by, the company that started out as Roy Leney Ltd and later became Leney Contracting Ltd and employed three to four staff members, including his late son David, it now consists of Roy and Naki, a loyal employee who has worked for the company for 30 years.

David was not only a competent machine operator but was also a clever engineer who designed and fabricated the company’s robust stump grinder that has the ability to articulate approximately 40 degrees on either side of a three-point linkage, giving the operator easy access and reducing the need to reposition the tractor in tight situations.

Roy says that David’s mind was always working on ways to improve on the features of implements that were already owned by the company.

However, he also had an innate ability to scratch-build machinery such as the log splitter with automated lifting device and conveyor belt system that currently is driven by the now repurposed David Brown tractor that served the firm so well back in the 1970s.

Speaking of repurposing implements, the hopper trailer formerly was used to transport grapes now has an important function in the firewood operation – nothing ever goes to waste at Leney Contracting Ltd.

Driving away from what has been a most interesting interview, I can’t help recalling an age-old adage about playing many a good tune on an old fiddle!

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