Breen Construction - celebrating 80 years

Eight decades of building, construction and design have come out of the Breen Construction Company Ltd, and it has grown consistently over its 80 years, with a presence in Otago, Southland and the Mackenzie Country.

The family business, in addition to its head office in Alexandra, has branches in Oamaru, Twizel, Dunedin, Wanaka and Cromwell, employing 171 staff.

But it was actually in Southland where it all started, with founder L.J (Jim) Breen building his first home in Otautau in 1935.

Jim’s first contract was a joinery factory in Invercargill for George McEwan, before teaming up with George Brockett, covering Southland and Central Otago.

Their first Government job was the Queenstown Post Office in 1937, along with Jim’s brothers Charlie and Norman, and that cemented their move into Central Otago.

The Waipiata Sanatorium was next in 1938, and on August 30, 1939 the Breen Construction Company Ltd was officially incorporated.

John Breen took over as managing director from his father Charlie in 1978, and by 2013 had handed over the reins to his three sons - but he still plays an integral part of the business.

“When times are good it’s fine, but when it’s not like that one has to dig in, and fight their way through it. Good times and bad times, it’s hard work.”

One of his most memorable jobs involved dangling from a helicopter to erect radio masts including on Stewart Island.

“No one else was silly enough,” he said.

Sons Lindsay (Managing Director), Peter (Commercial Manager) and Trevor (Construction Manager) are now in charge of the day-to-day operations, while daughter Maria Williams controls the front office functions.

Between 1992 and 2004 John’s wife Valmai handled health and safety, and during that time also maintained the plant register.

“Because all of our plant have numbers, every six weeks I had to go around and check on them, and of course things were misplaced,” she said.

Rumour has it she still supplies building sites with the best baked scones.

Last year the company decided to include an independent director - Stuart Heal, who is also the board chairman, and new director Jason Mavor - the Oamaru manager.

Lindsay said the existing directors recognised the need for more diversity across the company.

Breen Construction has slightly expanded its brief from the early days, involved in large-scale commercial developments right through to architectural homes, but has always remained true to its founding values.

Over the years they have built wine cellars, power stations, municipal swimming pools, sewerage works, libraries, sports stadiums, farm buildings, bridges and aircraft hangars.

There have also been rest homes, hospitals and other public amenities, but Breen still make time for restoration work, earthquake strengthening of historic buildings and everyday building maintenance.

“We still do the same work, largely, but for a more varied client base. Some of our projects have got bigger as well,” he said.

Lindsay said the biggest challenges for “a growing company of our size,” was managing the day-to-day risks and the challenging environment in the construction industry.

“Construction is not an easy place to be right now.”

And the challenge of succession. “We’re working on succession for senior management. There is another generation of kids that are coming of age that may show some interest in the company.”

But one thing will always stay the same.

“We will remain focused on working within the lower South Island….one of the strengths of operating across Otago and Southland is the ability to service clients in all of their locations right across the region,” he said.

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