Webster Group’s generators back-up and continually supply power in a multitude of applications throughout New Zealand. They can be found in hospitals, rest homes, on air force and naval bases, through to cowsheds and they also travel around the world on board ships. Stefan Richter visited the company to get an insight view of the generator business.
We are used to the fact that power comes out of the wall socket. So nobody really cares about generators unless something has happened to the grid and the socket suddenly ceases to provide us with electricity. “We supply generators for power back-up or continual supply for shipping lines, farm buildings and a wide range of companies and organisations,” says Tom Webster, “And it is amazing what generators are doing behind the scenes.” The Director of North Shore-based Webster Group illustrates this statement with an example from the meat producing industry. “Our generators are utilised in milking sheds to power up and back up daily operations. Later, during rail transport of the produce to the seaports, wagon mounted generators supply electricity for the refrigerated containers.” Sometimes there is another generator working on the wharf, when back-up energy is required to keep the containers cool. “And then, when the frozen meat starts its journey to a destination somewhere in the world, our generators not only supply power for the refrigerated containers on deck, but they can also be found connected directly to the ship’s engine room, waiting to provide back-up power in case there are problems with the ship’s own generators.”
In 1938, Eric Webster, a young electrician, set up an electrical engineering company in Auckland’s suburb Parnell. Located conveniently close to the harbour, the company, GE Webster, continually grew, providing specialist services to merchant and naval shipping which included full refits, routine maintenance and also motor winding. Later lift maintenance and installation were added to the business, and in 1959 the company wired the Auckland Harbour Bridge and also the “Nippon clip-ons” a decade later. Today the Webster Group prides itself on being one of New Zealand’s leading electrical engineering contractors specialising in supplying and repairing marine and land-based electrical and electronic equipment. The services offered include wiring for refrigerated containers, generators, transformers, compressors, and industrial plant and site wiring.
“Customers call us to work on electrics for cranes, at cement works, on trains, at desalination plants, at sewerage plants and pump stations,” says Ralph Leaney, Director of Webster Group. “But at the moment, about 75 percent of or work is related to generators.” Webster Group runs a fleet of more than 100 hire generators and is also concerned with installation, reconfiguration, operation, repairs and maintenance. A network of branches and agents based in Auckland, Christchurch, Tauranga and Napier provide for 24/7-365 days availability. And finally customers can also purchase new and used plant (ex-hire fleet) or imported petrol and diesel generator sets, ranging from 2kVA to 2000kVA, and all offered with customised installation if required.
How the generator business started
“In the late 60s international cargo shipping was strongly transformed by the expansion of refrigerated container fleets. We were probably the first company to service such a refrigerated container,” recalls Tom Webster, who is the son of company founder Eric Webster. “At that time, one of our electricians, who had never seen a refrigerated container before, fixed a problem with one of the new containers, and we became the agents of that shipping line. Later we serviced all the refrigerated containers of four shipping lines.” By the late 80s the company had to rethink their strategy. “We could see the writing on the wall,” says Tom Webster. “Major shipping lines had consolidated and forced the closure of one of our best customers. And the refrigerated containers became more and more automated and self-diagnosing. Cutting costs was the order of the day, and many shipping lines only authorised necessary repairs and neglected less essential maintenance activities.”
At that point the company took advantage of the fact that the expanded worldwide trade with refrigerated containers had left many ships unable to provide additional electricity from their own generators. Tom Webster: “We found a generator somewhere, and leased it to the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand. Later we started to build generators to make them fit for the harsh environment at sea. From there the generator hires have taken off, and our business has become far bigger than we have ever thought possible.” The harsh marine conditions forbid the utilisation of all-purpose generators off the shelf. “We know the requirements of marine applications quite well, and are aware of the fact that equipment deteriorates quite quickly. Therefore we came up with a specific generator design to meet those demanding requirements, and we have perfected that design over the years,” says Ralph Leaney. Webster Group won an award at the 2010 Westpac Enterprise North Shore Business Excellence Awards for their innovative generator development.
Containerised generators on board of ships are important to extend the capacity of the ship’s own power generators. “We have a five month period of increased export here in New Zealand with containers full of fruit, meat and dairy products stacked on the deck of ships’” explains Ralph Leaney. Many ships are not equipped to cope with the export peaks, and before the utilisation of containerised generators shipping lines would replace smaller ships with bigger ones in the export season, or they would simply get another ship to complement it. “But the shipping lines have become increasingly comfortable with generators, and in order to cope with the power demands of all the refrigerated containers on deck generators provide additional electricity.” That way the shipping lines can keep the same ship and avoid the cost of utilising additional or bigger ships and hiring more crew. “It is a financial win for all parties including New Zealand’s exporters.”
Minimised footprint as a unique feature
“There are many companies who provide generators in containers,” adds Ralph Leaney, “But we try hard to outcompete them by minimising the footprint of our containerised generators.” The side- and end-opening doors of a standard ISO 20 foot container and its exhaust make it necessary to allow for some space around the container. And the fuel tank of a containerised generator requires additional space. “Generators on deck and their fuel tanks displace up to 16 export containers off the ship. We try to design our product as compact as possible, and still maintain all the safety features. At the moment our custom-build containerised generators are only displacing up to six export containers, depending on the ship’s layout. We buy brand new generators, strip them down to the basic core, and then they are build up again to defy the tough conditions of marine applications.” All the containerised generators are surveyed by German Lloyd representatives in New Zealand to meet International Safety Convention requirements.
Ralph Leaney points out that generators designed for marine applications come equipped as standard as “silent packs” to eminently suit residential and commercial placement, while at the same time retaining a very rugged construction for other applications such as mines and oil rigs. One of Webster Group’s generator sites, for example, is offshore on Maui B, a production platform located 35 km off the Taranaki coastline. All the major ports in New Zealand – Tauranga, Lyttelton, Auckland, and Napier – frequently utilise Webster Group’s generators to run extra power on the port’s grid. Quite often refrigerated containers are stacked on the wharf to wait for their respective ships to arrive and take them on board. To keep their content cool, extra energy needs to be provided. The company’s generators can also be found in hospitals (e.g. the Mercy hospital in Dunedin), universities, rest homes, on air force and naval bases and on board trains that transport refrigerated containers. “And after the devastating earth quake in Christchurch, we had a number of generators in use, backing up buildings, cool stores, and telecommunication infrastructure.” Due to the fact that Webster Group’s services’ include electrical contracting, there are always a sufficient number of trained and experienced electricians available to set up, service or maintain a generator – even when there is an emergency. “In 1998, during the Auckland power crisis, we were busy delivering generators to many companies,” recalls Tom Webster.
Webster Group is proud to be a family-owned, wholly New Zealand business, were things are still done on a personal level. “Since my father founded the company in 1938, we must have trained at least 130 apprentices,” says Tom Webster. “All of them have been fully trained and qualified on the job and have become highly skilled, motivated and cherished team members. We have always adhered to the belief that the best tradesmen come from in-house training.” Tom Webster thinks it to be a shame that many competitors do not train promising young people, but rather want to hire already trained staff. “There are many kids who would relish a chance to get hands-on experience and training in the wide and varied areas of Marine electrical contracting, not just wiring a house. The future is certainly fertile for resourceful thinking in this area. And the future of generators as an alternative to and extension of the grid is going to be an interesting one too, given that there are more power sources available than just petrol and diesel, such as solar, wind and micro-hydro schemes. We just need to keep our minds open and be on the lookout for these opportunities.”