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Pros at traffic management

In the traffic management game, the goal is to be seen often and not talked about.

Tessa and Kurt Allan started ProTraffic back in 2015 after coming the long way home to Gisborne from Australia — where Kurt was building concrete swimming pools — via Christchurch. Kurt's brother ran a traffic management company there called Men at Work, and over the three-and-a-half years he worked with him it grew from six staff to 80.

“It was a pretty hectic few years and I was over it — and we had always talked about moving back to Gizzy,” said Kurt.

When they arrived Tessa worked as a nurse and Kurt was a stay-at-home dad for a few months, but that was not quite his cup of tea.

They were broke and struggling to sell their house in Christchurch. Something had to change.

With experience gained in the South Island, they saw a gap in this region for a professional group to capture the traffic management market, which was rather ragtag and disjointed.

They started working out of their house, taking out a loan for a ute, truck, signs and cones. Things really kicked off when a company called Services South East (SSE) contracted them for work up the Coast.

Their trucks were spilling out on to the street, they ran out of room and were forced to expand. But that boon was almost their downfall.

Australian-based SSE struggled to fulfill its commitments in the region and nearly took ProTraffic down with it. Many sub-contractors were not paid for several months before Downer bought the “northern” roading contract off SSE in November 2017.

Now that shaky ground is steady, their business continues to flourish — even expanding south to Hawke's Bay, setting up a depot there in January this year.

The Hawke's Bay market is more competitive but Kurt says they have good feedback from their customers and the work is coming in.

In recent years there has been a massive amount of investment in Tairawhiti's roads by the Government and Gisborne District Council, which has been great for ProTraffic.

The state highway work has been especially good, because working on improvements and extensions is more technical and higher-value, compared with general maintenance.

Alongside increased spending from NZTA and the council came a $137 million roading package from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), announced in September 2018. However, Kurt says they tried not to get bogged down by some of the hard-and-fast projects the PGF was pushing out, instead focusing on the planning and training side of the jobs.

“We were already at capacity when that funding came along.”

The planning, design and training side is the high-level work Kurt is particularly interested in.

“The business is more than just cones and signs,” says Kurt.

He describes it as an end-to-end service for anyone who wants to work on or near the road.

“If you want to fix that awning and you're going to have to be on the footpath, you need to manage your interactions with the public — that is where we come in.

“We design the plans, submissions, documentation and run those projects.”

Alongside roadworks and forestry projects, ProTraffic also runs management plans for large events like Rhythm and Vines and SIX60's recent show in Hastings.

They now employ between 35 and 45 people depending on the time of year.

There is a perception the traffic management business is simple, Kurt says, but the complexity is mostly unnoticed.

“Everything has to be compliant, the level of detail — which is understandably completely unappreciated — is nuts. All the signs have to be a certain distance apart, they have to be made of a certain type of reflective material and be placed in exact positions with a very certain number of cones on-site.”

And they have plenty of those orange cones to go around.

“I wouldn't even know how many we have . . . maybe three or four thousand.”

'We do like to make sure our people are well-resourced'

And how long does a cone live?

“We lose about 15-20 percent of our cones per year. Whether it is through damage or whatever — say if a cone gets hit, the band breaks off, tar is sprayed up it, it can't be used.”

And with a cone costing around $30, that equates to as much as $24,000 a year just replacing road cones.

But the things that do get damaged don't go to waste — the team cuts the tops off roughed-up cones and uses them to weigh down the cones still in use.

It turns out everything in the business is expensive.

A sign might cost $100 a pop, and the stand they are attached to costs another $80.

With stacks of signs in a row and cones all over the show, a roadworks project will have thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear on-site.

Then there are the customised trucks that can cost anywhere between $100,000-$200,000.

Long-distance radios for trucks and the hand-held variety cost $3000 and $1200 respectively.

It all adds up, fast.

“We only buy good stuff,” says Kurt.

“We do like to make sure our people are well-resourced — they have the gear.”

That is reflective of the company's wider goal, which is fostering a family environment.

One of Kurt's proudest achievements in the business is the growth in their staff. Some have started in entry-level jobs and are now mentors, trainers and team leaders.

“I really enjoy training because I like seeing people progress. We are in an industry where people come in from random places, whether that is a career change or whatever, and then to see them upskill is awesome.”

Because of the company's growth they are able to create opportunities for their staff to upskill — otherwise, he says, his best staff are liable to leave for higher-level jobs.

“It means there's more in it for the crews . . . that's my big focus, creating those higher-level roles so that we can create career pathways.”

He says expanding to the Hawke's Bay has been hard for everyone involved, “but on the other side it is going to be beneficial because it's going to help bring everyone up”.

A regular challenge for the business has been finding the right staff for the work.

“We get a lot of applications for jobs to turn a paddle, but for those higher-level jobs, those designers and planners, that's harder.”

In saying that, he says there is a lot of untapped potential in our region and he believes with the right support it can be unleashed.

“There are people out there who have the skills but it hasn't been brought out of them.

“There's a lot of disbelief, especially in the younger people who come through.”

He says they have staff who four years ago were doing nothing, and are now buying trucks and houses, and succeeding both at work and home.

“We're big on cultivating that kind of culture, because that's what carries us through hard times.”

ROAD SIGN DREAM TEAM: Kurt and Tessa Allan in the shed where the magic is kept . . . they set up ProTraffic in 2015 after spending a few years in Christchurch where Kurt worked for his brother's company Men at Work through its growth phase. Picture by Paul Rickard