Reflections - The Henley Group Story
Updated: Jul 25
Standing the test of time
It’s been 102 years since Auckland’s Henley’s was founded, making it one of New Zealand’s oldest marine service companies. Marine engineering has changed dramatically over this time – this is a story of evolution, change and continual improvement.
In 1917 JW (Bill) Henley founded a business servicing trucks and cars – Ford, Buick, Leyland, Essex, Hudson, Bessemer, Singer, Morris, Rover, Whippet – and Thorneycraft marine engines. It was a humble affair, a corrugated iron shed with an earthen floor set up behind Farmers car park.
With the marine industry almost entirely focused on the war effort it wasn’t long before Henley was also involved in marine engineering and repairing propellers. This side of the business expanded after the war when he began offering complete marine drivetrains – including Lister and Ruston marine engines with Wilkinson & Ross propellers.
With business booming, Henley shifted to a more upmarket premises in 1931, further down Nelson St, to a new brick building with a concrete floor. The timing was fortuitous as two years later Wilkinson and Ross closed down. After purchasing its tooling and patterns and recruiting ex-foreman Wally Scott,
Henley started producing his own propellers.
When WWII erupted in 1939 many pleasure craft were laid up, but any shortfall in Henley’s business was more than compensated by the vastly increased workload for the war effort by the New Zealand Ministry of Works.
In 1947, after 30 years in business he sold the company to three partners, Knowles Nilson,
Wally Pearson and Cyril Wilks. By 1960 the company was operating as two separate divisions
– one automotive (based in Fanshaw St) – with marine products based in Henderson.
The 1960s was a boom period for boating and thousands of amateur builders were cranking out runabouts, launches and keelers. Marine engines were subject to strict import controls and consequently in short supply, whereas car and truck engines were considerably easier to obtain. Consequently, the demand for marine engineering conversions was huge.
Incidentally, one of Henley’s apprentices, Jack Colman, enlisted in the New Zealand Infantry in 1939, served throughout the war and re-joined the company upon his return home in 1945. He rose through the ranks and by 1960 had become the general manager of Henley’s marine division. His work ethic was legendary: he’d often start at 5.50am and work through until 10pm. If a job was urgent, Colman would sleep on the premises, only returning home when the job was complete.
In 1969, North Shore Transport (NST) bought Henley’s from the three partners and set up the city operation to service its growing fleet of ferries, while the propeller operation was shifted to the North Shore.
In 1973 NST was purchased by the Auckland Regional Council and the propeller division was sold to Knowles Nilson, who relocated to the present site in Glenfield on Auckland’s North Shore. Previous to this Nilson’s son Jim had set up a foundry, Nilson Engineering, and it was casting the bulk of Henley’s propellers.
Three years later Croppers, a division of Wattie’s, purchased Henley’s to service its fleet of fishing trawlers. This was a strategic move to give its boats maintenance priority over the competitors. This arrangement lasted three years before Croppers sold Henley’s to Tim and Elaine Finlay in 1980.
In 1982 Mark Power (see sidebar) joined Henley’s as a technical salesman. This was the golden summer of New Zealand production boatbuilding. New yachts and launches from the likes Davidson, Elliott, Farr, Ganley, Holland, Kennedy, Ross, Salthouse, Senior, Townson, Young, Warwick and Oliver & Webb were regular occurrences and, with import controls coming off and a booming economy, it was a glorious time for the marine industry. It didn’t last.
The share market crash of 1987 brought the economy to a grinding halt and, apart from trailer boats, signalled the end of much of this country’s production boatbuilding. The years following 1987 were tough for the whole marine industry. Henley’s survived by creating new, innovative
marine driveline products such as GRP stern tubes, dripless glands, carbon structs, rudders and propellers.
In 1990 Power and wife Kathy purchased a 50% share of the company and the remaining 50% share four years later. Power’s been leading Henley’s ever since, making him the second longest CEO after Henley himself.
The past 25 years in the marine industry has been one of unprecedented change and for Henley’s it’s been a case of evolve or die. With Power at the helm, Henley Group now comprises three separate divisions.
Henley Engineering carries out marine propulsion design, build and repair as well as industrial engineering, while Pacific Drivelines services and supplies marine drivetrain components and industrial bearings. The third division, PacFlange, sells a range of grease-free marine and conveyor bearings in eight countries around the world.
On the marine side Henley’s works with all manner of pleasure boats ranging from small outboard-driven craft to luxury yachts 30m plus, while commercial boats range from enforcement and rescue boats to ferries, tugs, trawlers, Naval vessels and transcontinental shipping.
Besides a constant stream of custom work such as repairs, modifications and repowers, Henley’s does considerable design and supply work for new boats, many of which are overseas based. These days nearly all marine designers farm out the drive train design, including the required engine horsepower, to
independent specialists such as Henley’s and large projects might require hundreds of hours in design time.
Henley’s integrated approach to marine drive trains means that every component from the back of the engine to the nut holding the propeller is appropriately sized. Thanks to multiple computer design programs and an extensive database going back decades, engine horsepower can be accurately matched to the targeted performance level.
“We specify complete drive trains from the back of the engine to the propeller – including required engine horsepower – which might be more or less than what the designer envisaged. We often save the client money by stopping them installing the wrong size engine.”
Typical components making up the drive trains include Isoflex engine mounts and couplings, Vulkan couplings, Aquadrive CV shafts, Twin Disc gearboxes, Thordon marine bearings, Kiwi shaft Seals, Easiflow stern tubes, struts, rudders, Ambassador rope cutters and a wide range of propellers. “On some projects our input can be $400,000 to $600,000 per vessel.”
Any product Henley’s manufactures is tested to the point of destruction. “With Kiwi Seals, I don’t know how many we’ve melted to see what would happen, but it’s been a great product for us for 25 years now.”
Thordon water-lubricated bearings have been another game changer. This Canadian product, besides being used in propeller shafts and rudder bearings, is also used for hydro generator bearings, with an expected working life of 20 years plus in continuous use. Henley’s also supplies Easiflow GRP stern tubes which, being inert, have significant non-corrosion advantages
and can be used in GRP, timber, steel or aluminium boats.
While propellers remain a Henley’s speciality, it only accounts for around 15% of the business. The company supplies imported propellers such as Variprofile, Flexofold and Teignbridge, as well as its own brands such as Tiger, Yellow Fin, Skipjack and Black Tip.
Repairing propellers is another speciality which, given the sophisticated prop scanning equipment means a propeller can be repaired to ‘as new’ condition. Insurance companies often opt for the lowest quote when repairing drive trains which long-term is a false economy. “We usually get called in when everyone else has had a go and the boat still isn’t working right.”
Henley’s has the expertise to specify three different marine drive trains depending on a client’s requirements: conventional shaft drives; water jets and surface drives. All three can be engineered for long-term, reliable operation.
The same isn’t always true for the more complex marine drive trains introduced over the past four decades. In the 1980s stern legs and sail drives were widely accepted.
More recently, it’s the adoption of pod systems, now seen in all types of craft from small boats through to trans- continental shipping.
While these complex drive trains have advantages such as ease of installation and more freedom to locate the engine(s), they require vastly increased maintenance. This often requires factory specialists at a premium price. Ignoring maintenance can prove even more costly. Ultimately, one way or the other the customer pays.
By comparison, an accurately installed shaft drive with properly-sized, quality components can operate for one, two or even three decades with little more than a lick of Prop Speed and anode replacement, which can be done by any competent DIYer. Many boaties prefer a shaft drive and Power is noticing a growing trend back to them.
Looking back over the company’s history, Power believes three factors stood behind Henley’s success; working with skilled, highly qualified people, continual innovation and adapting to the times. And with his sons Sam and Jacob now involved in the business, the Henley Group should be around for many years to come.