Southpac Legends

 
Family Matas - David and Lewis Swap

Family Matas - David and Lewis Swap

Southpac Legends

 February 2021   

With a history that dates all the way back to the 1930s, Matamata-based contractors J Swap’s family business is almost synonymous with the area as the Kaimai’s that shadow it - or maybe the Waiomou Stream where the business all began. However, as brothers David and Lewis Swap point out, the ‘family’ has grown to include 500+ staff, a large loyal customer base and even the people of Matamata township and beyond. It’s for this reason, David and Lewis are Southpac Legends.

Even with well-over a century of combined time within J Swap, and with their children and grandchildren working there, Directors David and Lewis Swap are still the ‘dynamic duo’ of the business. They seem as passionate about the way the business now as the day they first began and can talk the hind legs off a donkey - or the horse their father Joseph ‘Joe’ Swap used when dredging river gravel from the stream that bordered the family’s dairy farm at Te Poi in 1934.  

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With a history that dates all the way back to the 1930s, Matamata-based contractors J Swap’s family business is almost synonymous with the area as the Kaimai’s that shadow it - or maybe the Waiomou Stream where the business all began. However, as brothers David and Lewis Swap point out, the ‘family’ has grown to include 500+ staff, a large loyal customer base and even the people of Matamata township and beyond. It’s for this reason, David and Lewis are Southpac Legends.

Even with well-over a century of combined time within J Swap, and with their children and grandchildren working there, Directors David and Lewis Swap are still the ‘dynamic duo’ of the business. They seem as passionate about the way the business now as the day they first began and can talk the hind legs off a donkey - or the horse their father Joseph ‘Joe’ Swap used when dredging river gravel from the stream that bordered the family’s dairy farm at Te Poi in 1934.  

According to Lewis, Joe used to milk the cows in the morning and night and carted three or four loads of gravel into town during the day. He says, “there were no quarries in those days so they used the shingle from the rivers ‘all’ he had to do was get it out of the river which he did with a shovel and draft horse. One truckload was only a 3-tonne load but that made a lot of concrete.” 

David adds, “It was used by other farmers or to make footpaths or do any concreting and infrastructure work in Matamata town so the washed river gravel was in high demand.”

In the late ’40s the company diversified into civil trenching and drainage works that included the project to widen the Kaimai road, and set the foundations for the company’s future. 

David joined the Swap company in ‘58, directly upon leaving school. He drove trucks and worked beside his father on both the civil projects and on the farm. Lewis joined a decade later in ‘69, having travelled a bit and serving time as a diesel apprentice for Gough, Gough and Hamer. From there on in the company began to grow in both size and operations. 

David recalls, “We built small subdivisions, probably every new one in the town here, doing the drainage. We did a lot of work in Tokoroa, which was still expanding in those days, sewage in Putaruru, building foundations. It was bloody hard yakka when you think of gear we had compared to today. Nowadays a guy doesn’t even use a shovel to dig a hole.”

Lewis adds, “there was a lot of infrastructure being done, we spent six years doing sewage for Tauranga and the Mount back in the 70s and then on to Te Awamutu. But we only did small civil work because the Ministry of Works did all the big stuff.”

Around that time Swaps got into quarries. An opportunity to own and operate the Taotaoroa Quarry came about and was an ideal fit for their civil business, so ideal in fact that now they own ten. The quarries supply the aggregate for both their own civil projects and also a number of larger contractors.

The brothers say that nobody worked as hard as Joe and he basically worked at Swaps ‘til the day he died in Feb 91. “I’m the same age as he was when he died, he was 79,” adds David. But many of Joe’s traits remain to this day, (tenacity, hard work, networking, loyalty - to name but a few) and aided both David and Lewis as the business expanded.

Lewis says, “there was no grand plan, it’s just happened” however, David adds “95% of my decisions are this, if it doesn’t feel right don’t do it.”

Land and farming (something both their father and grandfather William had a passion for) were next on the list, with some of it coming by way of necessity.

Lewis says, “with the quarries you’ve got to protect yourself with the land around them, [mainly from neighbour’s complaints] our father was always mad on farming, that was his passion and David and his wife have taken that over. We’ve now got 4,000 acres of farmland.” 

“We’ve got 1200 cattle, 400 breeding cows and 12,000 sheep, we’re the biggest sheep farmer in this district now.” says David.

According to his brother, Lewis’s passion lies in commercial building. “Lewis is into building buildings and we’re really good at that, design, build and tenant. So we started getting into building and buying land. Banks will always back you if you’ve got bricks and mortar.” Lewis agrees “you can have all the Kenworth’s in the world, but if you’ve got a bit of land you’re ok.”

And they should know, as they have a lot of Keworths and trucks in general for that matter - in excess of two hundred and fifty.

Lewis says, “we never had many trucks and I said one day ‘we’re supplying all this work for truckies, millions of dollars of revenue for carting, why are we giving it all away?’” and so the fleet grew.

Surprisingly, another arm of their business grew too, stock feed. Thanks in part to a contract with Inghams, J Swap built up connections with commodity importers. This spawned an idea of importing palm kernel to use as a stockfood for dairy cows. 

David says, “we’ve now got a stockfood business for which we’re market leaders in and the only independent importer. We’re even storing it for others too. Every load of stockfood you see on a truck in NZ has come through one of the big companies or us.”

Another surprise came out of the stock feed side of the business recently too. David says, “when Covid came we put every one of our contractors on stockfood, we were breaking records. Civil engineers, driver trainers, quarry managers… they all just jumped into machines and produced stockfood, 14 hours a day.” 

Stock food, bulk stores, quarries, farming… J Swap seems to be a long way away from the business that Joe first started, but the brothers disagree.

Lewis says “the civil contracting side of the business, that’s really where it all started, so we’ve always kept that and we still do a lot of work around here for farmers.” David adds “I think we should never let it go because every job we do for civil, building a road or construction, it’s really interesting stuff and is worth a lot of money to us.”

The ‘traditional’ civil side continues and so too do the generations of family working at Swaps. Both David and Lewis have family [children and now grandchildren] in the business. And having the family connection is important to the brothers, both internally and externally.

Lewis says, “as a family business like ourselves, you have more contact with other family businesses than anything else and you pick up business through that.” David nods, “I used to think you get sick of people, but I’ve been here so long now that they come in to see our sons.”

The next generations of Swaps may be well-established in the business now, but there seems to be no sign of the brother septuagenarians leaving their posts anytime soon.

David says, “people ask me, why are you still here, the boys run the day to day stuff, we don’t need to be here. But there are so many things that they ask you every day because we know it.”

Lewis concurs, “we’ve got so much going on with building new buildings, developing quarries and the like that they can’t get around it all themselves. It’s not just sitting in the back room then going down and looking around the yard once a day, it’s real hard thinking and planning. That’s why we still spend a lot of time in this business.”

They say that currently they have around 504 staff on the payroll plus another 150 sub-contractors and some fencing crews out there. “We’ve got about 5,800 clients and 4,000 suppliers, it’s a lot of people to deal with.” Lewis adds.

There is a strong sense of loyalty that runs throughout the Swap’s organisation and that includes its suppliers. 

David says “we never change our oil companies, insurance companies, banks, we don’t believe in it. No matter what happens, we never change.” And nor does their attitude to the area in which they reside.

David smiles, “we give to every bloody thing in the town. My father was a giver, but we give a lot more than he would ever have, he would never have imagined the money that we are handing over now.” 

Lewis agrees. “There’s the two rugby clubs, then there’s the crickets clubs, the local hospital…”

But it’s not just financial donations, just like Joe, they give both time and energy too. There’s a sense of pride about the town and it’s got nothing to do with hobbits. 

David recalls “Joe loved golf and would spend hours on the Matamata course and put on their watering system for nothing. We keep the 10km of grass cut on the main road past the racecourse, and keep the area clean, it was full of rubbish and stuff before that.” 

Despite its size and fingers in multiple pies, at its heart J Swap remains a family-owned business with core family values and to both David and Lewis, that is all that really Matas. 


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