Piling legend likes to get his hands dirty

By Eamonn Ryan

One of the early pioneers of piling and geotechnical engineering in South Africa is Nico Maas, CEO of Gauteng’s second-largest piling company, Gauteng Piling. He has almost 45 years’ experience at the rockface of what is one of the most demanding trades in civil engineering.

The understanding of piling and foundation is difficult to obtain from textbooks or classrooms and therefore, a lot of training is derived from such early pioneers of piling in South Africa, and a number of today’s technical people were personally mentored by Maas. He retired from piling in 2010, but resumed the helm of Gauteng Piling in 2017 when his son emigrated to Australia. He’s rebuilding the company with a view to selling it — when that happens the changing of the guards in this industry will truly have happened.

Piling engineers are notorious for having the tempers of a wild dog, and Maas admits to having been occasionally “a bit short tempered”, especially with clients who insist on understanding his work “to the last detail. Being short tempered is the one thing that I regret, as well as being in a hurry to get things done. Often time spent listening and planning better would have saved time and money. Mistakes are a way of learning, and although I have made many mistakes, most of them helped me to be a better person. If you’re not making mistakes in life, you’re not even trying anything. As to other mistakes I’ve made, I’ll have to check with my wife!”

From 1969 to 1974 Maas studied at the University of Pretoria reading a BSc Eng. (Civ). In 1976 he started his career working in Grinaker’s piling division, spending a stint of 20 years, during which he rose to director level before leaving in 1995 to start his own business, Gauteng Piling. He was never an office-bound engineer: “Being a farm boy, I enjoy working outside and to get my hands dirty.” Early in his career working on remote sites doing projects such as oscillator piles gave him considerable experience in handling adverse and difficult piling conditions. This included working long hours, in rivers, piling through obstructions and far away from the office.

During this time, his role models included diverse engineering personalities such as Wouter de Villiers, Nick Wolmarans, Louis Nel and John Barrow Snr. “They were very different personalities, but each had an influence on how I have been able to handle myself in difficult situations. In turn, working with people and motivating others to do their best has always given me a lot of satisfaction. In the process I have mentored many young engineers, including my own son and have hopefully inspired many people young and old, to give their best,” says Maas.

His current site manager, Victor, is one such person that Maas has put through college and mentored. He is in his final year of obtaining his qualification. “The real problem is that young people, the millennials, do not wish to remain in piling – they all go off and do something else. Of the perhaps 20 people I’ve mentored (including my son) only one is left today in the industry.”

Career highlights

“One highlight was the Pachucas for the Uranium Plant in Stilfontein in 1978. Seven track rigs were used to predrill each pile, after which the rock was blasted and the oscillator machines then excavated the piles to depths that varied from 2.5m to 28m, all in the dolomites. Another tough site was in Port St Johns where 72m deep piles, 1 500mm diameter, were installed from the existing bridge, in 1979. As a civil engineer in piling one gets plenty of opportunities to work in difficult circumstances and having to ‘make a plan’, when the normal way of doing things does not work.”

The undeniable highlight of his career was starting up Gauteng Piling from nothing in 1996, with the help of Barrow Construction. “It was probably a mistake not going on my own earlier in life — I was becoming stale, and only did so when I had a disappointment in a promotion possibility. However, I’m a firm believer in timing — and the time was right when I went on my own. There were people willing to back me, which probably wouldn’t have happened five years earlier. Working to get the company so well recognised and successful still gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

He was founder, co-owner and managing director of Gauteng Piling until October 2010, when he was kicked upstairs to become chairman. He retired and handed the reins to his son, Ignatius Maas. On the latter’s emigration he commenced working full-time again at the beginning of 2019.

Maas’ real contribution has not been in simply running his own successful business, but a leadership role he has assumed in the industry and manifold intellectual participation in professional platforms and academia. He returned to university in 1986-1988 studying part-time at the University of Pretoria for M.Eng (Constr. Management) with his dissertation, ‘Low Utilisation and its influence on Plant Management’.

As a result, throughout his working life he has received many awards. “For this I am grateful — a lasting highlight of my career has been the recognition of the industry.” His leading accolade, he suggests “was when I was appointed chairman of Federated Employers Mutual”.

Victor2

Victor Malau, supervisor at Gauteng Piling, and one of many employees mentored by Maas.

Other achievements include:

  • Merit award and medal for outstanding service to the University of Pretoria 1974.
  • Member of executive committee of Master Builders Association North since 1986. President in 1998.
  • Extraordinary Contribution award in 2013, Honorary Life membership in 2014.
  • MBSA executive member since 1993; president in 2003; co-opted to the board 2009, 2010 and 2011.
  • Was chairman of Board of Management of BIFSA pension fund.
  • Part time lecturer in Construction Management at University of Pretoria 1990 and 1991.
  • Elder in Dutch Reformed Church — head elder 2004.
  • Chairman of Construction Industry Confederation 1999/2000.
  • Co-founder and past captain of QACCS Golf Club in Gauteng and President of QACCS Nationally in 2003 and 2004. Was awarded Honorary Life Membership of both in 2018.
  • Member of Stakeholders Forum of Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) 2001‒2003.
  • Member of steering committee of Construction Transformation Charter Group since 2004; member of the Executive Charter Council 2010 to 2013.
  • Federated Employers Mutual board member; chairman since 2006.
  • Director of Medical Nutritional Institute.
  • Non-executive director of CIDB 2011 to 2016.
  • Professional Engineer 1980, registration number 800048.
  • Member of South African Institute of Civil Engineers. Elected as Fellow in 2006 (over the years there were fewer than 10 people who were awarded fellowships, of which only Bernie Krone and Maas worked in piling on sites from a young age).
  • Member of Institute of Directors (SA). Attended various courses, including the course for chairmen.
  • Director of Blair Atholl Home Owners Association since 2017; chairman in 2019.

Major challenges

During a long career, it is inevitable that Maas would face some more challenging projects. He lists these as “getting difficult contracts to completion, among them being the river bridges in Wilderness, the two silo contracts at Lichtenburg, the river bridge in Soweto and the silo contract for PPC in Hercules, Pretoria”.

“Many sleepless nights were spent thinking and working on solutions. Nowadays I go to sleep easily, asking the Lord to give me the solutions and then waking up knowing what to do. I am very honoured to have experienced a lot of good things in life, including workwise, golfwise and in associations like Master Builders.

“The Baakens River Bridges, in 1976, when I just started with Grinaker, was an important project, where difficult piling conditions and a very tight programme meant that we had to work a double shift. Seeing that being completed on time was indeed satisfying. Many other projects also had their challenges and when completed gave satisfaction. When you work in piling the underground conditions very often change from what could have been foreseen and dealing with these is satisfying.”

Notwithstanding highlights and challenges, Maas — like many other civil engineering contractors — lists the present state of the construction industry as being “in its worst state ever”. Not only is there not enough work, but payment has become “a nightmare”, and conditions so bad that a large number of contractors are closing down voluntarily or being liquidated.

Piling is high risk, explains Maas, and a mistake that companies make is to spend too much on equipment on borrowed money in an environment where even the few contracts available come at almost no margin. “In this industry, if you have a comeback — it’s major.”

“Subcontractors are the ones that suffer most, because most of the work is being done by subcontractors these days. Unless something drastic is done to ensure that payments are done in 30 days, more contractors will close down and the skills will be lost. The youngsters leave the country in droves, because they do not see a future in South Africa. When government [finally] starts spending taxpayers’ money wisely, on infrastructure, it may be too late and skills will have to be imported,” chides Maas.

An uncertain future

“Technology is playing a larger and larger part in all spheres of life and construction is no exception. Piling machines can already operate remotely and the days of using a tacheometer for setting out is also old-fashioned. Artificial Intelligence will be used to predict outcomes and assist in making decisions and we have to adapt, or we’ll be left behind. Notwithstanding all that, I do believe that there will always be a place for entrepreneurs and hard working people.

“Newly graduated engineers must find a job where they can learn from basics and get the right experience. There are not enough engineers in South Africa, yet we have qualified engineers who cannot find a job. However, too many youngsters do not want to start at the bottom. When we started as young engineering graduates we had to fold drawings and measure areas with planimeters. The advent of super computers make it easy to do most of the mundane tasks a lot quicker, but they still have to be done,” he adds.

He offers some advice to today’s youth, to ask questions more: “One of the mistakes I made in my early years was not asking enough questions. It’s only later when I was speaking to a guy Ben Spies, who said, ‘You only ever want to tell people what to do, but you must learn to ask questions.’ I took that advice on board, and it transformed my life. I learned that if you’re in a tight spot, you can get out by asking questions and let the other guy think. It gives you time to think more clearly.” 

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