At just 24 years of age, Carterton local James Sokalski has built his business JPS Earthmoving into a civil construction company with more than $4 million dollars of equipment.
That’s in addition to part-owning Aotearoa Traffic Management, a traffic management company, and Wairarapa Treescaping, an arborist business. It might sound like an unlikely achievement for someone so young, but for James, a love of the earth and how it can be shaped to fit our needs has been in his blood since childhood.
“I was the kid standing at the fence,” says James, “watching the other side, just fascinated. I remember once as a kid, they were doing resurfacing outside my house, and I’d try to be up all night to see what they were doing, but Mum would say it was a school night and I wasn’t allowed to stay up. I was always just real into it.”
“Like, the other day, I was cleaning out a shed and found a box of stuff, filled with model diggers, a piece of logging rope I found once, and photo albums of Fulton Hogan machinery. I’d gone on holiday somewhere and seen a digger on the side of the road and stopped to take a photo. I was just obsessed.”
After leaving school at 16 and working as a diesel mechanic, he soon found jobs driving excavators on the side. It didn’t take long for him to realise he was better served working for himself and he went out and bought his first 5 tonne excavator. A fair few practice sessions later, plus some words of wisdom from experienced practitioners already in the game, and he was ready to go it alone.
Today, JPS Earthmoving has 10 excavators, ranging from 5 to 35 tonne, as well as a range of purpose-built gear, including “a couple of broom trucks and some asphalt holding boxes,” says James. “I bought a road milling machine a couple of months ago, just because.”
Across all his businesses, James employs around 20–30 staff, but he doesn’t think he has any superpower or special talent that got him where he is. Well, maybe one.
“It’s all about attitude,” he says. “There are good jobs and bad jobs. You’re not going to get to do everything, but just get immersed in it. If you make an effort to help out the operators, they’ll look after you. Someone that goes out of their way to make the job better, they’ll go far.”
An aspect of the business James still enjoys is the variety. From forestry clearing work in Napier to digging test pits (inspections of roads that measure the thickness of the asphalt, base, and sub-base) in Manawatu or digging out culverts outside Wellington after torrential rain, the work is always different.
“There are so many roles you can do. It’s one of those industries that offers so much.”
One of the projects James is proudest of is his work for the Wairarapa Regional Council on Lake Onoke. As with so many firsts – the contract was JPS Earthmoving’s first commercial tender win – it’s a project he enjoys, and not just for the views of the ocean on a sunny weekend day.
The waters of Lake Onoke, nine kilometres southwest of Lake Wairarapa, are sometimes blocked from escaping into the sea by large swells causing the sand bar to close. Once this happens, the lake’s level rises, and JPS Earthmoving is called in before flooding destroys farmland and vineyards throughout southern Wairarapa.
“I liked that contract because there are not many contracts where you have a digger right on the ocean or going into a lake. You can only do it in certain conditions – not if the swell gets too high — but it’s an oddball contract, a bit different.”
JPS Earthmoving will have the contract with the Wairarapa Regional Council for another five years, with the likelihood of being called out to fix the bar anywhere between four to twelve times per year, depending on weather.
As James reflects on his time in the industry and ponders his next move, the reasons he gives for aspiring excavator operators to get into civil construction range from idealistic to pragmatistic.
“Once you get the skills, the money is good. But probably the most satisfying feeling you can get is … it’s like building or other jobs, where you go back to the job, and if you’ve done good work, it reflects on yourself. You know, like, I’ll be driving around with the missus, and I’ll point out work I’ve done. You know, I’ll say ‘See that asphalt on the side of the Remutakas? Yeah, I did that.’”
“Then you look at someone who works for a contractor with offices across New Zealand. Nine times out of ten, they could pack up and get a job in another of the company’s branches anywhere in the country. It’s sought after. Staffing is sought after. If you’re good at what you do, you won’t have to look for work—they’ll come and look for you.”