Downer's foundations were laid down in the 1800s. John Walker & Co and Clyde Engineering were founded in Australia during this time, and the Public Works Department and Electrical Telegraph Department were founded in New Zealand.
In 1863 John Walker set up the Union Foundry of John Walker & Co in Ballarat. It went on to be renamed Walkers Limited in 1888. The Company produced parts for machinery at sugar mills, railway rollingstock and ships. In 1980 Walkers Limited was sold to Evans Deakin Industries, which was then sold to Downer Group in 2001.
The Electrical Telegraph Department was established in 1865 in New Zealand. In 1880, the Electrical Telegraph Department and the Post Office merged to create an enlarged NZ Post and Telegraph Department (P&T). P&T as well as the Public Works Department would later form Downer & Co in 1933.
The Public Works Department was established in 1870 to develop cross-country transportation and lift the New Zealand economy. The department built railways, roads and water races across the country. The Public Works Department and the NZ Post and Telegraph Department (P&T) would form Downer & Co in 1933.
Clyde Engineering was founded in September 1898 by a syndicate of Sydney businessmen. The Company won contracts for railway rolling stock, sewerage systems, trams and agricultural machinery. In 1996 Clyde Engineering was taken over by Evans Deakin Industries, which was then taken over by Downer Group in 2001.
The founding companies that now make up some of Downer’s core business divisions today, were founded in the early 1900s. Evans Deakin Industries (EDI) and Roche Brothers were two very important acquisitions for Downer in the late 1900s.
Evans Deakin Industries was an engineering and shipbuilding company formed in 1910. It started out as a supplier of engineering equipment before diversifying into railway rolling stock production and steel manufacturing. In 1980 the Company purchased Walkers Ltd and in 1966 it purchased Cyde Engineering. In March 2001, Evans Deakin Industries merged with Downer & Co to become Downer EDI.
Roche Brothers was a civil engineering and contract mining company founded in 1922. Roche brothers pioneered the use of backhoe tractors, helping Australia to be at the forefront of open cut mining technology. Roche Brothers was sold to Downer EDI Limited in 1997.
Arnold Downer, born in Victoria and raised in New Zealand, is where the Downer name originates. Arnold Downer was a talented engineer who spent his early days working at the Public Works Department in New Zealand and serving in World War I.
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Downer and Co was formed in Wellington, New Zealand in July 1933 by Arnold Downer, George McLean, Billy Mill and Arch McLean. After spending a decade working for the New Zealand Public Works Department, Arnold Downer secured a job as a Project Manager with Hansford & Mills to build a tunnel through Wellington’s Mt Victoria. The Mt Victoria tunnel job brought Arnold into contact George McLean, Billy Mill and Arch McLean. Pending a bid for construction work, the newly-created syndicate decided to formalise their working relationship and formed Downer & Co on the 5th of July, 1933.
During the 1940s, construction companies across both Australia and New Zealand felt the demands of war. Downer & Co, Evans Deakin Industries, John Walker & Co and Clyde Engineering were all pulled into large-scale projects to produce machinery required for battle, such as airfields, power stations and rolling stock.
In November 1941, New Zealand was asked by the United States to undertake a major airfield construction program in Fiji. Arnold Downer was assigned Project Manager, at one point managing over 3,000 people. After completing this project Arnold and his workforce built other runways in the Pacific, as well as in the Cook Islands and Tonga. The war years also saw Downer & Co pioneering the open-cast mining of coal, building power stations, tunnels, lake outlet control projects and earthwork projects.
During the 1950s Downer & Co felt a need to expand the business, and did so by undertaking joint projects with overseas partners and merging with William Cable Holdings. The late 1950s also marked Downer & Co’s 25th anniversary.
Two major projects in the 1950s stand out, as they were Downer’s first joint ventures with overseas partners. One of them was the construction of a new rail tunnel through the Rimutaka Range near Wellington (with US construction company Morrison Knudsen); the other was the mammoth Roxburgh hydroelectric scheme in Central Otago (with two companies, from the UK and Switzerland).
Arnold Downer had long been a director of William Cable Holdings, a company keen to expand upon its construction activities. A joint venture seemed advantageous to both parties and as a result, in 1954, Downer merged with, and became a major subsidiary of William Cable Holdings.
1958 marked Downer’s 25th year anniversary. The first 25 years would have been a matter of quiet pride for Arnold Downer, as his philosophy had always been to look forward rather than back. He was, he said, ‘more interested in where we could get to’.
In the 1960s Arnold Downer retired as Managing Director of the company he had created, his role now taken up by Callum McLean. The 1960s also saw Downer’s first big merger with two New Zealand engineering companies.
In 1962 engineering firm and locomotive manufacturer, A&G Price Limited, merged with William Cable Holdings and Downer to form Cable Price Downer. Cable Price Downer was one of the biggest engineering businesses in New Zealand at that time.
The 1970s saw a huge boom in construction projects in New Zealand, including the Wairoa Dam, the Terrace Tunnel, the Rangipo Tunndel and the Waipuna Mine.
Callum McLean, the Company’s Managing Director following Arnold Downer’s retirement, retired in 1971. Doug Williamson then became the third Managing Director in the Company’s 38-year history.
In the 1980s Downer celebrated a significant milestone in the Company's history. Shortly after, Arnold Downer passed away in 1984 at the age of 89.
In 1983, Downer – still based in New Zealand – celebrated its 50th birthday. Back then, the company had 1200 employees, an annual turnover of $146 million, $133 million of work-in-hand and $43 million in assets.
The 1990s saw a number of significant acquisitions. Downer merged with Paul Y.ITC from Hong Kong, Works Civil Construction in New Zealand, mega mining contractor Roche Brothers and roads contractor Technic Group.
Due to the sharemarket crash and lack of construction work in New Zealand, Downer headed to Hong Kong and merged with Paul Y.ITC - a Hong Kong listed engineering and construction company.
To further diversify and grow the business, Downer acquired Works Civil Construction in 1996. Works Civil Construction was formerly the Public Works Department, which was founded in 1870 before being privatised in 1988.
By the 1990s, Roche Brothers was one of the largest mining companies in Australia. Its annual turnover topped $300 million when Downer purchased the Company in 1997. The Roche Brothers purchase formed the Downer Mining business that exists today.
Downer was listed on the ASX in 1998.
Technic Group was founded in 1914 and purchased by Downer in 1998. Technic Group was a leading roads contractor and industry supplier. It was involved in pavement design, construction and civil engineering works.
The 2000s saw a further increase in mergers and acquisitions, predominately in Australia. Downer acquired Bitumix in New Zealand, merged with Evans Deakin Industries, and also acquired Stork, QCC, Snowden, Emoleum and Excell Corporation.
Before being purchased by Downer in 2000, Bitumix was New Zealand’s third largest operator in the sealing and road maintenance industry, with an annual turnover of $90 million. Alongside the purchase of Technic Group, these two companies formed the Works Infrastructure business in New Zealand.
In March 2001, Downer merged with Evans Deakin Industries to become Downer EDI. Evans Deakin Industries formed Downer’s Rail business. The business’ turnover was $173 million before the merger, with the majority of the principal revenue being derived from rollingstock.
In July 2003, Downer acquired Stork Electrical Pty Ltd at just under $15 million. The main service offerings were electrical and facilities management.
In April 2004 Downer acquired QCC Resources which was an engineering, design and consulting service provider. (It was sold in 2020.) In 2004, Downer also acquired a Perth-based mining firm called Snowden Consulting Group. Snowden formed a part of Downer’s mining business which – at that time – was named Roche Mining. It was later sold in 2020.
In 2006 Downer bought a business called Emoleum, one of Australia’s biggest road surfacing companies. Emoluem had 700 employees and annual sales of $400 million at the time that Downer bought them.
Excell Corporation was a New Zealand infrastructure maintenance company with 800 employees and a turnover in excess of $100 million a year. Excell merged into Downer’s Works business in New Zealand.
In recent years, Downer has acquired two very important business; Tenix, a major utility contractor and Hawkins, one of New Zealand’s largest builders. Downer also put forward a takeover offer for Spotless Group, of which they now own 87.8%.
Downer bought Tenix Holdings Australia in 2014 for $300 million. Tenix was a leader in the electricity, gas and water sectors in Australia and formed the basis of the Downer Utilities business.
Hawkins is one of New Zealand’s largest construction firms. Downer’s acquisition of the Hawkins business was finalised in March 2017 and boosted Downer’s non-residential construction business line. Hawkins continues to operate under its own name.
Downer has a controlling interest of 87.8% in Spotless. Downer closed its takeover offer on the 28th of August with no further extension.
Since 2020, Downer has reshaped its business in line with its strategy to focus on its core Urban Services businesses: Transport, Utilities, Facilities and Asset Services. This includes acquiring 100% ownership of Spotless, completing divestment of its Mining business and establishing Downer Defence.
Downer completed its compulsory acquisition of Spotless, acquiring the remaining 12% of shares in October 2020. Spotless is a key part of Downer’s Urban Services strategy, benefiting from the long-term trends of increasing urbanisation and government outsourcing.
Downer announced it would review its carbon and capital-intensive Mining businesses in August 2019. In October 2021, Downer entered into an agreement to sell the Open Cut Mining East business, completing the divestment of all Mining businesses.
In June, Downer merged its Defence offerings into Downer Defence, composed of three arms: Downer Professional Services; Base and Estate Management; and Estate Development and Base Upgrades. Downer and its ancestor companies have been working with Defence since 1941. Today, Downer Defence delivers a range of services to the Department of Defence, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Commonwealth agencies, including national security.