Photo essay:
Laying the groundwork

Photo essay: Laying the groundwork

Drain layer Ses Tohi (aka Professional Mud Dog) takes Sherry Zhang and photographer Edith Amituanai on a tour around his work site near Auckland Airport – and talks about what he loves about his job, misconceptions about tradies, and what it’s like owning his own business. 

Ses Tohi, director of drain laying company SS Civil, prefers to be called “captain, not boss” by his team consisting of welder/boxer Nathan, landscaper Josh and apprentices Phil and Tai. They’re busy laying the groundwork for a new road in Māngere, not far from Auckland Airport. 

Tai kneeling by a water valve (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

The work is part of the multimillion-dollar Northern Network project that will transform the main entranceway into the airport and provide critical support for new public transport connections.

“This land around the airport, this is where the Tainui waka came to shore, when Polynesians first became Māori. And just down the road is Ihumātao,” Tohi says about the land he’s working on. He says his uncle is part of the Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) campaign that is fighting to protect the land from development.

High stakes for Josh operating the digger (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

Tohi says he loves his job, but that some people have misconceptions about tradies like him.

“The biggest misconception of people in hi-vis is that we have all these people lazily standing around doing nothing while one person is working. It’s actually a safety thing. Say someone hit a power cable and fell down – one guy would be communicating, keeping him responsive. Another would be straight on the phone to the emergency department. And another would notify the supervisor [about] what’s going on and clearing the way for ambulances,” he says. 

Ses Tohi (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

“Everything is stressful on this job. If we were to break those orange cables, it would cost $10 million per hour. It runs the domestic and international terminal. Actually, it’ll probably only cost $5 million now, with Covid and less flights.

“My favourite part of the job is problem solving. A variation will cost thousands for the clients, so they’ll go to the engineers. But they’ll always come down to us, the tradies, who usually have the most practical solutions. It’s a good feeling that you’re needed.”

Tai (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

Tohi says he got the name Professional Mud Dog when he first started out doing house repairs through Remuera and Mission Bay.

“These really nice places, and I’d go in clean and come out covered in mud. Sometimes the digs would be three metres deep and I’d have to do them by hand. You know, I’m quite proud of the name. But then the mud is also poo as well.

“That’s the name we gave each other, mud dogs, drain dogs.”

Phil in front, Josh in the background operating the digger (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

“It’s been really good [working] with a team,” adds Tohi. “[They’re] all reliable, I’d trust them all to babysit my kids. That’s what you want.

“The enrolment for drainage is much lower than sparkies, plumbers and builders. I learnt from drain layers who’d been in the business for the past 30 years, who passed it onto their kids. I hope it’ll be the same for these guys. They’re apprentices now, but they’re on their way to be certified. Reputation is so important. You get jobs because you’re recommended. It’s competitive, and undercutting happens, but ethics are what matters.”

Ses Tohi on the phone (Photo: Edith Amituanai)

“My wife and I are both high-school dropouts and she used to be a seamstress. Now she manages the office, takes care of all the wages, GST and tax. When I was on the docket [payroll], I didn’t realise how much there was [going on] behind the scenes in owning your own business. I was getting emails at 10pm last night in bed!

“My favourite job was the one I did over in Niue. Built up a museum there and a supermarket in 2018. It was nice to be able to take my wife and kids. We even started a little pig farm … We ate all of them by the time we left!”

From left: Ses Tohi, Tai and Josh. Ses treating his team to milkshakes, pies and fruit salads.

At lunchtime, Tohi says he’s buying. “We’ve gone three months with 100% in safety which is such good news,” he says. “There were 300 deaths last year. From roadworks, that kind of stuff. It’s dangerous work. Today we found a water valve. Didn’t expect that. The pressure of the water main is probably 20 bar, so if you were to put a pinhole in it, would squirt 60m, and probably cut your hand.”

Other than running his drain-laying business, Tohi also helps run a professional boxing gym. It’s a mix of professional boxers and he’s pretty proud of the “20 young fellas, kids across West Auckland” he helps train. As he drove The Spinoff off his work site, he played his favourite track from Busta Rhymes – ‘Do My Thing’.




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