Dalby-based electrical contractor, Gavin Walton of Condamine Electric Company saw the arrival of the onshore gas industry several years ago as an opportunity to grow his business, but it hasn't been without its challenges and learnings.
In this article, Gavin Walton has shared with the GasFields Commission his first-hand experience servicing the onshore gas industry in the Surat Basin and how his local business is adapting to the current industry transition from construction to production.
Gavin Walton is the true definition of local business person. He grew up and did his electrical trade in Dalby. For a few years he did a stint overseas working on a range of electrical automation projects before returning home to open his own electrical contracting business in 1991.
He has a diverse business that has focused a range of project work especially for the agribusiness sector where his team works on irrigation pump stations, feed mills and feedlots. He's also had a strong focus on resource projects servicing a few of the region's mines and quarries.
Meeting the business challenges of a new industry
So when he first noticed the coal seam gas industry was increasing its activities in the Surat Basin in the mid to late 2000s, he saw it as yet another opportunity for his business to grow and expand.
"We've always taken the gas industry as an opportunity - one may not always like or understand everything that goes on with a new industry like this, but I believe that you need to get involved and be on the inside to try and have input and to perhaps be better informed," Gavin says.
"We recognised the importance of building relationships with this new industry in our region and the value of business networks like the local Chamber and Toowoomba Surat Basin Enterprise.
"We had already began making moves towards Quality Assurance for Management, Safety and Environment, however the Gas industry really drove us to another level of compliance. To compete there had to be a lot of change, which required huge reinvestment into our business.
"It is big changes when you are used to doing work on a handshake," he says.
"As a small business we are lucky enough to be agile and flexible, but it took a lot of work to get our head around some of those things.
"I think now for our area and our industry we are right up there in terms of our systems and processes, but it also comes at a cost and it's hoped that the onshore gas industry recognises that.
"We've doubled our turnover last year but our profits have not increased dramatically and you wonder sometimes if it's all worthwhile.
"The gas industry has kicked us along - I wanted to play in that field - we've had some good contracts and a range of interesting work for our guys. We have learned a lot, our company has matured and I appreciate the opportunity.
"I'd like to think that the hard yards are behind us - as long as we get an opportunity to get in there and to compete - I think we have a lot to offer," he says.
Construction boom overlooked some local contractors
Gavin feels that during the hectic pace of the construction phase for these onshore gas projects the real value of local contractors has sometimes been overlooked.
"I think at times the gas industry can be business stuffers not necessarily business builders," Gavin says.
He recalls at the onset of the boom his company lost seven tradesman over a period of 2 to 3 months or half of his workforce at the time - as the larger multinational contractors offered extraordinary pay packets that couldn't be matched by local firms.
He knows of other local businesses that simply closed their doors as they lost staff and couldn't compete during the construction bubble.
"Another example was when we quoted one gas proponent on 1500 switchboards for their well heads which would have been great and given us some long term stability, really kicked us along and allowed us to employ another 30 blokes.
"But I just don't feel they were serious about a local offer - they came and looked at us - but in the end they possibly saw us as too much of risk and decided to give it to larger multinational company.
"I don't think that we should just get contracts just because we are here on the spot, we must fit the bill, be competitive and not be a risk to the delivery schedule. It is very difficult to know how to work it and I don't know how anyone could do things differently.
"We want desperately to have a crack and grow our business, they like the idea of engaging locals but understand they have to consider the risk," he says.
Operations phase provides ideal opportunity for local firms
However, Gavin is confident that local contractors will prove their worth and potentially reap more rewards during this next phase of operations and maintenance for the onshore gas industry in the Surat Basin.
"I think over the next three years it (the gas industry) will be seen as just another industry in this region and I believe our time as a local contractor will come during this next operations and maintenance phase – servicing and maintaining the existing infrastructure.
While currently the gas industry represents about 30 percent of Gavin's business turnover, he'd like to think they can get it back to about 50 percent of turnover in the longer term.
"I am hopeful the long term work contracts will come through over this next phase as we have the accreditation, we have the experience and we are local," Gavin says.
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