Water Management From the Ground Up

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-By John Boley

Western Australia-based GFR Group is among Australia’s most experienced and longest established PVC piping, PE and PE piping systems specialists and a manufacturer of superior performance valves.

Now into its third decade of operations, GFR would like to be regarded as a more horizontal source of integrated supply, and business development manager Evan Tweedie is always looking for new partners and new opportunities.

“I’m probably sales manager as well as business development. I suppose a few years ago we would have still regarded ourselves pretty much as a piping contractor, but then we gradually added other services as we went. So we now have tanks on our product list, they integrate into the pipework we do.” GFR today is more than 100 people strong and “we don’t make pipes. We are a piping engineering contractor, but it’s wider than piping, it’s really water management… we also call it fluids engineering.”

The company is hoping to widen its experience in water treatment, having now gotten a number of technology partners on board that can supply related expertise in waste water treatment, fresh water treatment and power generation – “because often these remote water treatment projects need power and a power plant that goes with them as well.”

GFR’s biggest revenue stream is water management, including a large amount of dewatering. “We typically put in pipes and pumps, tanks and dams to contain or relocate or recycle that water – which may be used for dust suppression, or it goes to camps or other facilities and needs treatment or cleaning to make it into potable water. We can do the whole of water management from the ground up, if a client wants us to, predominantly working within the resources industry and within that, predominantly iron ore,” although the company welcomes contracts in other sectors too.

Once, says Mr Tweedie, it was ‘you give us a pipeline you want and we will install it’. Nowadays, GFR is well equipped to build and install its own specialised tanks, dams, various types of piping materials, desalination and waste water treatment systems, and reverse osmosis filtration systems. “We don’t make pumps ourselves but we generally engineer the pumps, valves etc. the customer needs. I like to regard it as a turnkey fluids management service.” While much of the business concerns water, GFR also handles slurries, chemical solutions and many other fluids.

Most of GFR’s business is in WA, NT and SA, with a regional office in Melbourne looking at national opportunities. “For example,” says Mr Tweedie, “we are currently looking closely at the gas market in Queensland where there are huge opportunities. We regard ourselves as capable of being national – the whole of Australia is our market, but we operate from the western half.”

GFR stands for Gold Fields Reticulation – reticulation for heap-leaching gold, involving pumping leaching solutions up over a pile of dirt and collecting it at the bottom again, “hopefully washing the precious metal out of the heap on the way through.” This is an expertise developed by GFR’s current technical director. “He started on his own in his garage in Kalgoorlie. This is where we get our fundamental expertise in polyethylene, which is where it started.”

Much of GFR Group’s business comes from responding to tenders but Mr Tweedie believes there is plenty of scope for the company to be included at earlier stages of a project so it can share its expertise and act in an advisory capacity. “We have a close relationship with an engineering design house – a long standing arrangement. We would love to be more involved earlier.” However, “we need to be aware we are not a free design service – don’t ask us for free advice – and we are not, yet, a design house.”

Nevertheless, GFR is “not as niche-y as we were. We strictly saw ourselves as being polyethylene people before and that’s certainly where our expertise lies, 25 years of experience, learning all the right and wrong ways, falling into the traps, skinning our knees and learning, we are experts at that stuff. The direction we are going is we need to be experts at that plus we need to add some other things as well – hence the broadening of the scope of the projects that we are talking about.”

One major project of which the company is proud is the installation of the Minara resources Grey Mare Bore Field water pipeline and infrastructure, which at more than 150km is the longest large-bore plastic pipeline ever undertaken for mining operations in WA and involved stringing of more than 6,000 tonnes of pipe, butt-fusion welded together.

Mr Tweedie says the markets for polyethylene and steel pipes have for many years been quite distinct and separate applications, but “those boundaries are starting to get blurred now with advances in plastic and in steels as well as changes in pricing and in the way people think about that.” So GFR is careful not to simply call itself a polyethylene pipe engineering or contracting company “because that’s a bit limiting now.” GFR is a pipe expert that can install water management systems “and if the right material for the job happens to be a steel pipe, or a ductile iron pipe, then we will put that in for the customer.”

So what does the future hold for GFR Group? “Bigger things and more diverse things, more turnkey,” says Mr Tweedie. GFR is keen to be working on ten million dollar projects rather than three million. “I see ourselves making that kind of step up, and it would also be great if we could be involved earlier – we are striving to do that.” He stresses GFR’s “exceptionally good safety record. We are genuinely very safety-conscious – everybody says that in our mining industry here ad nauseum, but we do take our people’s welfare very seriously.”

Mr Tweedie also points to another feature of GFR Group: “We still have that ‘the man who owns the store runs the store’ feel about the business. It’s very open-door, with a very flat structure, so anyone can talk to the managing director if they want to. We have still got that small-to-medium size ‘feel’ that we will strive to keep. I don’t know how successful we will be as we grow, but I think that’s one of the things that makes us different. I guess we genuinely care about our customers, we want to genuinely give value for money. These are old-fashioned values that certainly mean a lot to this company. People enjoy working here and we are all genuinely concerned about the way that our customers think about us.”

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September 27, 2020, 5:18 AM AEST