Knowing the Limits

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-By John Boley

Guam is not a destination on everyone’s mind, but Smithbridge Group has an anniversary coming up – 20 years of construction work on the tiny North Pacific island. As Albert Smith, Group Managing Director, told us, the company was started in New Zealand, founded in 1964 by John Smith, his father, and operated as John C Smith Contractors Ltd in the Rangiora/Christchurch area. The business grew to undertake bridges, pipe laying, culverts, wharves and water and sewer treatment plants.

Twenty years ago, Albert explained, “the New Zealand economy was at an all-time low and Asia was booming.” He was looking for opportunities “so the business could continue to work, because there was nothing in New Zealand, and conditions in Australia were just as tough as in New Zealand. So we looked around the Pacific; and we looked at Papua New Guinea but there were some issues there that didn’t suit us. Guam in the North Pacific presented some opportunities; it was a small place and we had never worked offshore before, but I was young and keen. There was plenty of work in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia for the large corporate contractors but there were plenty of Malaysians and Indonesians our size that were way smarter than us.”

Guam has been a bit of an adventure for the company. Quite a large proportion of Smithbridge Group’s work there is with the US government. At that time there was a major tourism boom going on, said Albert, and Guam has a three-pronged economy – tourism, the military and natural disasters (typhoons and earthquakes). The company today has around 150 people there in total; “we also have people in New Caledonia and from Guam we are also working in the Marshall Islands.” In New Caledonia, the wholly owned subsidiary company Smithbridge New Caledonia SARL constructed the port facilities for the Koniambo Nickel Project at Vavouto. The wharf construction commenced in mid-2009 and was completed for use in May 2010. Smithbridge has a continuing operation at Koniambo where a sea water intake has been constructed, and Smithbridge is providing equipment rental and other services to the project.

Ten years ago Albert moved to Australia and started a branch. “Subsequent to that we sold the New Zealand business and today we have a head office in Brisbane and although we still do some work in New Zealand it is not via the original business.”

Marine related projects remain the core business. Current work includes a wharf for the Port of Brisbane, wharf construction work in Gladstone, and a 50-50 joint venture with Seymour White to build a wharf, cruise ship terminal building, and roads and pavements for the Port of Townsville, worth approx $100 million. The company recently won a project to construct a bridge for Fulton Hogan in Darwin and is a subcontractor to John Holland, doing the piling and heavy lifting, for a gas terminal wharf in Port Botany.

An important and integral part of the Smithbridge Group, Universal Cranes Pty Ltd has branches in Brisbane, Ballina, Sunshine Coast and Townsville, and boasts an extensive crane and construction equipment fleet, including tower cranes, trucks, mini cranes and trailers. Universal Cranes (formerly Universal Contracting) was established in 1993 and started with a fleet of three franna cranes operating out of a small depot at Clontarf. After a stream of successfully completed contracts, Universal Cranes quickly became recognised as a new, reliable and innovative company in the Australian construction industry.

The Smithbridge Group purchase in 2003 saw Universal Cranes enter into a period of rapid growth. In the space of 18 months this company opened six new branches along the East Coast of Australia, the first being the Sunshine Coast branch in early 2005, with the Ballina branch soon after, each with shareholder managers. In April 2006, Universal Cranes became the Australian representative for Sarens, an international leader in heavy lifting and transport. This partnership gave Universal Cranes the ability to provide clients with cranes of up to 800 tonne capacity and gave the company the opportunity to manage the largest mobile crane in Queensland (LG1550). Sarens Australia re-launched independently in October 2009, and Universal Cranes now operates as a heavy lift crane provider in its own right.

Universal Cranes accounts for around half of Smithbridge Group’s workforce and half its revenue. “In 2003 we put our energies into growing the crane business,” said Albert. “At that time it had an annual revenue of around three million dollars and today that is around 80 million – excluding our sister crane business in New Zealand.”

Smithbridge Group as a whole is a civil engineering and construction oriented company. “So in all the infrastructure that has been built in Brisbane in the last five years – tunnels, roads, motorways – we have been a significant crane hirer because we understand the client’s needs, because we come from the same end of the market.” The company’s major focus in cranes has been more on infrastructure than on the resources sector, added Albert. “However, we are well aware the government has no money, so in the next five years we have to move ourselves into the resources sector.” The company also does an increasing amount of heavy-lift work in the wind farm industry.

“There will [for cranes] be a slight shift in the market but I am confident that going forward we can continue to keep the crane fleet occupied. We are in the process of establishing a crane hire branch in Gladstone to for obvious reasons.”

Smithbridge Group employs around 600 people in total, plus another 200 in our part owned sister companies in New Zealand. Albert says the company recruits from offshore – especially New Zealand. A substantial proportion of his workforce is “not Australian – plenty of South African and a good sprinkling of Irish at the moment, Lots of Europeans, Americans, Chinese, and Filipinos.”

The group also invests seriously in training, said Albert, with a company called Lifting Skills Pty Ltd, training crane drivers and riggers, fork-lift operators and scaffolders. “We take on lots of young people and apprentices that we train. About 20 per cent of the training is done for our own organisation and the balance is for the outside market. It doesn’t make a profit – in fact it’s quite heavily subsidised – because it’s about building a team for us. Also, as part of our New Zealand heritage, we bring a lot of New Zealanders – many of them from our own New Zealand workforce – and although these people have good skills and work culture they need qualifications to work in Australia.”

Smithbridge Group prefers not to work with sub-contractors, but rather to perform the majority of its work in-house. As a result, the group focuses on “work that we can self-perform, and that tends to drive us to remote locations and to marine projects. We are an equipment-rich and engineering-rich company, so we need to focus on projects that need heavy equipment and well engineered methodology.”

Another part of the business is renting out specialised equipment to the major contractors. “We do quite a lot of specialised support work for them.” In one example, Smithbridge Group’s barges were utilised during recovery of the Brisbane Flood in 2011, and in many other construction projects, including the Kurilpa Bridge in Brisbane.

Smithbridge Group, said Albert, is a good contractor, up to around 50 million dollars. We are bigger than the not-so well-resourced small contractors, but we don’t kid ourselves that we are a major, and we don’t have the balance sheet for bigger projects. On projects greater than $50 million we try to participate as a subcontractor or a JV partner.

“We know where we fit and that’s where we stay. There is plenty of opportunity in that market. Our competitive advantage is a combination of our own workforce and good heavy duty equipment.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 21, 2021, 10:58 PM AEDT