“We had a stump out front with a phone sitting on it and that was our office,” recalled Chris Woods, co-founder and managing director of Milbrae Quarries, now one of Australia’s largest quarry and mining services companies.
Besides quarries and the mining services business, the company now also has a cement manufacturing operation – that makes use of the hard, high-grade rocks from its quarries – as well as a pre-fabricated cement operation that makes concrete walls and structures for Australia’s building industry.
The family-owned business started in 1983 in the small New South Wales regional town of Leeton where it is still headquartered. It began with one quarry and has since expanded to more than 50 sites across Australia, primarily in New South Wales and Queensland.
“We began with one little crusher and then end up like this,” Woods said with a laugh.
“It has been great fun. It is something that my brother Brett and I have stuck to and grew,” said Woods. “We started the business with our father, who is now retired. It has been a challenge, but we have really enjoyed it.”
“We were doing a lot of work up in Mt Isa in Queensland when the mining boom was happening. I was there for five to six years and my brother was here in Leeton – 2,000km away – so there was a need for aircraft,” said Woods.
“We also used to do a lot of flying up to McArthur River in the Gulf, east of Darwin.”
The company’s first aircraft was a three-passenger seat piston-powered aircraft. Then they moved up to a five-passenger seat aircraft that was also piston-powered.
He said after about 350 trips to Mt Isa in the five-seat piston-powered aircraft, “I had to do something. I couldn’t stand it any longer,” joked Woods.
“I was flying home one day and then a Pratt & Whitney turbine-powered Pilatus PC-12 went whizzing straight past and above us and I said to the pilot, ‘let’s go and get one of them’. So we did buy a PC-12. After a few years.” The company’s PC-12, which has local registration VH-BEV, was bought new from Pilatus.
“When you have a business aircraft, it makes the whole of Australia a small place,” said Woods who attributed Milbrae Quarries’ ability to grow and expand to the fact the company has its own aircraft.
“You no longer look at doing jobs just 200km from home. You look at doing a job anywhere in Australia. You can fly your crew in and out of [remote] places. The Pratt & Whitney-powered PC-12 can have up to nine passengers,” he said.
“We have also used the aircraft to transport spare parts for mining machinery. I remember being up in the Gulf and we had some mining machinery break down around dinner time and then we flew parts up overnight and by 7 a.m. the next morning we were up and running again.”
“Having your own business aircraft just puts you in a different league. It’s more professional. We tried flying guys in and out of mine sites using commercial flights, but it proved to be too time-consuming and impractical,” he added.
“From the mine site, the workers would have to drive several hours to get to the nearest commercial airport. You have to get to the commercial airport one hour before your flight, which was often an early morning flight.”
Woods said most mine sites in Australia have a small general aviation airstrip nearby, either built by the mining company or the local council.
“With a PC-12 we can just fly straight into the airstrip at the little township right by the mine site.”
Milbrae Quarries workers are at a quarry for two weeks at a time and then return home for one week of rest. “When they finish work at the end of two weeks, the aircraft is waiting and ready to take them home,” said Woods.
The company’s quarries in New South Wales and Queensland are in inland places such as Lake Cowal, Cobar and Nymagee. But workers’ homes are in towns by the coast: Sunshine Coast, Maitland, Port Macquarie, Ballina and Coffs Harbour.
The company’s aircraft is flying very regularly. Its average monthly utilization is often more than 150hrs thanks to the fact some days it is flying up to ten sectors and eight hours in a day, according to Woods.
There are no direct commercial flights linking these tier-three coastal towns to the remote mining and quarry sites further inland. But with the business aircraft, Milbrae Quarries can fly workers direct between the mine site and their home town, unlike commercial flights that would have to transit through the capital cities of Sydney or Brisbane.
“The aircraft picks them up and flies them back home, pretty much to the back door of their home,” quipped Woods.
“You also avoid the rigmarole of commercial airports. You just throw your bag into the back of the aircraft luggage hold, hop on board and away you go,” said Woods, adding that “it has changed the whole feel of the company.”
“I did a lot of reading and read how reliable the PT6 engine is,” said Woods, adding that safety is his top priority.
He said the PT6 engine allows the aircraft to access short, unpaved airstrips. Woods said he feels safer flying on a turbine-powered aircraft, and likes that the PT6 powered PC-12 can fly above the weather.
He has considered getting a jet aircraft, but decided that the turboprop aircraft best suits the company’s needs. If they were to buy a new aircraft, they would probably wait to buy the next generation of PC-12, he added.
The Milbrae Business Group is a privately owned group of companies providing specialist services in the quarrying and mining industry and concrete manufacture. Milbrae Quarries have more than 35 years in the industry, and have shaped their success on providing superior products and services; the flexibility to meet customer demand and the mobility of their operations.