Growing up on a sheep farm 50 km out of Burke, a town in North West Queensland, Wes Howlett has always been around machines of some kind. No wonder, then, he started his career as a truckdriver, carting gypsum from Burke to Kandos in northern NSW.
“I was with a trucking company based out of Merewether,” Wes shares. “I’d been looking for somewhere to relocate my family, to give them a better life. And one day they had a coal truck driver that was crook, so they asked me to come down. I ended up carting coal out of the Hunter Valley in 1995 and I haven’t left.”
Wes made his transition into the earthmoving business under the cover of night. “I had a mate that was working at one of the coal mines,” he laughs. “I’d sneak in during the nighttime and he taught me how to operate a D11. That’s where it all started, really.”
In lots of ways, Wes’ story starts much the same way as most people who have founded an earthmoving business – with a machine.
“I was working for a contracting company down here doing earthworks within the mine,” Wes recalls. “Then another mate of mine approached me and asked me if I was interested in buying a machine – a four-and-a-half-ton Komatsu.”
Wes put that machine on dry hire with that project, before moving on to larger machines.
“Later I bought a D6 and a 20-tonner. It was me and another bloke and we kept ourselves busy,” he laughs. “Then an opportunity came up to buy a D11. So, I bought one, put it to work and within 12 months I had five of them.”
When you lay it out like that it all sounds so easy, but it’s unusual to get into serious machines like a D11 so early in the piece. But ‘go big or go home’ is just how Wes has always played the game.
“I had aspirations of where I wanted to be. When playing any sport, I never went out to participate. Only to win. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life,” he shares. “So, with that first D11, I only had a 700-hour contract in front of me. But I backed my ability to chase the work and build relationships. And that’s what we did.”
Wes’ story takes an inevitable turn in 2008 when the GFC hit. “There was a lot of belt-tightening and I realised I couldn’t just stay in mining, I needed to progress into civil as well,” Wes says. “That way I could shift gears back and forth between the two. If I wanted to continue to grow, I had to diversify.”
After spending a couple of years building relationships, along with a solid reputation, Wes bought Leidan Excavations off then owner, Paul Patholi. “It was a civil-based company, predominantly in the housing industry,” he says. “I’d actually hired Leidan to help me with a few jobs up in the mines, so I knew Paul and he’d mentioned he wanted to retire and sell out. After thinking it over, I realised that’s what I needed to do. It took about 18 months for us to get all our ducks lined up and get the finance approved.”
Just months later, the mining work literally dried up overnight and Wes walked away from the mining industry altogether. Fortunately, he was well-placed to kick on in civil.
“When I bought Leidan, I had around 15 machines and 12 employees,” Wes recalls. “It was all excavators; a number of Kobelcos, around four Komatsus and one Hitachi.”
Up until buying Leidan, Wes’ gear had been one hundred percent Cat. “That’s just how it is in the mining industry. You don’t usually see Cat guys going the other way. They bleed yellow, you know,” he laughs. “When I took over Leidan, I experienced Kobelco. We were able to get life out of the machine and great fuel economy. Plus, the local Kobelco dealer, Gato, delivered a great service. All that worked together to swing us over that way.”
At the end of the day, Wes says Kobelco’s numbers just add up. “If you want a profitable business, you have a few things to consider. One, what you’re paying for the machine. Two, resale value. And three, running costs like fuel,” he says. “Then there’s the other aspects – parts availability and backup service. And with a company like Kobelco, all they do is excavators. So, they’re putting one hundred percent into that one machine.”
Of course, you can’t talk Kobelco without talking fuel economy. “For a business like ours, running hourly hire – well, with Kobelco, the fuel burn’s nearly half that of other similar machines, digging the same amount of dirt,” Wes says. “With fuel prices now at $2 per litre, that comes into consideration, more so than ever before.”
These days, Wes has around 65 bits of gear on the books. That includes some pretty sizable machines, which helps him shift between the mining and civil industries as needed.
“It’s all about maximising utilisation of your machine in a shorter period of time,” he shares. “You buy a machine and you’re financing it over five years, so you need it to be profitable that whole time. Then your sixth and seventh years are total profit. That’s the beauty of flicking between the civil and the mining sectors. We’re able to get that high utilisation. Especially with the bigger gear.”
That has meant getting larger machines onto projects they’re not traditionally associated with. “We used to go and do a subdivision and it would be 30 house blocks. Now we’re doing a hundred at a time,” Wes explains. “So, the amount of bulk earthworks needing to be done is greater. And, when you think about it, all the good dirt’s gone. They’ve got to cut the top off a hill and put it into a gully to flatten the land out.”
This approach, Wes finds, has plenty of benefits for his clients. “If you throw the bigger gear at a job, you can move it quicker. That shortens timeframes for the client, so it’s more cost effective,” he says. “And these jobs are often weather dependent. If you can get it knocked over quicker, it decreases the risk of being rained out. And it enables them to maybe have one or two weeks up their sleeve.”
The biggest machine Wes has is a 52-tonner Kobelco, the SK520XD. “It’s got the full fire suppression unit on it for the mine spec, he says. “And we’ve got an intermediate dipper arm on it, so it’s shorter than the civil spec. That’s to increase the breakout power, so we can get into the mines and move some serious dirt. But it’s still got a reasonable reach for when we do civil jobs.”
In terms of buckets, Wes says the boys at Gato recommended Salmon. “We’ve got the three and a half cubic meter Salmon bucket. It’s loading a 40-ton artic in five buckets. And it has a lot of jewelry on it – hard facing and protection with chock blocks etc, so it can stand up to a quarry job. That’s the idea with the XD part of the machine; it’s got heavy duty track frames and guards, so it’s not going to get knocked around as much.”
Wes rates Salmon for their customer service and value for money. “They listened to what we had to say and worked with that. And the pricing was fair,” he says. “They’re also made locally, so we could have gone down to the factory and seen how they were doing it and make any changes. We didn’t need to, but that ability was there.”
He’s also a fan of Geith hitches and has a number of them on the machines. “They all seem to be going well,” Wes says. “We had a warranty claim on one of them and within a day and a half we had the hitch back. You can’t complain about that.”
With all this larger gear around, it’s clear Wes has made up with mining. “We started dabbling back in the mines around 2015. And there’s a lot of infrastructure work going on there at the moment,” he says. “So, we’re back in with that because that’s where our clients needed us to be. Soon we’ll have around 17 machines in the mines.”
But Wes is still wary – he says it’s not a matter of if, but when mining trails off again. But choosing machines like the 52-tonner means he won’t have that gear parked up.
“It can go straight back onto a civil site,” he says. “And the trend is leaning towards going bigger. What I’ve seen is, the 13-tonner now does what a 7-tonner used to do. And a 25 or 30 is going out on jobs clients used to want a 20-tonner for.”
In terms of operating, Wes says his team couldn’t be happier with the Kobelcos. “We’re over the moon with the new Dash Seven 13-tonners that came out. Yes, me as an owner but also my operators,” he says. “They’re smooth, they’ve got those creature comforts within the cab and the ergonomics. So, along with those, we’ve got 30-tonners, a couple of 26-tonners and then this 52.”
Wes has been surprised at the agility of the 52-tonner. “It’s just such a well-balanced machine,” he says. “We can be out at full stretch with a full bucket, and it’s not trying to tip or rock. It’s so smooth to operate. You would think a big machine like that wouldn’t be able to final trim, but you can with this thing.”
The comfort element is essential for keeping your operators happy and Wes says the Kobelcos are second to none on that front.
“When you think of it, they’re sitting in that for nearly as long as they’re in their house each night,” he explains. “With the Kobelco, you’re not exhausted after doing a day’s work. And by looking after the operators, their working longevity is better. Because some of these blokes have been doing this a long time and have back problems etc. If we can look after them, from that point of view, we can maybe keep them working for longer.”
There’s really no one thing, Wes reckons, that makes Kobelco his machine of choice. “It’s the whole package,” he says. “It’s the purchase price, reliability, fuel economy, comfort and the resale value. My operators are comfortable and happy to operate the machines. And the backup service from both Kobelco Australia and Gato is amazing. We can always talk about things and work through any issues – you’re never told ‘it is what it is.’ That’s the relationship you’ve got to have with your suppliers.”
On those grounds, Wes would certainly recommend anyone choose Gato as their local Kobelco dealer. “They’re easy to deal with and you get respect from them,” he explains. “They’ve got amazing backup service. And there’s plenty of knowledge there.”
In terms of maintenance, Leidan Excavations handles 90% of that in-house.
“We run a workshop with five blokes downstairs,” Wes shares. “That’s all part of keeping us productive and profitable, so we maintain and service all our own machines, unless it’s a warranty claim. That way, if a machine breaks down on site, we’ve got someone looking at it within the hour who can get it up and running as quickly as possible. But there were many years I couldn’t afford to have my own workshop or my own blokes. It takes time to get to that.”
Despite the in-house maintenance crew, Leidan obviously still needs parts supplied. Again, Kobelco comes out in front.
“You ring some suppliers and you’ll be waiting weeks or even months,” Wes explains. “But with Kobelco, we’ve never had to wait for it to come in from overseas. I guess that may happen down the track but, at this point in time, both Kobelco and Gato are always right on the money with parts supply.”
In terms of the future, Wes reckons the business is close to capacity in its current state. “Without a major restructure, we’re probably close to where we can handle at the moment,” he says. “If we wanted to grow, we’d have to put on another manager – one looking after civil and one looking after mining and infrastructure work.”
Leidan is, of course, a family affair – Wes’ partner and their collective kids work various roles within the business. But Wes has no immediate retirement plans. “I’ll probably go on until I’m 70,” he laughs. “I live here seven days a week. And that’s because I love it.”
Indeed, it’s Wes’ personal philosophy that doing what you love is the path to success. “I don’t have days where I struggle to get out of bed. I’m up at five o’clock every morning, I come to work, and I don’t go home till 7.30pm. Then I’m here on weekends,” he shares. “But I don’t see that as a struggle. I’m not saying this is all beer and skittles. Like anyone, we have terrible days. But like they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
So, what advice would Wes give to someone just starting out?
“Everybody’s circumstances are different. Some don’t have the financial background to buy a new machine straight off the bat,” he says. “So you go back to a lower hour, secondhand machine – that’s fine to start with. Then you get out there, work hard, respect the people you work with and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Getting those basics right, Wes says, is so important. “There’s nothing special we do here,” he says. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to look at what’s in front of you and, and work with that.”
But owning a business, Wes points out, means having the stomach for a few leaps of faith. “You certainly take some risks,” he says. “There’s no questions about that. You’ve got to back yourself. I don’t think it gets easier, but over time you do get more confident. So, even if you do take a kick or two in the guts, you know how to deal with those situations. It’s how you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again.”