Home Attachments Making the jump means not fearing the fall for Skelton Earthworks

Making the jump means not fearing the fall for Skelton Earthworks

Starting a business always carries an element of risk. But as a professional stunt rider, Blake Skelton knew the secret to keeping your balance (on or off a bike) is to keep moving. And, without a doubt, that’s what got him where he is today.

After leaving school at 15 years old, Blake jumped straight into the earthmoving scene. “I couldn’t stay in school. I just wanted to get to work,” he shares. “My uncle had a civil construction company in Newcastle so I went straight to work for him.”

It was a natural choice for a kid whose life already revolved around machines. “I always rode dirt bikes and BMX and generally loved playing in the dirt,” Blake laughs. “Operating machines and building motocross jumps was something I enjoyed. And I spent a long time perfecting the skills for building those jumps, because I actually rode professionally doing freestyle motocross.”Blake spent four years working fulltime in his uncle’s business and doing shows on weekends. But he always knew motocross was a career with an expiry date. “I broke my back twice in 2011 and that pretty much ended my career in that,” he says. “I thought I’d better start knuckling down and focusing on what I’m going to do for long-term.”

Tyson Vadnjal, Blake Skelton and Dylan Vadnjal

By that stage, Blake had taken every opportunity to hone his skills, operating a wide range of gear. “I started off in a Bobcat,” he recalls. “Then I moved on to excavators and played around in graders and dozers – and whatever else I could get my hands on, really.”
Around 10 years into his earthmoving career, Blake started taking on supervisory roles, first with his uncle and then with another Newcastle company, KCE. But he always had the idea to start his own business. “I started thinking about my career and what I wanted to do,” he shares. “And I thought, you know, I’ll start my own company. But I would have needed a hundred grand to do that. Where was I going to get a hundred grand from?”

The cash did show up, but it was a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. “I had a show car I’d spent 10 years building,” Blake says. “It caught on fire and burned down in the shed. I was gutted. It was a Cadillac limousine – so a pretty flash car. When I got the insurance payout, I realised this was an opportunity to invest in buying a machine. It was time to give it a go.”
Blake’s first machine was a Komatsu 13-tonner. “I bought it on Grey’s online – sight unseen,” he laughs. “I actually signed the loan papers on my wedding day. So, on my honeymoon, me and the missus went up the coast to Brisbane to have a look at the new digger we just bought.”
That machine, Blake says, was the right size for the right price at the time. “I sold it around six months ago, but it was, and still is, a machine in high demand,” he says. “As a mid-range machine, you always seemed to find work for them.”Blake was still working at KCE fulltime when Skelton Earthworks got its start. “I took a pretty big leap and put a fella on,” he recalls. “So, my first employee worked for my company before I did. And straight out of the gate, we had a couple of weeks of rain. It was pretty wild because I was paying him to sit at home while I was still working. All my wages were pretty much paying his wages and payments on the machine. So, that was the first month or something. I was like, geez, what have I done here?”

But things quickly improved and within three months Blake put in his notice at KCE. “I went out and bought a really cheap old truck, a tipper and a brand-new Bobcat Posi-track T590,” he says. “So, then it was me in the truck and the Posi and my bloke in the 13-tonner. And that was pretty much it for the first little while.”
Blake bought the Bobcat Posi-track from Clark Equipment in Newcastle, where he still deals with Tony. He sold it last year when COVID hit, with a mind to upgrading when the time was right. “I’ve ordered the new Bobcat T66 from Clark about six months ago,” he shares. “So, I’m just waiting for it to arrive from overseas – like everything else at the moment”.
Blake likes the Bobcats for their flexibility and ease of use. “The main thing I like about them is they’ve got the ISO and H-pattern changeover so you can switch the controls,” he says. “I originally learned on the old Bobcat foot controls and then learned the H-pattern. Everybody else nowadays is ISO pattern but if I ever to go out to the site and I need to jump on one, I’m hopeless on them. With the Bobcat, at least, I can click the button and go back into H pattern. But it’s also just the comfort inside the cabs – the suspension under them and just the way they ride. It’s better than anything.”

Skelton Earthworks now also boasts two road graders, a Cat 12M and the 140M3. “They just look the part, don’t they?” Blake says. “But the really big difference is the GPS – making sure they’re set up with the right equipment. Even though we’re in 2021, there are still people who don’t understand the benefits of GPS. But we’ve loaded our graders up with all the gear to make sure, whether it’s for our clients or for our own project, we’re getting the most productivity out of them.”

For the rest of his fleet, Blake made the decision to move into the Kobelco range. “Pretty much everything we buy now is Kobelco,” he says. “I met the boys down at Gato in Maryland – it’s a real family run business. They sold me my first 13-tonner around three years back.”
Blake says he always liked Kobelco and had a fair bit of experience operating them, so they were a known quantity. “When I first started, I was hiring gear from Orange Hire here in Newcastle,” he explains. “They’ve got a big fleet of Kobelcos, and I just came to like them. All my operators always loved them, too.”

The famous Kobelco fuel economy was a big drawcard. “I always heard they were good on fuel,” he says. “And the Komatsu was just chewing through the stuff. On paper, they always say Komatsu and Kobelco match up. But being the owner paying for it, I can tell you the Kobelco outdoes it on fuel efficiency. I was running them side by side all the time, so I saw the difference firsthand.”
Having owned and hired a wide range of brands, Blake’s confident Kobelco offers the best gear for his team. “The operating, the smoothness of them is just really good,” he says. “All my operators love them over the other machines. Especially these new ones we’ve just bought – the cabs in them, man, they’re so comfortable. They’ve got all the features and, when you compare them to other makes, they’re so far ahead of the rest.”
The exceptional backup service was another deciding factor. “The way the boys look after me down at Gato, that’s what really got me over the line,” Blake shares. “Every time I ring up, nothing’s ever a problem. They jump and run – the service there is just really good.”
Maintenance-wise, Blake leaves that up to the professionals. “The team at Gato do all our servicing,” he says. “So, I deal with Brad and their service manager down there. We just give him a ring and he sorts it all out.”
Of course, buying new machines, Blake says, makes a big difference on that front. “When you buy new, you know what you’re buying and the history of it,” he says. “The biggest advantage is the reduced downtime and the fact you know you’ve got that great backup service straight away. Plus, how good does it look turning up with fresh gear.”

Indeed, something that always comes up when we talk about Kobelco is how great they look out on site. “When you take a prospective client out and they see your fleet and it looks top-notch, it goes a long way,” Blake says. “I pride my whole company on that – I’ve always been particular with all my gear. Not only my excavators but my vehicles, too. Even with my team, you know, if everybody rocks up looking respectful and all your gear looks right, I think it plays a big part in getting the business. And that means growth.”

Speaking of growth, the Skelton Earthmoving fleet has grown exponentially in the five years they’ve been in business. “We’ve got around 12 excavators – the majority of which are Kobelco – ranging from 13-tonners through to 26-tonners. We’ve also got a couple of graders and a couple of Posi-tracks,” Blake says. “In all, we’ve got a fleet of about 26. Then there’s 18 vehicles on the road as well.”

The newest additions are two dash sevens. “I bought the 14-tonner straight boom and a 13-tonner knuckle boom,” Blake explains. “We do a lot of pipe laying, and the straight boom gives you that extra little bit of reach – you get further into your trench for those jobs. Then I went the knuckle boom for those jobs where you need a knuckle over. A lot of hourly hire clients prefer to hire that machine because they can do a bit of everything.”
Such a versatile fleet needs a wide range of attachments to go with them. “We’ve pretty much got everything – hammers, grabs, all sorts of stuff,” Blake laughs. “And I won’t buy a machine now without the rotation hitch. I just can’t see why you would, these days. Just the efficiency you get on site when you’re constantly changing buckets and hoses. The time you lose in that alone makes the little bit of extra cost you may spend on a hitch worth it.”

Blake rates the Doherty hitches and also has a Geith tilting hitch in his collection. “So, we’ve actually got a mix,” he says. “We mainly have all Dohertys but the last 13-tonner we bought – the knuckle boom – has the Geith. I’ve been really happy with both of them.”
In building Skelton Earthworks, the same appetite for taking bold leaps that fueled Blake’s motocross career is evident in the huge range of projects they get involved in. “It’s pretty crazy, the different things we’ve gotten into,” he laughs. “What got me going was pipe laying – so, I started setting up pipe crews and laying stormwater. We’ve now got four full-time stormwater crews; we lay more storm water than anyone else in Newcastle. And having previously been supervisor on all sorts of civil projects, I started tendering for those types of jobs, too.”

The business caters to some of the bigger contractors in Newcastle with plant hire, but Blake doesn’t shy away from pursuing their own projects. “We do anything from subdivisions, road widenings, retaining walls, working in the quarry – anything like that,” he shares. “We have a whole bunch of different teams: pipe layers, supervisors, labourers, retaining wall crew, a concrete crew – we’ve got a bunch of concreters so we can sort of do everything from start to finish, whether that’s for our clients or for our own projects.”

Amazingly, this has all been achieved without much paid promotion. “I don’t really advertise at all,” Blake says. “So far it’s just come through people I’ve known in the industry and their recommendations. If you do a good job and everybody’s happy with you, you start getting calls from random places, I guess.”
Blake says that great reputation all comes down to his team. “We’ve got the best team going,” he says. “I look after my guys and really focus on making sure we’re the best at what we do because, at the end of the day, it’s my last name on their shirts. But yeah, they do me proud.”

Looking to the future, Skelton Earthworks, much like its owner, shows no signs of slowing down. “We’ll just keep pushing,” Blake says. “I have no plans on stopping. And my beautiful wife keeps supporting me and she’s happy. So, we’ll just keep at it.”

Speaking of Blake’s wife, Candy Skelton has also played an essential role in the business right from the get-go. “Oh, she’s a massive part of it,” he shares. “She does all our office work, invoicing and admin. I wouldn’t be able to do it without her.”
With astronomical housing prices driving a mass exodus from Sydney, it’s clear that areas like Newcastle are set to explode – something Skelton Earthworks is set to take full advantage of. “I’m definitely grateful to have started the business when I did,” Blake shares. “And to have this as my hometown. It’s booming that’s for sure.”

Blake reckons the secret to success in this industry isn’t that mysterious. It’s all about good old fashioned hard work. “You’ve just got to work harder than the next bloke,” he says. “I mean, how do you earn double? You work double. There’s no secret to it. You’ll get out what you put in. If anyone was out there looking to get started, I’d just tell them that if you’re driven and you’re keen and that’s what you want to do then don’t be scared. Just go and do it. The only thing I regret doing is not doing it earlier.”

At the end of the day, what keeps Blake going (and going) is the challenge of running a business like his. “I’ve always been a thrill-seeker,” he laughs. “People ask me all the time, you know, what keeps me motivated. Well, I enjoy a bit of a rush and excitement, so I’ve got to find it somewhere. And I think I’ve just found it doing this now.”
Well, as they say in motocross, anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.


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