Home Industry Pro Robinson Earthmoving: a business built on sweat and setbacks is sure to...

Robinson Earthmoving: a business built on sweat and setbacks is sure to last.

“What would you tell someone hoping to get into this business?”
That’s usually among the last questions we ask when putting together these articles. But for Chris Robinson of Robinson Earthmoving, answering that means going all the way back to the beginning. And, in the process, delivering a masterclass on starting and building an earthmoving business – with all the trials and tribulations that entails.

Raised in Victoria’s Shepparton Irrigation Region, Chris Robinson was driving machines well before most kids can tie their shoelaces. “We’ve got photos of me when I was three. I could push the pedals and walk it myself and lift the boom up and down,” he laughs. “Obviously, that was born and bred in me. I sort of had no choice really.”

Chris represents a third generation of Robinson men who have made their mark on the earthmoving industry. “My grandfather, Harold Robinson operated face shovel draglines and bulldozers back in the early days. And then my old man, Ray Robinson – he started off in Goulburn Valley,” he says. “It was all backhoes before the hydraulic excavator came out. My dad was one of the first to get one, back in the 1980s. He had 500 or so clients, doing all the channel cleaning for dairy farmers and clearing orchards for the fruit growers.”

With his future path already set, school wasn’t a big focus for Chris. Instead, he took every opportunity to learn his trade. “Every weekend and school holidays, Dad would save up all the easy jobs for me,” he recalls. “He’d pack my thermos and lunch bag and I’d do a 10-hour day – even at 12 years old, I was quite capable of driving the machines. When I left school at 14, the old man put me on full-time, doing agriculture work around the valley.

In 2000, the Abi Group had the contract for Murchison East Bypass. The General Superintendent on the project, Paul Bull, was keen to give local operators a go. “This was the first big job for my dad – he was used to just doing farm work,” Chris explains. “We had to do some sort of induction. So, Dad drops me off at the front office and says, ‘You go in and do what they want you to do.”

It was the big break that almost didn’t happen. Once they realised Chris was only 15, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. “I told the lady at the front office I was driving excavators. And she says, ‘Oh no you’re not! Who sent you?’ and I told her it was Paul Bull,” Chris recalls. “He comes out and I listen to them argue for a bit. Then Bully – that’s what everyone calls him – says to me ‘Go in there and get inducted, I’ll meet you outside’. So, we’re driving to the excavator, and he goes, ‘Look, we got no insurance for someone so young to work on these construction sites, but I’m willing to give you a go. Don’t stuff up. You got one chance’. The way Bully tells it, I was the youngest operator ever to operate on a tier one construction site.”

With the Murchison Bypass job completed, Abi Group moved into Melbourne. They insisted on taking Chris with them. Still keen to build up his skillset, he took every opportunity to get time on a new machine. “It was a different then,” he recalls. “Come smoke-o and lunch, I’d ask if I could have a go on the D10 and D11. Then on Saturdays, I’d jump on the 57 or 37 twin bow scrapers. I was lucky – I learned from some real legends. They taught me how drive multiple bits of gear.”

Chris also developed an eye for an opportunity. “I’d hear the superintendent calling someone up to see if they had any spare dozers, or a Moxy or whatever,” Chris recalls. “I’d come home and say to my dad, ‘We’ve gotta buy dozers and scrapers’ or this and that. By that time, Dad was a bit over it. He didn’t want to go down that path. So, he told me he thought it was about time I had a go on my own.”

To get him started, Ray suggested Chris take over payments on his Caterpillar 320D. “I learned very quickly, it wasn’t as easy as I thought – especially paying for fuel and insurances,” he recalls. “On these big jobs, you don’t get a cent for 90 days back then. I didn’t walk into it with a lot of money, so those first three months were tough. I borrowed cash off one of my cousins – just to cover fuel and that. I ate a lot of baked beans for a while.”

But a few financial setbacks wouldn’t dampen Chris’s ambition to grow his business. By the time that first paycheck came in, he already had his eye on another machine. “I went up to the boss of that job, Darryl Faithful, and asked if he needed another excavator. They did, so I told him I’d buy one. And he goes, ‘You’ve just been complaining to me the last three months.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but now I’m getting paid!’

Buying that second machine, however, was a bit of an ordeal. “I rang up the Caterpillar salesman, Grant Howe – he’s known me since I was a kid,” Chris says. “I asked about this new thing out called a GPS. I also wanted to put a tilt hitch on an excavator – I was sick of putting dirt under one track and trying to get the angle right in the bucket. So, I got Grant to price me up a 324D. Well, he sent his quote through, and it was $411,000.”

A visit to the bank was a reality check. “The bank manager laughed at me,” Chris says. “He said unless I had 20% deposit or three years financials, they couldn’t help me.”

It was Grant Howe who helped make it happen. When Caterpillar Financial held the same line as the bank – 20% deposit or three years financials – Grant went into bat for Chris. “They told us the only other option was hire to buy. And they were reluctant even to do that,” Chris explains. “I got told later, from other Cats people, Grant vouched for me. They finally gave me the go ahead.”

Grant delivered the news, but he knew it was asking a lot of a young person just getting started. “He said, look, you’re not gonna like what I send through, but you can do it,” laughs Chris. “They’d give me the machine with no deposit. I’d make monthly payments for six months and at the end they’d give me 80% of the money back. That would be my deposit to get finance for the machine. So, Grant sends through the agreement – $17,800 a month. I already couldn’t afford to pay for food and diesel, let alone this.”

Chris decided to bring someone in to drive his dad’s old machine. “I employed a bloke who I’d worked with – Jason Higgins,” shares Chris. “First bloke I ever employed and now he’s my business development manager. Been with me 11 years. So, he drove the older excavator and that machine paid his wages and fuel.”

But that still left Chris scrambling to cover the payments on the new 324D. “Luckily, Darryl Faithful gave me good hours,” he says. “He let me work 12 hours a day, almost six days a week. Then I went around Holbrook looking for farm work. I’d work Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays. I had Grant’s words ringing in my ears, warning me not to miss even one payment. And in those six months, I never did.”

At the end of that time, even with a deposit saved, the bank still wouldn’t give Chris a go. It was Richard Lewis from Tracfin those days who ended up financing the machine for him. “Richard knew the story through Grant,” Chris explains. “He stepped in and said he’d get it all sorted for me. And that’s how I got started.”

And so, Robinson Earthmoving was off and running. Chris kept adding to his fleet, buying a road grader and a float – even another new excavator. Of course, Caterpillar gear was always going to be top of his list. “I always said, I’d only have Caterpillar machinery. I had that relationship with Grant Howe and I knew how good the service was,” he says. “My dad taught me to buy a machine with a good reputation and backup service. It took Dad a while to get into a Caterpillar – they were a lot dearer back then than other brands. But once he got there, he never looked back.”

Chris says owning new machines is the only way to go. “Technology takes off really fast in this industry,” he explains. “For the past decade, it seemed something new was introduced every couple of years – GPS, tilt buckets, safety requirements like E-stops and handrails. So, I learned from my dad to always buy brand new. We always get the Premier Warranty – four years and 8,000 hours. Cats have a good resale value too, so, I’m fussy with my gear. And that’s the way I still run my business today.”

These days, Chris has a fleet of close to 80 machines. “I’ve got a bit of everything, from the 299D skid-steer Posi Tracks and 2-ton excavators, through to the mini diggers,” says Chris. “Then we have the 15-ton zero swings and the 323 (the 26 to the 36) right up to the 60-ton excavators. We’ve also got road graders, bulldozers and articulated dump trucks. You need multiples machines these days if you want to stay in the Tier 1 game.”

Owning the latest Caterpillar machines is a differentiator in the market for Robinson Earthmoving. “That’s what I’m known for,” Chris explains. “I’ve always been one of the first in Australia to own each model. Caterpillar have flown me all around the world to the factories, talking to their developers and giving my thoughts on the machines. It’s important in this game. You’ve got to keep up with the times.”
Having started out young, Chris has seen a lot of changes come in. Even something like a quick hitch was a game changer. “When they released the quick hitch in the 90s, Dad was the first one in Victoria to get one,” he recalls. “Before that, changing buckets could take 20 minutes. I remember being eight years old, moving the boom up and down while Dad was out there with a sledgehammer belting the pins out. Now it would take 10 seconds.”
The next thing to come along was the tilting hitches, and later the 360 rotating hitch. “It narrowed the hitch from a 600mm wide to around 350mm, with a 180 tilt,” Chris recalls. “I’d heard about these Doherty hitches. I’d just purchased a new low loader called TRT from New Zealand and they flew me over to have a look at it. Doherty was in the same street as the TRT factory, so I had a look. When I came back, I told my Cat rep I wanted to give them a go. Now I’ve lost count how many Doherty hitches I’ve bought over the years. When they started making buckets, I gave them a go, too. They do a really good bucket – the Powerdig.”

Chris says he’s impressed with Doherty’s innovative approach. “They actually go outside the box with their design,” he says. “With the Powerdig bucket, they lowered the ears for breakout force and put these little bars at the front, so you could carry them more easily. And the guys – any issues or dramas, they always step up and helped you out. The backup service is fantastic.”

In terms of the next big thing, Chris is putting his money on the Nox hitch.
“They’re unbelievable. I first saw them at the Bauma show in Germany,” he says. “Geez, it’s compact. Not only does it go 180 up and down, but it spins right around. I didn’t even know how much it was, but I said, ‘I want one. When can I have one?’ It took a year or so but we got the first one in Australia. We’ve put it on a 315 Next Gen excavator. The operators love it. It’d be hard to get them back into a normal tilting hitch after having a full rotating head hitch.”

In terms of GPS, Chris rates the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform. “The Caterpillar machines come with what they call a 3d grade control. That’s the latest and greatest,” he explains. “Obviously, owning Cat products, you have no choice. But I’ve had a really good run with them.”

Of course, GPS changed everything on a work site. “Before Trimble, it was a set of plans and there’d be pegs everywhere,” Chris laughs. “That made your job a little bit more difficult. And a lot of people used to knock the pegs out – that would cost you a slab of beer. That said, it was good back then. You learned a lot more about surveying and plans. Now they just plug a USB into the machine and off we go. But taking the surveyors off the sites definitely helped with the safety side of it.”

Having spent most of his life on a worksite, Chris understands the value of employing operators from a mix of age groups. “I’m lucky to still have an older generation of operators working for me,” he says. “They know all the old ways back to front. The younger ones wouldn’t know what a peg or a batterboard was. They rely solely on GPS. That can be a problem if the GPS drops out. These young operators, they just stop, too. And you’ll say to them, ‘OK, eye it in’. But they have trouble doing that. So, I mix them up – I put the young fellows with the old fellows and they teach each other things. The older generation won’t be around forever.”

Speaking of the future for operators, Chris has seen what driverless set ups will look like and he’s excited by the possibilities it will bring to the industry.
“Six years ago, I was in Vegas with Cat and they had a 10×4 trailer with a simulator in it,” Chris recalls. “On the screen there was a picture of a D8 bulldozer. They told me the machine was in Peoria, 200 or 300 miles away. Amazing. I want to buy a brand new D8 Bulldozer. At the moment it’s an extra hundred grand for remote control. But yeah, you can drive that without anyone sitting in it.”

Chris says the biggest impacts we’ll see with autonomous machines will be on lifestyle. “Honestly, it will be a good thing in my industry. All the moving around can be very hard. It’s OK for the young fellows, but it’s hard for families with kids. You see a lot of divorce.”

In the future, ‘job sites’ will certainly look a bit different. “Basically, it will be a shed with a smoke-o area and a pre-start room,” Chris explains. “Say you’re based in Coff’s Harbour, like me. All your operators will rock up at 6.30am, do a pre-start and be told ‘OK, Chris – you’re in room 14 today, driving a D11 in Darwin. Josh – you’re in room 16 driving a road grader in Perth’. It’ll make it easier to find good operators. You can offer a job to a guy in Coffs Harbor with kids in school and a new home just built – he could stay here for 20 years.” It will be all simulaters.

The move up north happened almost by accident – another example of Chris chasing down a good opportunity. “I was finishing up a job in Holbrook,” he recalls. “Guys were talking about a big job coming up in Coff’s Harbour, duplicating the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane. We’ve been here 10 years now, doing all the bypasses in Grafton, Ballina and Woodburn. That’s kept us quite busy.”
Chris certainly isn’t in any rush to leave the region. “Of all the places I’ve worked, it’s one of the best. Fantastic climate. And you’ve got the best of both worlds – the ocean and some beautiful spots for camping inland. It’s great for business, too. As time has gone on, I’ve built another business, ‘Robinson Heavy Haulage. I’m working for big clients like John Holland in Newcastle and Crestmead, and it’s only a short drive on a brand new freeway. So, Coff’s has turned out to be a really good depot for me to be based in.”

Running two businesses with a large number of machines, an in-house servicing capability makes the most sense. Chris learned the hard way that you can’t do it all yourself. “For a long time, I did all my own services – after work or on a smoke-o. But once I got up to 10, 15 machines, doing all the driving, servicing, and fueling myself – not to mention the paperwork – I was working 20-hour days, seven days a week. Dad pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to burn yourself out. You’ve got to take the next step. Start employing office staff, fitters and float drivers’. I couldn’t keep doing it by myself. Not if I wanted to keep growing. So that’s what I did.”

Today, Chris has a full staff of truck drivers, serviceman, truck mechanics, fitters and auto electricians, just to name a few. “So, we do all our own servicing. But, like I said, most of our gear is under warranty,” he says. “In fact, sometimes Caterpillar know about an issue before we do – it’s all linked to their system. We’ll get a phone call from their product support manager saying, ‘We’ve just had an error code come up on CJR 67 working at Maroochydore. Would you like us to send a fitter out?’ But for things not under warranty, we use our own blokes.”

Keeping things running, Chris says, all comes down to having the best suppliers. “You find yourself forming these different relationships with big companies to run your business. And you rely on them heavily,” he says. “We’ve got jobs going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We want the best service and the best product. Because the biggest expense is downtime. If you can minimise that – well, that’s definitely a key decision in business. Making sure we’re involved with the right companies is a job I still personally manage.”

Whether it’s Tony from Wear Parts Australia, or the guys at WesTrac, it’s the customer service that Chris says sets a business apart. “Tony from WPA – he’s fantastic. There have been times where we’ve worn out ripper boots on a dozer or a cutting edge on an excavator. We’ve rung Tony and he’s put a set of boots in his Ute and driven them down to us himself,” Chris says. “And our sales rep, Morgan at WesTrac, he’s not just about selling you a machine. If you’ve got any problems, he’ll do his best to help you out.”

With all the new technology on the machines, product support has also become very important. “Our guy is Jim Hewitt at WesTrac’s Grafton Branch. These days, if the machine goes down, it’s not because of the motor, it’s because of a sensor. So, that’s Jim’s job and he’s right to it.”

The ability to push bigger problems up the line is also essential. “It’s just that confidence,” Chris explains. “In a sticky situation, if our guy has spoken to Morgan or Jim and we still can’t get to the answer we need, we can go up the ranks to Jeff Dix or even Alister Cant. They’ll get it sorted for us. Bottom line: you can’t afford to be sitting around. And that’s why we own Caterpillar.”

He may be the big boss these days, but Chris is still very hands-on in the business. “Even though I’ve got people that help me run it all, I’ve got a lot to do with the heavy haulage side of it,” he explains. “I’m in one of my trucks myself, working seven days a week, going up and down the highway. And then, obviously, I’m on the phone a lot all day.”

Any downtime Chris has is spent with his partner, Tara Lee, and their 8-month-old daughter, Stella Rose. “That gives me something else to do on a Sunday, other than washing trucks and machinery,” he laughs. Stella looks set to follow her parents into the business. “I had her sit on my lap in an excavator – she took hold of the walk and levers. Someone took a photo and, when Mum and Dad saw it, they sent back a photo of me doing the same thing at the exact same age. Identical.”

Tara Lee works in the business as the office manager, which means they get to spend a lot of time together. “That’s really good, because I’m always working,” Chris explains. “My father and my grandfather brought me up saying there’s seven days in a week and 24-hours in a day. You have to make things happen. That’s where I’m lucky to have good people around me who believe in that. That’s one of the main things that keeps me going.”

The young family now live on a farm just outside of Coff’s Harbour, in Bonville. “We’re starting to play around a bit with cattle, so that’ll become a bit of a hobby,” Chris shares. “I can see myself pretty much staying around the mid-north coast. I love it here. It’s a good place to live and bring up kids. And, as far as work goes, I don’t think you’d find a better hub.”

Looking to the future, Chris says it’s increasingly difficult to build and run a business like his. “The industry is changing a lot. And, between all the safety regulations and the paperwork, it’s very hard to work on these jobs,” he explains. “But that might change once those driverless machines come in.”

Chris got to where he is through hard work, persistence and building a reputation for doing great work. So, to sum up, what would he tell someone hoping to get into the business?

“It’s definitely a challenge. You’ve got be able to buy the machines to start with,” Chris says. “But, even if you’re lucky enough to get a machine handed to you, you’ve got to be good at what you do to get the work. You can’t just rock up at a major freeway job and say, ‘Hey, my name’s Joe Blow and I’ve got an excavator’. In our industry, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It all comes down to hard work and that good reputation.”

But Chris reckons there are still opportunities for those who don’t mind putting in the hard yards. “It’s definitely doable. Like I always say, there’s no such thing as ‘can’t’. I don’t believe in that word. Whether you’re young or old, if you want to get into this industry, if you’re prepared make sacrifices and give things a go – well, you’re going to make it.”




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

To Read the Magazine in HD

Follow on Most Popular social community and receive NEW posts in your social line every day!