Athassel Civil

Athassel Civil and Kobelco: quality you can rely on

Athassel Civil’s unusual name hails from owner, Padraig Morrissey’s, homeland. “It’s my address back in in Ireland,” he explains. “Athassel Abbey, an 11th century monastery. I lived about half a mile from there.”

Born and raised on the banks of the River Suir, in coming to Australia, you could say Padraig took the scenic route. “I moved to London when I was 18 and worked there for about six years in civil,” he says. “I left school in the mid-1980s when Ireland was in a severe recession. Lots of us were moving abroad. Mostly to London.”

Padraig had family there, making the move a little easier. “I had a brother living in London, working in civil,” he explains. “London was in recession, too. But there was still work. So, I drove diggers and laid pipes for those six years.”

If there’s two things that always seem to go together here in Australia, it’s the Irish and pipe laying. “Historically, back in England, there were a lot of Irish people doing all the pipe and cable work,” Padraig shares. “So, as people came here, they started their own businesses. Then more young guys came over and worked for them before starting their own thing. So, it’s a bit of a cycle.”

Indeed, when Padraig made the move to Australia, there were a few familiar faces to greet him. “Two of my mates had moved to Sydney,” he recalls. “I’d chat to them every now and again, over the phone. And I thought why not try something different? So myself and another mate of mine came to Sydney in 1990.”

After a few years working in other people’s businesses, Padraig decided it was time to strike out on his own. “We started Athassel Civil in 1993,” he says. “And the first machine I bought was a Kobelco 909. A 24-ton excavator.”

Padraig had enjoyed operating the machines on other jobs. “I operated for Tom Ford, who’s still in business,” he says. “With him, I ended up operating lots of Kobelcos and thought they were fantastic. So, when I started out on my own, I bought a four-year-old Kobelco. I still have it.”

Like most businesses, things started off small. “I bought that first machine and did a job for Emerald Civil in Tumut, in the Snowy Mountains,” Padraig explains. “Then I won the contract doing a small stormwater job for the local council. When I came back to Sydney, the infrastructure in Homebush for the Olympics had kicked off. So, I had that first Kobelco machine there on hire. Then I bought a backhoe and started subcontracting in Homebush. And we just went on from there.”

As the business grew, so did the fleet. “Once we got going in stormwater, we hired a couple of machines,” Padraig says. “After that, we bought a new 20-ton Kobelco and a secondhand Komatsu. And we just got busier and busier. These days, we have around 16 excavators, a few backhoes, some bobcats and dump trucks, vac trucks and tippers.”

Of course, the team expanded as well. “I had quite a few buddies that came to work with me. And, of course, my brother, Ollie,” Padraig says. “We’d be busy and then things might flatten off for a bit. Then you’d get busy again. So, it’s probably gone up and down a bit. Mainly up, over time.”

Ollie Morrissey has been in the business for the past 12 years. “He was in America for a while – he’d come back and forth,” Padraig says. “But anytime he was here, he’d be working with us.”

Athassel Civil is, of course, a family business, with Padraig’s wife, Jo, working in it full-time since 2001. “She was a maths teacher, so she’s good with numbers,” Padraig laughs. “She takes care of the paperwork and payroll, along with offering that moral support. I couldn’t do it without her.”

Now their three sons have also joined the Athassel team. “Our three young fellows are working with us,” Padraig says. “Two of them are in university – one’s studying construction management and the other is doing civil engineering. Our third son is still deciding what he’s going to do.”

“We have a very experienced team based in Ingleburn including engineers, foreman, pipelayers and operators, some of whom have been with us nearly 20 years.”

Looking around the yard at Ingleburn, where the business is located, you see nothing but top tier gear. “We mostly buy new. You want to get a certain number of hours out of them,” Padraig says. “And we tend to keep to the top brands, just for the reliability. That’s the main thing for us.”

It’s a great testament to the machines that the original Kobelco is still earning its keep. “Yep, it’s still in the yard,” says Padraig. “We use it to lift gear and load gear. It doesn’t go out to work. But it’s a 32-year-old machine and it’s still operational. It’s had minimal work done in that time. You have to hand it to Kobelco, they make a good quality product.”

80% of the work Athassel Civil does is constructing Sydney Water assets, so Padraig’s fleet are doing a lot of trenching, lifting and laying pipes. “If you imagine Sydney Water mains, it’s all part of the grid,” he explains. “If you take out a block of 10 or 20 houses, the water mains have to be re-diverted and reconnected. So, we’ve been doing quite a bit of that kind of work.”

Like most business owners, downtime is Athassel’s biggest cost, so reliability of the machines is key. “They’re the most important things, reliability and backup,” Padraig says. “Which also means having parts readily available if you do need them. When you go for the top brands, you don’t often need parts. But, if you do, you can get them, as opposed to being told that it’s coming from wherever in six weeks’ time.”

Padraig has gone for the long carriage on his machines, to support the lifting work they do. “We’ve just recently finished a job where we were lifting up to six-ton pipes,” he says. “We had to get three excavators fitted with crane lifting systems and the automatic shutoff on the machines, so we can do it safely.”

Apart from pipes, they’re also lifting shoring boxes. “That’s a lot of the heavy lifting we do,” Padraig says. “When you’re digging down five or six meters, everything gets big and heavy. So, putting shoring in and out is some of the heaviest work going.”

In fact, the business has its own shoring gear. “It’s probably a competitive advantage, having your own,” Padraig says. “Although, we do hire sometimes. Coates are just around the corner from our yard. And Sydney Truck and Machinery, our local dealer for Kobelco, they’re down the road in Smeaton Grange. So, that’s also an advantage.”

All in, Padraig’s final count shows he’s got 40 pieces of equipment on the books. “There’d be 20 machines including the trucks,” he says. “Then there’s compaction gear and rollers, buckets and different bits and pieces.”

In terms of attachments, rock breakers and hammers are the main ones Padraig needs on hand. “Yeah, rock breakers, twin headers, rock saws. And we have MISU buckets there for screening material,” he says. “That’s probably about it, really, because for us it’s mostly about trenching.”

The business runs mostly with buckets supplied by BBB and Tiger. “They have a huge selection,” Padraig says. “We like dealing with the reps there because at the drop of a hat, they always have what you need.”

All Athassel’s rock breakers and hammers are Rammer. “We deal with Wolfgang over at GroundTec – probably 20 years now,” Padraig says. “Again, it’s all about reliability and good service.

Padraig rates Rammer for their longevity. “They’ve always had a good reputation,” he shares. “You’re getting what you pay for. We have one that’s 16 years old. It’s had some work on it, but the main part of the hammer is still perfect. That quality is important when you use them regularly.”

Visit the Athassel Civil yard and you’ll see Padraig has some unusual hammers to hand. “We’ve put swinging heads on a few of them,” he shares. “You can angle the hammer down to keep a straight trench. I first saw those when I came to Australia; I was working for Fergus Style from CLM.”

Padraig’s in-house team fabricated his own collection. ‘Yeah, our own guys made those,” he says. “They can swing about 30 degrees left or right and you just move the hammer over to whatever side. That allows you to hammer a neater, narrower trench. But you do need to have an experienced operator on the digger.”

And for saws? “We tend to rent our saws,” Padraig explains. “We do have a two-and-a-half meter saw we’ve had for years. And then sometimes we rent from Wolfgang or Australian Hammer Supplies. If we need something for a short period, either GroundTec or Aussie Hammers will sort us out.”

For Padraig, having the top tier gear – especially the Kobelcos – is simply a smart business decision. “That reliability is what helps your bottom line,” Padraig says. “Even though we don’t put big hours on our machines every year, eventually we get them up to around 9 or 10,000 hours. And even then, the machines are still reliable. For the work we do, even if you can’t have all new gear, you need reliable gear.”

Their most recent purchase was an SK380SR. Padraig says they needed a short radius machine with high stability. The SK380SR has the lifting capacity of a 38 tonner which is perfect for the work the machines are doing on a daily basis. The SK380SR is ideally suited to heavy civil work in built-up metro areas as it has only 500mm of tail-swing, so can easily work on tight jobsites. With its 38 tonne weight it’s fantastic for lifting big pipes and moving a lot of material quickly.

Another reason Padraig recommends Kobelco is the usability of the machines.

“Kobelco’s aren’t over complicated,” he says. “Never have been. They’re just reliable and cost effective for what you’re paying for them. You’re getting a top product for a very competitive price.”

Padraig, Athassel Civil
Kobelco Customer Athassel Civil In Front Of Machine

And Padraig should know – he’s been operating Kobelcos long before they were well-known. “I was buying them when they weren’t that popular,” he says. “In fact, with the first new machine, there wasn’t even a dealer in Sydney. I was just at the machine show one day and met the dealer – they were up from Melbourne. And they were talking about putting a branch in Sydney. The price he dangled in front of me was too good to refuse. Then, once they put the dealership in Sydney, everything took off for them.”

Athassel’s in-house team takes care of most maintenance. “We have two guys in the yard,” Padraig explains. “A mobile mechanic who’ll also go out on a site servicing gear. And another man who’s been with us for years – he’s out in the yard all the time, doing a lot of welding work. But we do go to Sydney Truck and Machinery for the servicing of the newer machines.”

Padraig says STM Trucks & Machinery have been great to work with. “Adrian Martinello and Sam – he’s in the service department – they’re very good to deal with,” he says. “Always helpful. And they provide good backup service. Even if it’s just that something comes up on the computer and you’re not sure, you can just ring them up. And, if you need them to come out for an issue on site, you won’t be left waiting. They’re there pretty much on the day you ring them.”

Maybe it’s a case of clever forward-planning, but Kobelco owners seem to have escaped from recent part supply issues largely unscathed. “Kobelco have a big central parts warehouse in Sydney, from what I hear,” Padraig says. “And STM also have a very impressive setup in Smeaton Grange. A fine, big shed with a huge amount of gear.”

If you’ve been reading Australian Earthmoving for a while, you’ll know Kobelco is synonymous with fuel economy. “Yeah, they’re really good on fuel,” Padraig says. “That’s probably not as important for us as it might be for people putting in 2000 hours a year. But with the price of fuel like it is, it’s becoming more important. Fortunately, Kobelcos are super efficient.”

Athassel Civil is certainly keeping busy. “We’re on a road-widening job in Mona Vale, moving sewer water mains, stormwater and some of the gas and Telstra conduit,” Padraig says. “We’re also doing some GPT work for North Sydney Council and the Sydney Metro precasting yard out in Erskine Park. And we’ve also recently laid 5km of large water mains on the Prospect South to Macarthur Pipeline project with Sydney Water.”

Getting that work mainly comes down to their reputation for delivering an excellent service. “Most of the time it’s return business from tier one and tier two contractors we’ve dealt with,” Padraig says. “And we’re constantly tendering for council jobs. But a lot of it is just a phone call from somebody who knows us from previous projects. We always try to do the best job we can. That’s how you get repeat business.”

Indeed, that’s Padraig’s advice for anyone hoping to go into business for themselves. “The first thing you have to do is get some experience – anywhere you can,” he says. “Then it’s just working hard. When you start off, you have to put in a lot of hours. Actually, I still put in a lot of hours.”

When he’s not at work, for his sins Padraig follows the Swans and rides motorbikes. “It’s funny, I live near the beach but I’m not a big beach person,” he says. “I just like spending time with the family, and I’ll go for a few beers with my friends every now and again.”

And what about the future for Athassel Civil? “If the boys are interested, hopefully we’ll keep growing,” Padraig says. “We have a good-sized yard, an acre in Ingleburn that we own. It’s all set up with a proper workshop. So, it’s there for them to push on with.”

Well, they’ll certainly have the luck of the Irish behind them.

Written by: Australian Earthmoving Magazine

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