A lot has changed for Shaw Contracting since James Alan Hope Shaw started operating the business out of the tiny rural town of Whitemore, Tasmania, some 80 years ago.
Shaw’s Asset Manager, Jason Spotswood, shares that the company started off providing agricultural services. “I guess you’d say dam building, infrastructure and a lot of land clearing. The machines would have been different back then. Generally, some old dozers are what the business started with.”
The business remained family owned and ran right up until 2013. “There was no one to take over,” Jason explains, “so the management team pulled together to make a consortium and buy the owners out”.
Shaw Contracting is now owned by around 12 private shareholders. “Most do work in the company,” says Jason. “There is an option for employees to buy into the business. Once a year we hold a ‘market day’, where employees – if they meet a certain criteria – are able to become a shareholder in the company.”
Jason joined the Shaw team 5 years ago, having come to the earthmoving business via the mining industry. “I grew up in Tasmania and completed a mechanic apprenticeship when I left school,” Jason shares. “Then I went mining up in Queensland. I spent quite a bit of time up there and did my degree at CQUniversity.”
After working as a maintenance superintendent for several mining companies in various locations around Australia, Jason found himself yearning for Tasmania’s familiar shores. “I wanted my family to grow up in the environment that I did. So, we moved back and I spent five years commuting out of Tassie to New Zealand etc.,” Jason recalls.
Eventually, the constant travelling became a strain. “The job at Shaw Contracting, as Asset Manager, came up at just the right time,” Jason shares. “I was looking to reduce the travel and spend more time with my family, so it was a great opportunity to do that.”
Jason’s role with Shaw is to coordinate and maintain all the business’ assets from ‘the cradle to the grave’.
“That can be anything from a pen to a million-dollar excavator,” Jason laughs. “So I basically forecast what assets are required in the business, do my research, complete capital expenditure requests, present an argument and a CapEx to a board for approval, then go out and acquire that item. It’s then my job to maintain that item through a predetermined lifecycle and ultimately work out the best disposal option.”
He’s certainly the man to talk to if you want to know any detail about Shaw’s fleet of machines. “We place our machines in different categories: obviously, there's our heavy plant, then there's light vehicles and there's our smaller plant,” Jason explains. “We've got about 600 assets in total now – that’s up from about 450 when I arrived. But as far as larger assets are concerned, we've got about 70 bits of earthmoving plant - everything from a 5 tonne excavator to a 100 tonne excavator, trucks and dozers and everything in between.”
Jason puts this substantial growth down to a shift in focus throughout Tasmania’s earthmoving industry. “The business itself used to do a lot of major earthmoving projects. But the climate in Tasmania has changed from using large trucks, excavators and dozers to doing smaller infrastructure projects. That means they consume more, but with smaller plants,” Jason explains. “To meet that market, we've consciously decided to offload low utilised or larger assets and invest in ones that support what we see as the future of the construction industry; smaller plant, but a lot more work in that field.”
Charged with the responsibility of selecting machines that were a good fit for Shaw’s fleet, Jason eventually found what he was looking for in the Kobelco range.
“From researching in the industry and then looking around to see what people use, we dived in and bought a 5 tonne Kobelco. Soon after that we added an 8 tonne,” Jason recalls.
It quickly became apparent that Shaw was onto a good thing with the brand. “The feedback from the team was that they were a great machine to operate,” Jason says. “I could also tell, from the data I was getting back out of the machines, that the fuel burn and running costs were quite low.”
Jason firmly believes that Kobelco are industry leaders in their market. “They build a great product. I've been fortunate enough to go to Japan and do a factory tour. I was very impressed with the methods they use to build their equipment and with their R&D team – with the technology that they're researching and putting into their plant.”
Something Jason feels really sets the brand apart is their willingness to listen to their customers. “If you've got feedback, you can make a phone call to your dealer and get that feedback all the way back to Japan,” he says. “So, they're still a small enough company to have a personalised service, even at that factory level. That’s really hard to get with some of the bigger dealers. I could order a Kobelco from Japan and have it painted any colour I wanted from the factory floor, which wouldn't be as easy with any other OEM.”
Customer service was also a major factor in Jason’s decision to stick with Kobelco going forward. “You get great support from the Kobelco dealers, especially here in Tasmania. DLM Machinery, their after sales service is outstanding. That encouraged me to take on more of their plant,” Jason explains. “So, I bought a 13 tonne machine - well actually I bought three at once. And it just grew from there. We’ve gone from owning zero to nine Kobelco machines in the last five years.”
As Asset Manager, Jason has purchasing down to a fine art. “I don't buy my machines based on the price on the invoice. I break down a machine into what it costs me to own per hour,” Jason explains. “I take into consideration the hourly maintenance costs, hourly fuel burn and then its disposal value.
Kobelco maintains a high second-hand sell price. I add all those factors together and divide it by the number of hours that I'm going to own the machine for and it spits out a number at the other end. That's generally how I buy a machine.”
Jason then creates an asset management plan for every asset class Shaw owns. “Generally, the larger the excavator, the more hours I keep it. Anything under 13 tonne, I would dispose at 6,000 hours. Up to 30 tonne, I dispose at 8,000 hours. And 30-50 tonne I dispose at 10,000 hours.”
There’s solid reasoning behind his plan to move machines on at lower than average hours. “I don't have breakdowns. I basically only own the machine whilst it's under warranty. That means that outside of PM maintenance costs, I don't have to budget in any other lifecycle costs for maintenance,” Jason says.
In addition to the lack of downtime, the machines in Shaw’s fleet are a dream to drive. And with over one hundred permanent operators, and up to 30 subcontractors to keep happy, that’s no small thing. “Everyone I've put in a Kobelco – I don't think they'll get into anything else now,” laughs Jason.
Prior to buying a large batch of 13 tonne machines, Jason took one of his operators to put one through its paces. “Yeah, I took one of the operators to DLM's yard to sit in a 13 tonne Kobelco and operate it, because that was the final tick box for that decision,” Jason explains. “No matter how cheap it is for me to run per hour and how little fuel it burns, it's no good if the operator doesn't want to sit in it.”
And how did it go? “He was ecstatic about how comfortable the machine was,” Jason laughs. “How quiet it was and smooth it was to operate. That was the tick of approval I needed.”
The Kobelcos hold up, Jason feels – even after a fair bit of run-time.
“My operators’ comfort levels don't reduce. They don't get cab leaks. They don't get noisy. The seats don't wear out. They don't get rough in the undercarriage. They don't get a lot of slop in any pins or bushes. And – because we run GPS on all our machines – they still trim within millimetres.”
Speaking of GPS, Shaw runs Topcon systems on all their machines. Jason says that makes all the difference on site, in terms of both performance and safety.
“You put a profile for an entire job into a machine. And every time the operator jumps in each morning, he knows exactly what depth he's got to dig to, or what batter angle he has to follow,” Jason explains. “It also takes away the need for two guys to dig to a profile. That promotes safety, because you don't have someone standing out in the middle of a work zone.”
While GPS isn't new, Jason reckons it’s still evolving. “The future for GPS is bright and very exciting,” says Jason. “We're also running drones in our business now – they can do pickups and take overlays and automatically send different profiles and files to the machines on the fly. Very exciting stuff.”
While Shaw is just a couple of years into working with drones, Jason reports they’re already having a big impact. “Normally you’d have to walk out and spend a week on a job doing pick up points – to see how much material was moved and what steps we're at etc.,” Jason explains. “Now we can fly a draft drone over and grab 3000 pickup points in half an hour. So, we can get very accurate measurements of where we are on a job within minutes, rather than days or weeks. That's where the drone has really excelled for us.”
Jason rates the Topcon system for ease of use. “It’s really user-friendly and it talks to the other systems very well,” he says. “They’re investing a lot of money in their technology. Like I say, with the drones etc, Topcon just seems to align with what we do as a business very well.”
Maintenance-wise, Shaw handles that mostly in house. “I do have an in-house maintenance team, but it will depend on their workload and also the geographical location of where they are located, compared to the machine at the time,” Jason explains. “Sometimes it can be cheaper and more convenient to use the OEM if my guys have to travel extensive distances. So, it ends up a mixture of both OEM and in-house maintenance.”
Part availability is another factor that has left Jason impressed with his local Kobelco dealer. “DLM, in Tassie, has to be one of the best dealers to support their product after the point of sale, anywhere in the country,” Jason says. “Their ability to supply parts is second to none; they've got a great inventory. They mainly deal in excavators and have a lot of their parts across the range – so they don't need to have parts on the shelf for dozers, trucks, graders and rollers.”
Jason’s main contact at DLM is the owner, David Morrison. “I've got a direct line to Dave. I can pick up the phone and it rings once or twice and he answers. So, yeah – I've got a pretty good relationship with him.”
Despite being the second longest running Kobelco dealer in Australia, David initially had no intention of going down that path. “I didn't walk into that meeting to come out with the dealership. I just wanted guaranteed spare parts for the machine I’d just bought,” David laughs. “But they said Tassie was a bit of a basket case at that point in time and they needed to do something down there. They ended up asking me if I was interested and I just hought, ‘yeah, I'll have a crack’.”
DLM first started dealing with Shaw Contracting in 2006. “It's been good to grow with them this time. We didn't get as much of a chance before the takeover, but we're getting a fair share of the fire this time,” David says. “All we're doing is offering a good service and putting out a reliable machine. That's what we've built our business on.”
Jason enjoys working with David, due to his straight up approach. “Dave calls a spade, a spade – there's no grey areas with him and I appreciate that. We both know where one another stands. If I've got a problem, he'll know about it. And if I've got a problem, he will fix it.”
As the sole state distributor for Kobelco, something David feels is special about their machines is the tracking system. “They developed the system to enable not only Kobelco Japan, but the Kobelco dealer group to keep an eye on each machine,” he explains. “So, if there is an electronic problem with a machine, we’ll probably know before the customer does. And Kobelco will know it even before we do.”
The system also has benefits to the machine owner. “It gives them a chance to track and trace what the machine does – fuel usage, how much it’s travelling – nearly anything it does,” David says.
“But it's all done electronically, through the electric sensors, pressure sensors and the computer and so forth. You can measure all that from your office – no need to go out to the machine.”
It also serves as a security tracking device. “If the machine happened to get stolen, then it can be picked up from where it is. You can even tell if the fuel gets taken out of it. Overall, it's a very handy system,” David explains.
One of the newest additions to the Shaw Contracting fleet has been the Kobelco SK135SR-7. In fact, they were one of the first in the country to own one.
“I was in the market for a new excavator and I was just about to sign up for a dash five, when Dave said they were about to release a new dash seven,” says Jason. “It was slightly dearer and the wait was a little bit longer than what I wanted, but I asked ‘is it the first one in the country?’ and Dave said, yes it was. And I said, ‘well, if it's the first one in the country, you better put my name on it. Because I want to have the first dash seven - and I'll want to make the Kobelco magazine.’ So, yeah, we got the first dash seven in the country. We've had it three months now and we're still really excited and happy to have it.”
Jason reckons you couldn’t mistake the dash seven for any other Kobelco machine.
“Cosmetically it’s very different. It looks a lot more futuristic than the dash fives,” Jason says. “I don’t think they’d changed their shape in around 13 years. So, where you could mistake the 2007 for a 2017 model, there’s no doubt this is a 2020 model.”
In addition to the unique look, Jason says Kobelco’s really upped their game, overall. “As far as creature comforts are concerned in the cab, they've got a beautiful layout, with a large, really easy to read operator's screen,” Jason says. “They've also got 360-degree cameras. So, there's a bird’s-eye view camera now, rather than just one back up camera – you can see out of every side of the machine. That’s improved the safety.”
Jason has been surprised by the added efficiency. “I didn't think it'd be possible to say that. As far as I'm concerned, Kobelco’s a class leader when it comes to fuel burn. But they've managed to reduce it again,” he says. “And the way we look at it, for every litre less a machine burns per hour, that's a dollar in our pocket. So yeah, we’re very happy with that.”
Shaw has quite a few jobs on the go lately – Jason says they do ‘a bit of everything’.
“We do work for TasWater; a lot of stormwater upgrades and pumping stations – that type of thing. We’re also doing some state growth Highway 1 work at the moment,” Jason says.
“We're also doing a tailings dam for Blue Stone Minerals and are working on some projects for TasRail.”
The Shaw team, Jason says, aren’t scared to have a go at something new. “We like to challenge ourselves and we've got a really good team of young engineers – we like to give them the opportunity to develop their skills,” he explains. “So, if we can, we like to find a job that someone else isn't game to have a go at and put a bit of ingenuity into it – do something even better than the initial design. We work with our clients to find a better solution to the problem.”
In terms of the future for Shaw Contracting, it seems the growth they’ve seen over the past five years is just the beginning. “Tasmania is a beautiful place. It's a safe place. We're a very self-sufficient, sustainable island,” Jason says. “There's word that Tasmania will potentially be the battery for Australia in the future. So, we see a lot of potential with natural energy – whether that be wind, water or solar.”
No surprise then, that Tasmania is gaining a reputation as a desirable place to live. “I do, in general, think there'll be investment in Tasmania, due to it being a bit of a safe haven and a great place for people to be,” Jason shares. “I think we'll see significant population growth. And with that, you're going to have to grow the infrastructure. So, I do see a bright future for the state.”
Jason certainly has no plans to leave Tassie anytime soon. “We've got some beautiful acreage down the river and we're very comfortable. I'll encourage my children to leave, because I don't think you appreciate the place until you’ve been away,” Jason says. “I’ll encourage them to go pursue their dreams. My daughter, Nina – she’s 14 – she wants to be a professional singer and our 10-year-old, Gene, he wants to be a professional soccer player. But I've no doubt, like myself and my wife, they'll return one day.”
It’s the natural beauty that Jason feels sets Tasmania apart. “The things we appreciate are how close you are to a mountain or a bushwalk or a deserted white sandy beach,” Jason shares. “It’s also the environment; you can actually taste how clean and healthy the air is. When you go elsewhere and then you come back, you feel like you're automatically that much healthier just by being here.”
Sounds like paradise.