Colm Phibbs, a 22 year-old second generation excavation operator from Dublin in Ireland, couldn’t believe what he saw when he took on his first holiday job in Sydney. Digging into solid rock, gave Colm an idea.
Colm and his dad, Seamus, mined mud – the grey-brown Irish soil which grows great potatoes but causes builders in Dublin to rely on brought in aggregate and concrete to form the solid foundations of the city’s growth.
“Here I was in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, digging out and breaking up rock which we could sell at a huge premium back home,” he said.
Colm and his partner Noelle Keogh had planned to stay a month.
Fourteen years later their business CONO Services (for COlm and NOelle) owns $13million of plant and equipment and is regarded as Sydney’s – and perhaps soon to be Australia’s – pre-eminent expert in rock excavation.
Every excavator in their fleet is ultra-short tailed, without a traditional counterweight rear end, built to work with great accuracy in confined spaces like the tunnels which have become a major part of the infrastructure development of Sydney.
And most of their operators – many of them Irish – are well trained to get the most from the specialist machines, requiring a level of skill and finesse different to that of conventional work.
“I shouldn’t say this, but once you know how, they’re easier to drive than a counterweight machine because you don’t have a rear end to worry about,” Colm said.
Colm spent six years learning his rock breaking and saw cutting craft with some of Sydney’s biggest civil contractors before he bought his own machine – a second-hand Komatsu PC 130, with $10,000 he and Noelle had saved and $80,000 borrowed from a financier prepared to take a risk on him.
“I bought it on a Friday and went on a job on Monday and made $20,000 in the first month,” he said.
His latest acquisition, a purpose-built Komatsu PC228USLC-11 BLADE, has become the twelfth from Komatsu in his fleet and forms the basis of a specialist offering he intends taking to the market as he expands beyond New South Wales.
The key is the Dash 11’s Tier 4 low emission engine which delivers a reduction in NOx and particulate matter of up to 90 percent compared to an equivalent Tier 3 configuration, and which is part of many underground contractual requirements.
The additional advantage to the operator is an increase in power with up to eleven percent better fuel economy.
Colm specified his new machine with a blade and bucket combination capable of delivering millimeter precision in the hands of one of his skilled operators.
The blade can become a defacto counterweight, helping to stabilize and level off the machine.
Colm has been deliberate in his choice of business partners and development of oper-ational procedures- some of them born from his experience in Ireland.
“Working underground is like going into the mines,” he said.
“You know you’re risking getting your machines wrecked and you have to take serious precautions to ensure you get maximum value from them.”
Maintenance requirements are better than 30 per cent greater than working above ground and special application of rust proofing is essential.
“I rely very much on Komtrax (Komatsu’s satellite-telemetry which provides around the clock monitoring of essential machine service and operational procedures), to make sure that we’re getting the best from the equipment,” he said.
CONO Service’s growth plans depend on partnership with major suppliers, both for reliability of operation and for the economies on offer.
The company’s in-house maintenance team is increasingly working side-by-side with Komatsu, taking advantage of Komatsu’s 2000-hour free service and maintenance schedule.
The relationship is part of Colm and Noelle’s serious intent to become not only one of the best, but one of the biggest, operators in their field.
His broad Irish brogue, delivered with good humour and bit of blarney, may disguise it to a degree, but Colm has ‘a fire burning’ to succeed.
And he and Noelle are here for the long haul. They’ve just moved into their dream home in Sydney’s south east, with their daughter Darby Rose and twin sons Devin and Rogan.
The home is built on good Sydney coastal rock.