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Operating on another level

Aerial view of the Cat Global Operator Challenge

Patrick Doheny and Nick Thompson reflect on the Cat® Global Operator Challenge at CONEXPO/CON-AGG in March, and the journey that led up to the big dance.

As one of the world’s premier locations for disconnecting with reality and living life by the seat of your pants, Las Vegas is never short on excitement.

 Patrick Doheny with the Global Operator Challenge trophy, Cameron Balzat of Caterpillar, and Nick Thompson
(L-R) Patrick Doheny, Cameron Balzat of Caterpillar, Nick Thompson.

But every three years, a very specific kind of excitement descends on the sparkling desert city, as earthmoving and construction enthusiasts from around the world gather for North America’s largest construction machinery event, CONEXPO/CON-AGG.

This past March, the 2023 event spread its wide range of equipment out across a massive 64 acres, as manufacturers showed off the latest and greatest gear.

But nowhere was the atmosphere more electric than at the huge arena purpose built for the Cat® Global Operator Challenge, where onlookers were treated to a demonstration of the very best heavy machinery operators the world has to offer.

The best in the business

The prestigious Cat Global Operator Challenge is a competition that tests the skills of operators on a range of Cat equipment. The competition featured finalists from around the world, who had qualified through regional and semi-final competitions.

The final featured the world’s nine best operators, who competed in a series of challenges designed to test their knowledge and skills across three machines: an excavator, a wheel loader, and a backhoe loader.

This year, Australia was proud to get behind two local heroes: Victoria’s Patrick Doheny, and South Australia’s Nick Thompson who, along with Masato Imai from Japan, topped the competition at the Asia Pacific Finals in Tokyo last October.

The crowd at the Cat Global Operator Challenge, waving Australian and Irish flags
Patrick and Nick were cheered on by an enthusiastic team of supporters.

For Nick, the whole journey was like nothing he’d ever experienced.

“For a country boy from South Australia, to go to Tokyo and Las Vegas was just amazing,” he says. “And quite eye-opening, too.”

Nick says the journey marked the first time he’d ever left Australia, and that it was fascinating to get a taste of how the construction industry worked in other countries. As for CONEXPO, he says photos and videos – no matter how impressive – simply don’t do the spectacle justice.

“Stepping out of the bus for the first time the day before the challenge, and going to see the set-up before everyone else did – we were just walking around going ‘wow’,” Nick says. “Just the sheer scope of it all. You see the photos, but you can’t really piece it all together until you’re there.”

But for each finalist, any sense of wonderment had to be quickly contained so they could focus on the task at hand: battling it out to determine the world’s best operator. And with the world looking on, in person and over livestream, all nine operators put up a tough fight.

But only one operator could emerge as the world champion. And this time, that operator was Patrick Doheny.

An excavator being operated at the Cat Global Operator Challenge
Finalists demonstrated their skill and precision through a range of challenges.

Patrick emerged victorious with an overall completion time of 26 minutes and 49 seconds, proudly cheered on by supporters from both Australia and his homeland of Ireland. Second and third places were claimed by the United States’ Matt Ferris, and Poland’s Łukasz Mokrzyński respectively.

Patrick also claimed top spot in the wheel loader challenge with a time of eight minutes, 45 seconds.

“I was obviously over the moon,” Patrick says. “It was great just to get that far, and to finish it off winning the title in Las Vegas was pretty special.”

Patrick is Co-Director of Melbourne civil construction business CRE Group where, these days, he mostly stays off the tools.

“I haven’t really spent much time on a machine since around 2009,” he says. “It’s really just been in the two years leading up to the event.”

Despite this, Patrick’s muscle memory held strong, and his 25 years of earthmoving experience shone through.

“I obviously still have a massive interest in earthmoving equipment though – hence, why we set up the Dig Deep event in Melbourne,” he says.

Patrick and his business partner Michael Harding founded Dig Deep to raise awareness for mental health in construction. The inaugural event, held in May 2022, donated all its profits to Beyond Blue. It was also home to the local heats of the Global Operator Challenge – hosted by Victorian Cat dealer William Adams – where Patrick himself emerged victorious and punched his ticket to Tokyo.

Earthmoving DNA

Patrick and Nick grew up on opposite sides of the world, and their respective paths to Las Vegas have been quite distinct as a result. But the common thread in their stories is a big one – they were both born into the earthmoving game.

Patrick Doheny operators a Cat backhoe loader
Patrick tries his luck in a Cat backhoe loader.

Patrick grew up in Ireland, where he was immersed in a world of machinery from an early age.

“My father has a plant hire business back in Ireland,” he says. “So, I’ve been around machinery since I was a child.”

While this kindled his passion for earthmoving equipment, Patrick eventually took a break from operating machinery to pursue a degree in civil engineering – a path that led him to his current role.

Nick also describes a deep-rooted connection to the earthmoving industry.

“It all started when I was a little kid,” he says. “My dad used to work for his best mate, doing moss rock retaining walls with skid steers and a truck. I’d sit on his lap while he drove us around on the skid steer. And I loved it, I was just like a pig in mud.”

Nick soon followed his father’s footsteps into a construction career, where he has remained ever since. Today, he’s a full-time operator for South Australia’s Modcon Civil.

On the shoulders of giants

Nick Thompson operates a Cat wheel loader
Nick tests his driving skills in the wheel loader challenge.

Of course, Patrick and Nick were not alone on their journey. Both men were fortunate for the support from their families, friends, employers, and dealers alike.

Patrick says the support he received from both Caterpillar and Victorian dealer William Adams played a pivotal role in his journey – from the Dig Deep event all the way through to Las Vegas.

“We were all blown away by the support that Caterpillar and William Adams gave us in Vegas, Japan, and in the lead-up – they really looked after us the whole time,” he says. “William Adams has been absolutely unbelievable. I really couldn’t speak highly enough of them.”

Patrick says this level of support is indicative of how William Adams does business.

“William Adams has a massive footprint here in Victoria, and for them to still be able to operate under the same kind of culture as a family business is pretty unique,” he says. “We deal with them on pretty much a day-to-day basis at CRE Group, and they’re just really good people.”

Three Cat Global Operator Challenge officials
Caterpillar officials worked tirelessly throughout the event.

Nick also expressed gratitude for the support he received, particularly from his employer Modcon Civil, and subcontractor Bardavcol.

“For my boss – and friend – Jake Hamilton-Moderate to go out of his way, and throw in a lot of money towards us getting over there was just amazing,” Nick says. “Jake’s a great boss and great friend.”

Nick says South Australian Cat dealer Cavpower also played a crucial role in preparing him for the competition. “

“Cavpower did a lot to help get me up to standard,” he says. “They got me trained up on the on the loader and mini excavators – the machines that I don’t usually spend a lot of time on. Big ups to the Cavpower team.”

Moving forward

With the 2023 winner’s trophy secured, Patrick says he is content to take a step back from operating machinery once again to focus on running his business. But he says the experience has served to reinforce his love for the industry.

“Through all the events, from Dig Deep to Tokyo and Vegas, I’ve been reminded that there’s a lot of lot of really good people in the earthmoving and construction industry,” he says. “From dealers to sales reps to all the other business owners we met, as well as the other contestants – every one of them was a legend, and everyone was cheering each other on.”

Nick says the experience has also taught him a great deal about the industry, and his place in it.

“For a while I’d been wondering whether I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” he says. “But I’ve come to the realisation that I have a lot of skills and experience and not to sell myself short.

“Even though I came seventh, that’s still seventh in the world. Plus, I was second in the excavator challenge and third in the loader challenge. So, I’m rapt with my effort all around, as well as everyone else that was involved.

“I’ll definitely be returning to have a crack at number one.”

Nick and Patrick with CRE Group Co-Director Michael Harding (fourth from left), and the William Adams team.
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