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CICA Member Profile: A changing of the Gladstone guard

After more than 43 years servicing the Gladstone area community and industry sectors, Matherson Crane Hire has sold to become part of the Smithbridge Group of Companies and Universal Cranes. Wayne Matherson, Managing Director of Matherson Crane Hire provides the background to his company and the reasons for selling.

“The company was formed in 1979 by my parents Neil and Beth, and it generated its first invoice in January of 1980. Dad was working locally for EDI Hire and he could see the region of Gladstone was entering into a construction period, and he saw an opportunity to buy his own crane.

“His boss at the time was Ivan Rusik, Rusik supported Dad’s decision to branch out on his own. Ivan happily utilized Dad as a subcontractor while he grew his own customer base, Ivan also assisted Mum in learning how to run the books. Once the business was established, his passion for operating cranes and enjoyment of working with his customers provided a good income for our family and built a stable platform for me to build on. For Dad he was just doing what he loved it never felt like a job,” said Wayne.

The first crane Neil bought was an 8t capacity BHB tractor crane. Wayne continues the story.

Neil Matherson started the business with an 8t capacity BHB tractor crane.

“Dad was doing all a whole range of work with that crane, from day one it was mostly general hire and this included housing, domestic construction and light commercial work. He also worked on wharf expansions around Gladstone harbor and secured some project work on the building of Boyne Smelters Limited, which remains one of our key clients today.

In the mid-’90s, Wayne’s sister Tanya and brother-in-law joined the company, with Robert being trained by Neil and Tanya learning from Beth, it’s then that they bought their second crane. 

“It was dad, my brother-in-law in the field, and my sister assisting with the accounts when I joined the company in 2000 having finished my diesel fitting apprenticeship. It was around that time that we bought our third pick and carry crane, which was 20t Linmac and we still own and operate two of them to this day, these were the cranes that built Matherson Crane Hire,” said Wayne.

In the early 2000’s Jason Williams was the first employee outside of family to join Matherson Crane Hire, and he’s still with the business today.

“Jason is my Operations Manager and right-hand man. He was an eager young boilermaker that showed a lot of interest in cranes and practical skill when dad showed up onsite. He appeared to be eager and interested, so Dad offered him a job,” said Wayne.

Wayne goes on to explain how the growth of the business reflects the growth of Gladstone and the surrounds.

“The growth of the business was due to a combination of local market demands and also, in 2005 the introduction of the Rigger Law, meaning you had to have a rigger under the hook for all lifts. Prior to this, we’d run around in the crane, jump out, sling our own loads up and jump back in the crane. The new law forced us to get more labor to support the cranes. Then, around 2010 we began looking at slewing cranes and we purchased a Kobelco RK-160 and a Demag AC-55 city class. We then acquired a Liebherr LTM 1055-3.2 and a Demag AC-100-4L in 2012. The 100t purchase fulfilled a dream of owning a 4 axle All terrain crane of which came to me during my apprenticeship, after working alongside Vic Maben’s 4axle 80t Demag at Capella in the mid 90’s,” said Wayne.

The growth of the business was due to a combination of local market demands and also, in 2005, the introduction of the Rigger Law which meant a rigger needed to be under the hook for all lifts.

The growth in Gladstone has been cyclic and there was a boom in the mid 2000’s, but Wayne and his team were not distracted by the boom. 

“We were focused on establishing and consolidating relationships with our current clients and new key industrial clients and that is when we acquired the Demag AC100-4L and established our secured first official industrial contract with Boyne Smelters Limited. The 100 tonner was the big jump, and we knew with that extra capacity we could service then BSL Contract and also allow us to expand what we had to offer all our clients, I never lost sight of the small people that helped us become what we are today,” said Wayne.

The next big step was two years ago when the business invested in a Liebherr LTM1250-5.1

“We’ve had the 250t for two years now, and that was a crane I’ve never envisioned in my wildest dreams of owning. Then opportunities presented and we took a calculated risk on building a market for this capacity of crane and it has paid off,” said Wayne. 

Wayne goes on to discuss the work culture of the business emphasizing there is no business without people. 

“The culture of our business was key to our success and has always been very much about trying to treat everyone as equal, employees and clients alike. Maintaining a high value on family, valuing our people and establishing a culture of taking pride in the work we complete in the field for our customers, the presentation and quality of equipment we operate. 

“Maintaining our equipment to the highest standards has proved to a winner for the business as I have people line up to buy my secondhand cranes because they know they’re so well-looked after due to our maintenance programs. This also gave clients piece of mind that our equipment was always reliable. 

“Kurt Williams is our Maintenance Manager, and he does a brilliant job, but because we essentially assign a crane to a team member and give them ownership and then give them whatever they need to keep the crane well maintained, clean, polished and shiny, this generates a lot of pride in the presentation of our fleet,” said Wyane.

Wayne has spent the last two to three years establishing the business in a good debt asset ratio position, and maintain a high quality, young aged fleet that’s attractive to potential buyers and with a workload to pay for it. He explains how the growth of the business and being on call 7 days a week, over a concerted period of time, impacted on the individuals involved.

“In the early days of the business we were working six and seven days a week, and on we were maintaining and servicing our fleet on top of this. The first step to alleviate the work load, was to recruit employees who wanted overtime which provided us the opportunity to have weekends off and take the occasional family holiday. 

“The second step was to build a management structure which enabled me to step away from the business to a degree. The significant and defining moment for all of this was the retirement of my dad in 2009. He was 65 and only had 12 months retirement with mum before she passed away.

“At that point, I realized I wanted to build the business so I could be in a position to make decisions regarding  my retirement and not wait until I was 65. I was aiming for 50, but I’m 44 so that is kind of nice.

“More recently it got the point, where I realised it was time to release the stress. I’m still passionate about the industry and love what I do and proud of what we have achieved. But it was obvious to see the stress building and the toll it was taking on myself and my Operations Manager, Jason in particular,” said Wayne.

With Matherson Crane Hire now part of the Smithbridge Group of Companies, including Universal Cranes, Wayne is very confident it is going to be a good fit.

“Without question it is going to be a good fit for everyone. Universal Cranes is large and successful company and the owner Albert Smith, operates very morally and has a great track record with his people. 

“I have enjoyed dealing with Albert and I have been working closely with Adam and Sarah Bauer who are the branch managers here in Gladstone. Adam has come from a family business background of Ballina Cranes, which his family owned so he knows what a family-owned general hire business is all about.

“I know he’ll carry on a respectful relationship with my staff and with my clients. I’m excited for the greater opportunities for my guys in a company of this scale, for sure. Within the negotiations of the sale, Albert has been very reasonable in ensuring 100% of my teams’ entitlements transfer, including entitlements we didn’t have to by workplace law.

“Negotiations are always tough, but I can walk away knowing that I’ve done the best by everyone in this situation. We’ve ensured everyone has an offer of a job with the company, right down to the 2nd year apprentice diesel fitter that we have, which was my key concern in this job market. The adults will find a job anywhere, but the young fellow left school to start his time with me, and I needed to make sure his employment was secure and was continuing his trade, and he is, which is really nice,” said Wayne.

Being passionate about the industry has seen Wayne take an active role within The Crane Industry Council of Australia (CICA).

Neil and Beth Matherson.

“I initially became involved in CICA because I could see that as the leading industry body it would help me remain informed as things change, and CICA has been brilliant in both affecting change and relaying the details of the changes to its members. 

“Over time I developed an interest in being more involved and became a committee member for Queensland, and also sat on the code of practice review committee. I stepped into the Vice-Chair role for Queensland. I was in that role for about two years under Steve Gonano and latter stepped up to the role of Chair. 

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the role for long, I was only there for about six months before gracefully stepping down to focus on the business and my personal life.

But during that short tenure I had a bit of a milestone moment as we managed the biggest ever Regional Meeting that CICA Qld had held at Mackay. We had an excellent attendance and put on a good display for the TMR members and local government members. In a bid to educate and work toward better road access,” he said.

Wayne then takes a look at what the future might hold for him.

“Initially I plan to take a bit of time out, but as the saying goes, ‘you can’t keep a good man down. I’m still passionate about the industry and I’m looking to develop some practical upskilling for the industry.

“I’m developing a training program to teach better operational practices and improve skills which I see currently as a major shortfall in our industry. The current licensing system is presented well by most RTO’s, but it takes years to learn the skills to be a competent operator. I see the primary issue stemming from projects and companies just needing “bums on seats” and are too busy to teach extra skills. Along with the knowledge that Dad has passed to me and knowledge that I’ve learnt through being in the field for over 20 years. 

“The upskilling will be in the pick and carry crane sector, which I am extremely passionate about. I’m tired of seeing pick and carry cranes laying on their side due to lack of operator training. Unfortunately, due to the nature of pick and carry, operators can be well within the capacity of the cranes, but there are always variables that the operator needs to be aware of and know how to adapt accordingly to stay safe.

The cranes are a super versatile and efficient tool in all sectors and manufacturers of pick and carry cranes are doing great work to improve safety systems but the cranes will never be intuitive and be able to see and predict all the variables a pick and carry crane face, this is where the human comes in.  

I want to teach and improve the knowledge and skills around dealing with those variables. I’ve already started creating notes and modules for the program. It is absolutely my intention to give back to the industry which has been so generous to my family over many years and I hope to improve the skill sets of the operators now and in the future,” said Wayne. 

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