Australia, Features, West Australia

Mick Joyce: The Pioneer of the Pilbara

Joyce Krane's Director Mick Joyce has etched his mark deep into the crane industry in West Australia.

Cranes and Lifting magazine had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Mick Joyce and Sean Joyce from Joyce Krane and enjoyed the privilege of documenting the life of an absolute pioneer in the crane industry.

Born in a rural part of Western Ireland, Mick was always a more hands on, practical person. At the age of 9, after being in trouble for skipping out on school one too many times, his father told him, “if you aren’t going to go to school, you can help me on the farm”. To this, Mick gladly accepted, marking the end of his ‘formal’ education. 

Mick said, “we lived a modest life, there was no electricity or running water, we worked and lived off of the land”. With English being his second language to Irish Gaelic, it wasn’t until he moved to England at 18 that he began learning to speak English fluently. Finding himself in London at just 18 years old, he took up work as a labourer, accepting the only scraps of work that were available to an Irishman in those times.

It was in 1962 that three Irish lads landed in Australia. All had paid their fares to Melbourne but two of the trio were suffering so badly from sea sickness they threw their bags off the ship at Fremantle and stayed in Western Australia. Mick Joyce decided he’d paid his way to Melbourne and that’s where he was going.

Mick stayed in an old Irish pub called the Railway Hotel, which still exists today, in South Melbourne. There were seven lads sharing a big room on the first floor and from the first morning, Mick was up and out of bed by 5am ready to look for work.

Mick’s new roommates were unimpressed with the lights being on so early and shouted, “What are you doing with the bloody lights on so early you stupid bastard, go back to bed, there’s no jobs here,”.

“I didn’t listen. I would hop on a tram to suburbs like Carlton, which took me about 10 miles out of town and then I’d start walking back. Anywhere I saw construction activity happening I was in. Every site had signs, ‘No Vacancies’ but they didn’t say ‘No Entry’”.

“On the third day, I was out looking for work, I found myself on Little Collins Street. There was a large site which had been excavated and the piling machines were preparing for a big build.”

“I walked onto the site and was confronted by the site foreman. ‘What do you want? he asked, ‘a job’ I told him. He then asked me what I do, which I responded ‘anything’. He then asked how long I had been in the country, “just 3 days I said. He then told me “Well lad come back tomorrow, and I’ll take care of you, as a fellow country man.”

Sean smiles, “Three days, that’s probably the longest time you’ve spent unemployed hey Dad?”

The piling company was Frankipile Australia. 

“I got back to the Railway Hotel and told the lads I’d got a job at Frankipile, they were impressed. I didn’t stay there long. I moved to work with a plumber but, I didn’t like that, and left to work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme, tall blasting shot rock.

“I was working underground there and saw a lot of people get killed. I read afterwards that a worker lost their life for every mile of tunnelling we completed,’ said Mick.

During the 22-year construction course a total of 100,000 workers were employed, of whom 121 lost their lives in industrial accidents. Those workers were Australian-born, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, British, Polish and Yugoslav.

“The tunnel was 5.5m wide by 7.3m high and we were tall blasting shot rock. There would be pockets you couldn’t see, and these would collapse on the workers. It was very dangerous work,” said Mick.

Whilst on the Snowy Hydro project Mick gets news that one of his mates who jumped off at Fremantle, was in hospital having had his appendix removed. Mick went to visit him in WA and never left. 

“I decided to give Western Australia a go and started driving bull dozers in the rail sector, there was plenty of work. In the early 60’s, we had a narrow gauge rail line in the West, and it was decided we needed standard gauge railway line from East to West. Of course, this made sense, but it meant all the old gauge line needed to be ripped up and replaced. 

“I started ‘spotting’ on the field for the truck and the dozer, helping them avoid the large rocks and over time the dozer operator would let me spend time in the dozer. Gradually I gained experience and ended up operating dozers for years.”

“I went to Esperance and that was hard work. Mick Caratti was an Italian man who worked you hard, but he was a good man and fair and if you did your job he looked after you.

“Being ambitious and not afraid of hard work, I decided I wanted to work for myself. I was in Port Hedland at the time and thinking about buying a dozer for myself. 

“But I knew another Irish mate who was working with cranes. When I saw how the cranes were working and compared it to the pressure I put the dozer under every day, the wear and tear the work had on the tracks, buckets cutting edges and teeth, I decided I wasn’t going to get a bulldozer or any other piece of earthmoving equipment. I was going to get a crane,” said Mick.

“To put things into perspective, Dad had been driving dozers for a decade and having never operated a crane, to then deciding he was going to own one was a big step, but it’s typical of Dad’s approach to work and life generally,” said Sean.

“Esperance was a good experience. I went there by myself, I had my own caravan and my own car, and we moved from place to place with the work. We were working for the Esperance Land Development. Mick Riley was managing the construction of the sites and a dam was built on each of the properties so there was a lot of dozer work”.

“Mick Carratti worked us hard. If it rained, and there’s plenty of rain around Esperance, he wouldn’t let you take the machine to the next site until the current site was finished and of course we were only paid if we were working the dozer,” said Mick.

“So, I’d be working the dozer, cloud would develop, and I would work the dozer until three or four in the morning to get the job finished. I’d work day and night if I knew rain was predicted, it was tough.

“When I told Mick I was leaving, he didn’t want me to go, and he gave me a lecture I never forgot. He told me you had to earn your money when you were young. Work hard and save your money. One of the supervisors told me why he was so keen for me to stay. ‘That machine made more money during the six months you were operating it than it had done during the previous 12 months,’ I worked hard and saved my money,” he said.

Mick bought his first crane, a 6t BHB in 1974 and decided name the business Mick Joyce Crane Hire.

Joyce Krane's Director Mick Joyce has etched his mark deep into the crane industry in West Australia.
Mick bought his first crane, a 6t BHB in 1974.

“When I met with my accountant he asked if I’d registered the business name and of course I hadn’t. He conducted a business search and someone in the US had registered Mick Joyce Cranes, so we went with Joyce Crane Hire. The K in Krane came later.

“Initially I wasn’t busy with the crane, it was tough. But the rail work was busy, and they knew I was a good construction equipment operator, so they offered me night work which I took. I was also offered accommodation, food and I was paid as well so I jumped at the opportunity,” said Mick.

By 1976 Mick had built a reputation for himself in and around the Cape Lambert area, a major port in the Pilbara region of WA. He was regarded as hard working and professional and he began working in Tom Price. 

“I was moving around following the work. If I had to go to Pannawonica for example, the crane would go by train. The crane was loaded onto the flat bed and chained down in the afternoon, but they couldn’t tell me when the train was leaving because they didn’t know when it be would available. 

“I’d park my car alongside the railroad and when the locomotive came in and coupled up, the noise would wake me up and I’d jump into the locomotive alongside the driver and get to Pannawonica that way. It saved me taking my car and all the wear and tear it would have suffered on that long unsealed road. I would frequently sleep with the crane if I was working on a critical job,” said Mick.

The first crane, a 6t BHB crane cost $17,000 pounds and within two years Mick had saved enough money to buy his second crane, an 8t capacity BHB which cost him $27,000. As the business grew, so did the town of Karratha, there was increasingly more work around and Mick ensured that he employed locals. A practise that Joyce Kranes maintains to this day.

Through the 70’s and into the 80’s, he continued to work for Transfield in Tom Price. Transfield asked him to relocate to Mount Newman. He had a mate who owned a plane, and he flew over the Mount Newman and liked what he saw.

“We flew back to Tom Price, and I had pretty much made up my mind. I then had a conversation with a colleague at Rio Tinto who said there was a company called Woodside coming into Dampier that would make the projects we were currently working on look like a drop in the ocean. I thought, what am I doing going to Newman when there’s a major new player coming to the coast? That’s when I changed my mind and decided to come to Karratha,” said Mick.

Throughout the 80’s the business continued to grow as Mick worked with Woodside and other major organisations in the resources sector. The fleet grew in size and capacity and in the mid 80’s he added a 50t Kato which was a big crane back then. 

He continued to work hard but did afford himself some down time and his favourite holiday destination was the Philippines. 

“I liked the Philippines and on one of my trips I became friends with a local guy named Bert who managed a fish farm. He had a boat which he used to make trips to the different islands selling his fish. Anyway, I got to know him, and we’d do the trips together. 

“On one of my trips I was booked to travel south but there was civil unrest at the time. I read in the paper that a hand grenade had been thrown into a gathering of people and I decided I wasn’t going to go South and instead I decided to go to Cebu. 

“I asked a friend where I should stay, and he said the Mercedes hotel. I booked a room, arrived and checked in, then later that night there’s a knock on the door and it’s Bert,” said Mick.

“He said, ‘come, we are going to visit my relatives,’ this was Rebecca’s family. We arrived at the home and that’s the first time I saw Rebecca, my future wife. She was a seamstress, she’d been woken up and looked very sleepy.

Joyce Krane's Director Mick Joyce has etched his mark deep into the crane industry in West Australia.
Mick loves nothing more than hanging out with his wife, children and grandchildren.

“Over the coming days I met with her a number of times, she was very curious about me and wanted to know where I came from, what I did, and of course her father didn’t like me at all. I came back to Australia, and we wrote to each other. Six months later I went back over.

“I asked her father Emigdio if I could take Rebecca to the movies or to a restaurant and I received a sharp no. He was very protective of his daughter. When he finally agreed he said, “wait there!” and he came back into the room with Rebeccas’ two brothers and her uncle. “They were her chaperones and I had to take them all out to dinner”. 

It was only in 2007/2008 that Mick finally employed someone to manage the phone. Up until then, he used to answer all calls and write the details of jobs on his jeans. Mick was well known throughout Karratha for writing notes this way.

“Yes. I’d be driving and the mobile would ring, I’d stop the car, take the call and write the details on my jeans, a bit about the job, the number that sort of thing. I had to get Rebecca to buy light coloured jeans so I could see what I had written. 

“There were many times when I called Rebecca to ask if she had done the washing. If she hadn’t, I’d ask her to read back the notes I’d written on the right knee of the jeans.”

Sean chimed in “You don’t know any different when you are young. You think it is normal for your parents to have a conversation about washing Dad’s jeans, and before they could be washed, he had to check that he had all the information from the jeans. This was a regular occurrence for our family”.

Mick continues with the family story.

“I’m not sure how Rebecca raised five children and helped me with the business which was starting to gain momentum. Fortunately, she took good care of James, our eldest, followed by Colleen, brother Michael, then Sean and Connell. She also took care of everything inside the home whilst I worked hard on everything outside of it. 

“We were constantly reinvesting in the business and didn’t spend money where we didn’t need to. We are still driving around in a Land Cruiser we bought in the late 90s and it suits us just fine,” said Mick.

Sean and his siblings were away at boarding school, but with every break they would be in the yard in Karratha. Here they spent time cleaning and greasing the machines, inspecting rigging equipment and learning more about the business from the bottom up. 

“We might be lucky enough to go on a job with Dad every so often. But we would spend most of our time in the yard. Dad would put a crane on the pad, we’d clean it, he’d come along and inspect the work, point out where we’d missed spots, we’d fix these, and he’d move the crane and bring another one in for us to clean. So, cranes have always been a big part of our lives,” said Sean.

The Joyce Kranes business really took a shift in the 2000’s. Sean takes up the story.

“In 2007 I left school. I had just turned 18 and started working in the yard. I would be running out rigging gear to various jobs, fuelling cranes, I wasn’t given a specific role, I simply did what needed to be done. 

“And now, this is a big part of our culture at Joyce Krane. Yes, there are job titles but at the very core of the business is the philosophy, if a job needs to be done, we help each other out.

Over time Sean worked his way up to rigging and then crane operating. By 2009/2010 the business was growing with more cranes coming online. There were a lot of construction projects happening and the resources sector was rapidly growing. 

“We had to purchase more cranes during this period, mostly Liebherrs. We were buying 100, 200 and 250 tonne capacity cranes. With our all terrains, anything above 100t capacity we have only ever bought Liebherr. 

“In 2011 Dad purchased a company in Onslow (a town of 700 at the time) which is in the Pilbara. The business was Onslow Crane Hire. Dad said to me ‘I want you to go down and manage the hand over.’ I was 20 at this stage and I didn’t have much experience in the office or the running of the business, I was part of the operations team. 

“But I thought I’ll get down there, get an understanding of the business, Dad would find someone to manage the business and they’d take over from me. I got down there and got to know the old owner, Bill Black, he was doing business from a Collins diary, very much like Dad had been doing,” said Sean.

At this stage, Joyce Krane had a team of people running this side of the business. 

“I had come from an environment where we had a team running the business and the office was fairly automated, here in Onslow, I was back to a Collins diary run business,” said Sean.

“I’m calling Dad with updates and asking if he had found anyone to replace me and he would always reply, ‘Yes I’m working on it.’ I only went down with a duffle bag because in my mind I was only going to be there a couple of weeks. 

“After a month, I’d call Dad and, ‘Yes I’m working on it’ was the answer. So, I decided to leave it and let him call me when he had found the replacement. After a couple of months, I realised this was now my job. I ran the Onslow operation for close to five years,” he said.

“Well, he was doing such a good job, we decided to leave him there,” smiled Mick.

Taking strategic risks with investments has been a theme within the Joyce Krane business. 

“Like when you purchased the Liebherr 160t (LTM 1160/2) in 2000,” said Sean.

At that time this was considered a large crane in the North West of Western Australia.

“Yes. That crane gave me arthritis. I went to Germany to visit the Liebherr factory and to assess the crane which was second hand. It was a good looking machine, well looked after and we agreed to take it. But the planned work we had bought the crane for, didn’t happen. 

“I would be driving up the main road of Karratha to the yard and there would be this huge expensive yellow machine sitting there doing nothing, and I’d turn the Ute around, drive back into town and have a coffee with a friend. I couldn’t drive into the yard with it sitting there without any work for the crane or for myself.

“At the time my joints were sore, and the GP was draining fluid from my knees and ankles, he explained that stress can be a major cause of arthritis. That crane caused me so much stress and pain, because it had so little work at the beginning,” said Mick.

Sean reflects on the crane, and he can see how it was a positive move for the business.

Mick and Sean talk about the approach they have to the crane industry. Mick is certainly regarded by many as a pioneer of the industry and yes, he has taken risks and significantly invested in very large assets but the decisions around these investments have been based on customer requirements.

“For me, the investments we have made, over many years, have been about providing our customers with the equipment that meets their needs. Again the 160 and the LG 750 are examples of this; they were firsts for the market,” said Mick.

Mick goes on to discuss the relationship with Liebherr and why he has worked so closely with the brand over an extended period of time.

“When I first ventured into cranes, I hadn’t heard of the Liebherr name. But asking around, I knew the Liebherr name had a good reputation, not only for cranes but for construction and mining equipment and other products.

“Initially, Liebherr cranes were represented by Gerhard Baden over in Sydney. “Gerhard made the trip to Karratha, well out of his way to introduce himself, and introduce me to the Liebherr product. I really appreciated it as I was out of my depth when it came to purchasing a machine of this size. I was dealing with him when we purchased the 160t. Then I got to meet the German management in the factories, they have been great to work with. 

“When the 160t went to work we could see it was a great piece of equipment and there really weren’t any questions after that, we were and have remained a committed Liebherr crane business,” said Mick.


Sean is also a big Liebherr fan. 

“In my experience, Liebherr is at the forefront of technological developments in the crane industry. The cranes are extremely reliable and the service and support we receive from the team at Liebherr is second to none. Over many years, we’ve developed a great relationship with the Liebherr team.

“We stick with Liebherr and focus on the quality their machines bring to our business. Operators can move between the cranes because the operating system is fairly consistent across the entire range and so are the parts and componentry. So, from a service and maintenance point of view the workshops don’t have to keep as many parts on the shelves,” he said.

After over 40 years in the business, Mick finally takes things easier. Living in Perth, he enjoys the company of his children and 5 grandchildren, who he hopes will one day become crane operators themselves. Turning 85 in October, it hasn’t been that long since he was last spotted in a crane. With his two sons, James and Sean at the helm of the business, he still enjoys regular reports from his sons and likes to stay in touch with old clients.

Joyce Krane's Director Mick Joyce has etched his mark deep into the crane industry in West Australia.
The second generation of Joyces are now managing the business.


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