Making friends in far flung places

Mining engineer Matthew Graham.

In his well-travelled career, mining engineer Matthew Graham has learned what community really means.

When Matthew Graham visited his first mine site as a UNSW undergraduate mining engineer, his first thought was, quite simply, “Wow!”.

“It was the summer of 1997-98,” Graham says. “I was on an industry placement in the little town of Queenstown on the west coast of Tasmania working in the remote Henty Gold Mine. I took three separate planes and still had to drive for two hours to get there.”

Graham says he found the experience an eye-opener. “Very quickly, I went from feeling scared and detached to realising that the remoteness really drives a strong sense of community. You get to know people really quickly in such a small place and I ended up having an absolute ball.”

After graduating in 2000, Graham embarked on the graduate program at Anglo American, a large multinational mining company, and spent 10 years working on mining sites in the Hunter Valley and central Queensland. This included a 15-month secondment at Anglo’s global head office in Johannesburg.

In 2011, he decided to take a career break to realise a long-held aspiration: his MBA. In the process, he instigated a major step change in his career. “When I started talking to Anglo about coming back after my MBA, I was offered a role doing some ad-hoc costing projects in Brisbane. But one week before I started the job, I got a call...”

Graham was asked to pick up a role reporting directly to the CEO on monthly reforecasting.  “Straight out of doing my MBA, I found myself in this intense but really exciting role,” he says. “I was accountable for making sure all the mining businesses were consolidating their business reforecasts so we could work out the best ways to ameliorate risks and seize new opportunities.”

Two years later and his next big opportunity came knocking. “It was a business improvement project in central Queensland, where I was responsible for rolling out a set standard of processes for a series of different mines to follow. We called it ‘McDonald’s for mines’ which, once implemented, had immediate productivity and procedural benefits.”

The project involved Graham and his family uprooting every 20 weeks to move to the next town where he would start the implementation process all over again. “We were lucky our daughter is an extrovert as she had been to three primary schools by the time she was in Year 1!” he says.

Very quickly, I went from feeling scared and detached to realising that the remoteness really drives a strong sense of community.

Matthew Graham

The smallest place they lived was Middlemount, population 2000, in the Isaac region of central Queensland. Once again, Graham was struck by both the remoteness and the amazing sense of community. “You quickly get to know your neighbours and become involved in the town’s activities,” he says. “At the same time, there are some inconveniences that you learn to live with. Power cuts are not uncommon, and although we didn’t experience a full cyclone while living there, when a big one comes through the whole town can be cut-off for weeks at a time.”

When that assignment finished in the second half of 2015, Graham and his family moved back to Brisbane. He is now working on a series of international projects that have already taken him to South Africa and Brazil.

With the benefit of 15 years’ experience and a passion for business improvement, Graham is excited to see the mining industry starting to take notice of how new technologies can revolutionise the way things are done.

“It’s probably related to the harsh and remote conditions, but I think mining has lagged behind other industries in the adoption of new technologies,” Graham says. “For example, I think we’re finally starting to see how remote operations could greatly benefit from things like ‘big data’ and the ‘cloud’. Thinking about some of the issues associated with working in remote locations – like being physically cut off – if you can access data and applications wirelessly, you can work much more effectively.”

Other innovations that he believes will change the industry include automation, drones and robotics. “It's been awesome to see some of the work being done using drones,” he says. “Things like surveying and equipment inspections have been transformed. I think there are many more opportunities to be found in emerging technologies, and once the industry has taken its blinkers off, we’ll catch up really quickly.”

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