Leighton’s $2.8bn deal a high-water mark

27/06/2013 - 11:47


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Leighton’s $2.8bn deal a high-water mark

New growth opportunities will be few and far between for mining contractors, who are under pressure to trim their rates.

The irony was inescapable.

Mining and construction contractor Leighton Holdings announced its largest-ever contract this week – a $2.8 billion deal to run Fortescue Metals Group's Solomon mining hub for the next five years.

Looking down from that high point, however, it's hard for Leighton or any other mining contractor to see where the next big opportunity will arise in Western Australia.

After a decade of expansion, with a few speed bumps along the way, the mining sector is going into a period of modest growth.

About the only big mining project on the horizon is Hancock Prospecting's Roy Hill iron ore development, which remains subject to completion of an estimated $7 billion debt package.

The hundreds of contractors who attended Roy Hill's information sessions earlier this month were testament to the keen interest in the project.

Combined with the closure of several mines (mostly in the gold and nickel sectors), the slowdown in development spending by nearly all miners, and the push to lift efficiency, the outlook is very challenging.

Looking back at the past year, FMG was by far the biggest source of new work for contract miners.

Leighton Contractors was the main winner. It signed a $1.5 billion deal last year to run the Firetail mine and this week won a $1.3 billion contract extension to include the Kings mine, both at the Solomon hub.

Its contract is wide-ranging, covering virtually all aspects of the Solomon hub operation.

This includes operating and maintaining the open-cut mining fleet, mine planning, ore quality control, ore processing facilities and associated infrastructure, such as the airport and village.

Leighton said FMG was providing the bulk of the capital to purchase the mining plant and equipment.

The Solomon hub will produce 60 million tonnes of iron ore each year from the Kings and Firetail deposits, and employ more than 1,000 people.

Leighton plans to subcontract $100 million of work to Aboriginal businesses and to lift Aboriginal engagement to 20 per cent at the project within three years.

"This contract is the result of Leighton Contractors 30 years of experience in contract mining, mine services and mine management," the company's managing director, Craig Laslett, said.

"Over three decades we have developed the ability to safely embed efficiencies and technology that improve cost structures, as well as the flexibility to resource rapidly to increase levels of production."

Macmahon, which counts Leighton Holdings as its major shareholder, has also benefited from FMG's rapid growth.

In January, it was awarded a $1.8 billion contract to manage the Christmas Creek mine expansion.

Macmahon has subsequently mobilised 800 people on the project.

AngloGold Ashanti's Tropicana gold mine development has also bolstered Macmahon's operations, with 100 extra people mobilised to the site this year.

With 1,900 contract mining staff in WA, Macmahon is the largest player in the sector, according to the Business News Book of Lists (page 22).

It sits just ahead of underground miners Byrnecut and Barminco, and well ahead of BGC Contracting, Downer Mining, MACA and NRW Holdings.

However Leighton Contractors, with 900 contract mining staff in WA currently, could steal Macmahon's crown as it ramps up employment on the Solomon project.

Like many of its peers, Macmahon has been hit by some bad news. Early this month, a Glencore subsidiary terminated its shaft-sinking project at Cobar in NSW, in a move projected to wipe $86 million off Macmahon's revenue.

Other contractors to have won work at FMG's Pilbara mines include Global Surface Mining and NRW.

MACA had a good year for new contracts, with the major wins including Regis Resources' Rosemont gold mine and Atlas Iron's Abydos mine.

That was partly offset by the closure of Focus Minerals' Laverton gold mine.

At the smaller end of the market, Cape Crushing & Earthmoving general manager Mark Tyler said his business expected to be insulated from the project slowdown because it focused on continuing operations.

"All mine sites need railings storage, crushing and screening, and earthworks around their existing projects," he said.

Mr Tyler agreed that miners were looking for efficiency gains with their contractors, but felt it wasn't a big change.

"We actually sit down with the clients and talk about that," he said.

"Any good manager will always scrutinise their operating costs."


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