GRD Minproc is well known as one of Australia’s top engineering construction companies, but who remembers Wilde Ireland Mining and Process Engineering Services (WA) Pty Ltd?
With more than a few twists and turns along the way, GRD Minproc can trace its origins back to the latter company.
The common link between MAPES, as the company was known in the early 1980s, and GRD Minproc is veteran engineer John McCowan.
Over the past three decades Mr McCowan has played a prominent role in the mining industry and he has been nominated as one of Western Australia’s most innovative engineers.
He originally trained as a civil engineer in his native New Zealand, but has spent most of his adult life working in mechanical engineering in the mining industry.
He came to Australia in 1970 and worked with Fluor, initially in central Queensland’s coal industry and then in the Pilbara.
Mr McCowan also had a stint managing a fabrication workshop, but in his blunt and good-humoured style, explains that he preferred working on-site.
“Its good designing things on a construction site because as soon as you design something, someone goes out and builds it. And if it doesn’t work, they come in and punch you in the face,” he said.
The Minproc story started in 1978 when two former Fluor colleagues, Bob Wilde and Ken Ireland, established MAPES.
Mr McCowan joined a couple of years later, just in time to see MAPES’s first project, the Wundowie vanadium project, end up as a “complete failure”.
Ironically, one of the original aims of the company was to bring together process and construction engineers in one organisation, but this was not applied to the Wundowie project.
“The process was done by the owner of the project, and that was a complete and utter cock-up,” he said.
“The industry here realised that we weren’t responsible for the failure. We did a great construction job. I was surprised and relieved by that reaction.”
Mr McCowan, who became a 50 per cent owner of the company after Mr Ireland departed, said the period between 1984 and 1992 was its golden era.
“We caught the gold boom, we we’re lucky buggers,” he said.
The company built more than 100 gold projects in 20 countries, and in one very busy year built 12 gold plants.
Mr McCowan said this was a period of rapid change, as gold plants became cheaper and quicker to build, and Minproc was at the forefront.
“We were the best technically capable synthesisers of the good ideas that the backyard people had,” he said.
The company changed its name to Minproc Holdings ahead of a share market float in 1987
After the float the company started to build up two separate businesses, with Mr McCowan running the engineering business and Mr Wilde running Minproc Resources.
The group eventually found itself under intense financial pressure, and in 1994 chose to float the engineering business.
The resources company ended up as Ticor while the engineering business, after a period as an independent company, was absorbed by mining company GRD.
Mr McCowan worked as a full-time consultant to Minproc until 1999, the year in which GRD announced its intention to move to 100 per cent ownership.
He is now a director of DevMin, a consultancy owned and run by a dozen experienced mining industry professionals.
In his current role, Mr McCowan spends most of his time sorting out problems created by other engineers, leaving him with a critical view of the profession.
“There is an old saying that an engineer could do for one pound what any other person could do for two. The profession seems to have turned that around. Now an engineer would cost $2 when any other person could do it for one,” Mr McCowan said.
He believes many engineers spend too much time “covering their backs”, fail to appreciate the value of their clients’ money and fail to display the ingenuity that should be at the heart of their profession.
“Any fool can build a project that doesn’t fall over,” he said.
“An engineer should build a plant that does its job, at the optimum capital cost, and safely and reliably. The work that I manage does that exactly.”
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