MORE than two decades ago, Vector Lifting managing director Les Capelli had a goal to create purpose-built cranes and lifting systems for some of the world’s largest rail, mining and oil and gas projects.
That vision has been realised, with the Cockburn-based company’s products used throughout Australasia, the Middle East and South America. More recently, Vector was responsible for the manufacture and design of the ‘moving roof’ at the new Perth Arena.
Starting with only 10 employees in 1989, Mr Capelli said it was important the company was realistic about its capability to meet client demands.
“We started slowly. We would get an enquiry from a client, would nut out what they want, design it, manufacturer it, install it and hand it over,” he said.
“We have always delivered on what we said we would do and if we couldn’t deliver, we would say it was out of our scope of expertise and they [clients] did appreciate that honesty.”
Despite a client base that included Rio Tinto, Woodside and John Holland, the company hit a major roadblock a decade into the business.
“1999 was one of the worst years we have ever had because mining was dead, nobody was spending any money on railway infrastructure and the oil and gas industry was very quiet,” Mr Capelli said.
“It cost me over a million dollars just to keep everyone employed and we really didn’t want to lay anybody off.”
Surprisingly, the company experienced significant growth up to and during the GFC, at which time it secured some of its largest contracts to date.
“For us the GFC didn’t make a bit of difference; we were in the right spot at the right time and that was when we picked up the Perth Arena contract, our second largest-ever contract,” Mr Capelli said.
However, with an increasing amount of work coming in, staffing issues started to emerge.
“Finding good staff in our industry has been and continues to be really difficult,” Mr Capelli said.
“So what we would do instead is find a young person or a person we know, bring them in and train them up from scratch.”
According to Mr Capelli, Vector Lifting is the only company in Western Australia, if not Australia, to design and purpose-build lifting systems that can lift anything from palettes in a warehouse to a 300-metre train carriage.
Some of the company’s largest projects included the design and manufacture of the 65-metre-wide Australian Marine Complex travelling gantry crane, the lifting system for Taiwan’s High Speed rail maintenance project, and multiple explosion-proof cranes for LNG tanks around the world.
One area of the crane market the company has not entered is the ‘tower crane’ market – those cranes typically found at construction sites.
“The tower crane market is oversaturated in Australia and worldwide,” Mr Capelli said.
“They are generally mass produced in France, Germany and Taiwan, so we don’t touch them.”
Vector Lifting employs more than 45 staff and has undergone consistent growth in turnover during the past three years.
“During the GFC period our turnover increased 15 per cent; the following year was 20 per cent and this financial year we increased turnover by 40 per cent, and that’s all because we have really hit a niche in the market,” Mr Capelli said.
The bulk of the company’s post-GFC turnover has come from working on railway projects, both across Australia and overseas.
“Most of our work today is coming from the railways because the governments are spending a bit of money on improving railway infrastructure at the moment,” he said.
“Right now we are currently designing and building a turntable for QR National down at Esperance and working on a $10 million job with John Holland in Melbourne.”
To ensure the company could be competitive in the tender process, Mr Capelli said quoting honestly, but also keeping costs down, was of paramount importance.
“The worst thing a company can do is compete on price ... we will try and do a job at competitive prices, but not at the cost of losing money on the job just for the sake of winning it,” he said.
“We run a pretty tight ship and ensure everyone can multitask in their roles; working together as a team is the way you keep your costs down.”
Along with its service offering, Vector Lifting prides itself on its support of local industry.
“We buy the steel from merchants here whenever we can and we always tend to favour Australia manufactured product,” Mr Capelli told WA Business News.
“It’s so important to support local manufacturers ... and I think there is a lot of room for these multinational companies to ensure the local industry survives, because if we don’t have local industry, we don’t have employment.”