Optimism returns to NSW coalfields - Part 2

Staff Reporter

With the Megabolt, the grout/breather tube is contained within the cable. Grouting is achieved by connecting the grout hose to either of the holes in the head of the bolt depending on whether toe-to-collar or collar-to-toe grouting is employed.

Over the past five years, the NSW coal industry has undergone a period of rationalisation, with a number of international corporations divesting their non-core assets and acquiring additional core businesses to achieve economies of scale and competitive advantage in areas of proven expertise. Most recently, Billiton announced plans to sell its 80% share of the Wallarah Coal Joint Venture, which owns the Moonee longwall operation, the Chain Valley continuous-miner operation, and Wallarah mine, currently on care and maintenance.

The state is now dominated by six producers — Glencore, Coal and Allied (Rio Tinto), Coal Operations Australia (Billiton), Anglo Coal Australia, Powercoal and BHP. In January 2001, Rio Tinto overtook BHP as Australia’s largest coal producer when it acquired Peabody’s Australian coal assets. In February, Glencore added Ulan to its rapidly expanding portfolio. If the government privatises Powercoal, ownership of the state’s production capacity could become even further concentrated.

NSW Minerals Council executive director Denis Porter believes this consolidation has allowed the major players to become much tougher in the market place, evident in the current negotiations.

“The Japanese are in no hurry to settle, but I think Australian companies are in there taking a pretty strong line, saying the market is dictating a price increase and they’re not going to roll over,” he said.

Industry rationalisation is also affecting equipment suppliers and service companies. Tim Clarke, group manager - market development at DBT Australia (a subsidiary of German company RAG Coal International), said mining companies were reusing surplus capital equipment where possible to reduce capital expenditure.

“This results in reduced capital orders for the OEM, compromises on design, and extensions to equipment life which increases maintenance costs and reduces equipment efficiency and availability,” he said. “With so little capital equipment being ordered, OEMs are having to rely on after-sales business to maintain staff levels. DBT has recently undertaken organisational changes to increase its customer focus with the concept of dedicated customer service centres for NSW and Queensland.”

One of those mergers occurred between Inbye Mining Services and Standens Engineering, which was struggling to survive after BHP closed the Newcastle Steelworks. Inbye managing director Richard Eveleigh said his company took over Standens Engineering in May 2000, acquiring a modern workshop at Rutherford, near Newcastle. The company now employs 30 people and is striving to become an alternative supplier of specialist equipment and a quality repairer and overhauler.

“There’s no doubt the industry has gone through a difficult period where coal prices have been depressed, and there’s no doubt the cycle has bottomed,” Eveleigh said. “This year there has been a significant improvement for coal producers and equipment suppliers are looking for an improvement in their market conditions as well.”

Eveleigh said industry rationalisation was focusing suppliers’ attention on the need to maintain close contact with their customers and to focus on keeping customers satisfied by delivering quality products on time.

“We’ve managed to sustain good growth since Inbye was formed and we’re continuing to do so. We’re quite excited about the future. We see opportunities continuing,” he said.

Long-Airdox director - sales and marketing, Ray Chadwick, said like other suppliers, his company had been badly affected by low coal prices. To cut costs, mining operations had reduced repair work on existing equipment and drastically reduced new equipment purchases.

“However, I’m optimistic about the future. We are rationalising our product range and ensuring a focus on our products that are successful in the Australian marketplace,” he said. “We have had long term contracts in place with a number of our customers for many years. We intend to continue developing this type of relationship and working closely with our customers.”

DBT, a specialist supplier of longwall equipment, has sold 70% of the longwall equipment in Australia over the past six years. “Our competitive edge is three﷓fold: the technology of our equipment gives mines the best chance to produce efficiently, reliably and consistently; the service team works with mines to ensure that the equipment is operated and maintained correctly; and all projects handled to date have been delivered on time or early, due to our project management system,” Clarke said.

“The future is generally very bright with world forecasts for coal positive, but this must be at the right price.”

The closure of Southlands colliery due to the collapse of its contractor Colrok has left many equipment suppliers and service companies struggling, just as the outlook for the coal industry is improving. Administrator Sims Lockwood indicated Colrok left behind $68 million in outstanding debt.

Richard Eveleigh said the collapse of Colrok was a setback for Inbye, not a disaster, but like other suppliers, it put a strain on the company’s financial resources. About 1700 suppliers in the area are owed around $16 million by Colrok. “Like most suppliers, from what I understand, we were caught with Colrok as a creditor. We’re very disappointed it happened and hope that the parent company Thyssen will do the right thing,” he said.

Competition remains strong between equipment suppliers and service companies. However, if this sector continues to reflect the state of the coal industry 12-18 months on, an upturn is just on the horizon.

Originally published in the March 2001 edition of Australia's Longwalls.