A Billion Opportunities for ICRG

Indigenous Construction Resource Group (ICRG) chairperson Clinton Wolf talks about the Billion Opportunities program.

What barriers and difficulties did you encounter in starting ICRG?
There’s a perception in the mining industry that indigenous contractors take more baby-sitting in terms of what they do in delivering the desired outcomes.  So the first thing was to prove to the companies:
1. That you’re doing the job, that you’re going to do the job safely.
2. That you have got the capability to do it.
3. That you’re on time and
4. That you’re on budget.
So you got to tick those four boxes and to do that you’ve got to make sure that your front end is very stable and sound, and even more importantly your back end, ie how you handle your tax issues, your finance issues, your occupational health and safety systems, all of those things need to be in place, before you can fully capitalise on any opportunities that arise from mining companies.

So you had to set up this whole thing before tendering?
When we managed to get Fortescue to say, ‘look we want you to be a part of our story, we’ve got this Billion Opportunities here but first of all we want you to prove yourself,’ it was at that stage that FMG said to us here’s the requirements we want you to fulfil before we can award you a contract.
They said, ‘look, here’s the pathway you must follow, and if you need assistance in that process please let us know’, we were lucky that we already had people within the company that could implement those systems, but FMG were ready to help us out from the start for sure.
Can you talk a little about what the successful factors to building a sustainable business?
To be successful you’ve got to have a pretty good idea of what your desired outcomes are and the methodologies and structures that you need in place to fulfil that. I think that the board needs to understand what its forms and functions are. But it’s also making sure that you’ve got the necessary expertise on the board to guide management in the right direction. We think that in time you’ll see a lot more focus on Indigenous contractors making sure that they get their corporate governance right. I always said that good advice is what you need to hear and not what you want to hear. I think when you’ve got that balance between management being able to effectively deliver, board being able to provide good advice, board being able to make sure that statutorily you’re compliant and management making sure that you’re delivering outcomes and just as importantly as that is you’re making a profit. That’s it.

Can you tell us about your Aboriginal recruits through the VTEC program.
Our retention rate has been 95%, so in terms of how we’ve found them: excellent, hard working, able to operate safely and able to be respectful to other workers on the projects. Indigenous and non-Indigenous, so it’s about integrating and making sure you’re fulfilling your own values as well as those of the people around you so we’ve had a great success rate with the trainees and we hope to continue. We know we’re not perfect but it’s a constant journey and trying to improve what we deliver because there is definitely satisfaction in going out on site and seeing a whole lot of indigenous people operating gear and running that project, it does give you a good feeling because you know that’s having a ripple effect on their families and the communities that they live in. It’s all positive.
There was a number of people working for us who were unemployed, so earning less than $9,000 a year, they then end up working for us and now are on between $100,000-$140,000. To see the smiles on their faces coz Christmas is coming up and the wife’s happy, the kids are happy and there’s presents under the Christmas tree, and there’s food in the fridge, all the bills are paid, it’s a life changing thing for them and I think it was a life changing moment for me as well to realise that if you want something worthwhile to happen there’s a hell of a lot of work involved but if you stick at it the rewards are there.

Were you cynical about this program to start with?
I’ve had a bit of involvement as a CEO of a native title rep body. I actually ran a native title representative body. There’s been a lot of promises for a long time from various companies about what they’re going to do for Indigenous people and what they’re going to do on the contracting space. There’s been a lot of hot air. There’s always a clause on these agreements, it’s called “Best Endeavours”, which really doesn’t bind a company to anything in terms of its Indigenous engagement. So what the difference has been is basically: the companies in the past have said, “Best Endeavours” whereas FMG has gone, “We Will”.

And how do you feel now?
Well a Billion Dollars has got to be real right? So you can talk about whatever you want, and there’s a number of people out there that have got various comments to make about FMG in relation to us and, you know, Indigenous engagement.
But as far as I can see, in three years they have given out more contracts than most of the other companies in the rest of Australia combined so, proof’s in the pudding.
Talking’s easy, the doing is the hard part, and they just keep doing it and like I said, we just keep fulfilling our obligations as a contractor. We want them to look at us as a mainstream contractor and the fact that they get all the Indigenous content that they can contractually require is a wonderful thing for both FMG and for the people that work for us, and then other Indigenous contractors and their workers and shareholders.