Starting up to scaling up: Queensland businesses taking big steps and going global

Courtesy Queensland University of Technology

Queensland is maturing and scaling up to dizzy new heights thanks to the environment created and fostered over the past 20 years since the Smart State strategy was introduced.

One-time small businesses are going global — and they’re dominating at scale, paving the way for others on their scaling up journeys.

2019 marks 30 years in business for Queensland construction giant, Wagners.

The Toowoomba based company commenced operations with just one concrete plant in November 1989 and today is a leading Australian construction materials and services provider — as well as an innovative producer of New Generation Building Materials, or NGBM.

Through the NGBM business, Wagners have pioneered the development of composite fibre building materials and environmentally sustainable concrete products.

“The company didn’t start manufacturing composite fibre products until 2002 but since we’ve begun, we haven’t looked back,” Wagners Executive General Manager for Composite Fibre Technologies, Michael Kemp said.

“In 2003 we installed the first ever composite fibre road bridge on Australia’s road network at Coutts Crossing at Grafton, and the following year we completed another first, this time the first composite fibre road bridge in the USA.”

Wagners continued with their run of ‘firsts’, winning local and international contracts for their Composite Fibre Technologies products — from crossarms for electrical networks in Malaysia to a ‘clip-on’ pedestrian walkway and cycleway in New Zealand — and in 2017 were listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Wagner stair install at Coogee Beach, Sydney. Courtesy Wagners.

Michael Kemp said despite the success, scaling up has been a deliberately slow process over the past 30 years.

“We’ve been the one’s driving the demand really. In the manufacturing industry we can’t just buy a machine off the shelf, we must customise solutions for our products and innovate as we go along this journey,” Mr Kemp said.

“We ask ourselves questions like, what machinery can we manufacture to meet our demands? What can we do to grow the business? We like to think outside the box and we thrive on coming up with innovative solutions to challenges that would otherwise be considered ‘too hard’.

“At the beginning as a small and young company, we were creating capacity to meet demand for our product. As we’ve grown, we have scaled up to meet future demand and match future export opportunities.”

For Wagners, the time is now to get ahead of the game.

“We’re confident in our product and the opportunity to scale-up will help us generate capacity so we can approach export markets, then, if that’s favourable, we’ll actually be able to supply to those international markets,” Michael Kemp said.

With the support of a ‘Made in Queensland’ grant, Wagners have started market development activities in the UK and the USA.

“Along with the market research, we are also readying our business to meet the future demands that we expect will come with these export opportunities,” Mr Kemp said.

“We’re providing the Lean Manufacturing course to all 120 of our employees which will help to upskill them as well as support the business transformation needed to make sure we’re ready for the next step.

“This has also resulted in hiring 10 new staff and we’ve recently applied for the second round of ‘Made in Queensland’ grants. We hope to use this to support us with the introduction of automated machinery to ensure we can keep manufacturing in Queensland to meet the order demand.”

Developed in 2013 the Lizard Island Boardwalk is constructed with Wagners composite fibre materials and recycled plastic decking. Courtesy of Wagners.

It’s no surprise that Wagners has been acknowledged as the company that has had the most significant impact on regional Queensland in the first 150 years of the state’s history, nor that it was recognised for its intrepid entrepreneurship by being inducted in to the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame in 2018.

Wagners firmly believe it is imperative all Queensland businesses continue to transform in order to remain competitive in a global economy.

“Gone are the days where our competitor was down the road from us, particularly in manufacturing,” Michael Kemp said.

“Our competitors are now operations in China, Vietnam, Sweden and many other countries around the world. We need to be at the forefront of technology in order to remain competitive in a high-cost manufacturing country like Australia — we are achieving this, but we need to keep the momentum going.

“As a manufacturing country, Australia is more expensive than Britain and the USA, which makes it even more important for us to achieve manufacturing efficiencies with automation to remain competitive.

Our goal — and what we hope is also the goal of the State Government — is to ensure that Queensland remains competitive in manufacturing. It’s a great opportunity to invest now in technology and processes that will keep us competitive for the future.”

Another Queensland company doing just that is Brisbane-based business, MOVUS.

Born out of the iLab Germinate Accelerator at The University of Queensland, MOVUS was co-founded by Michel Lamarre and Brad Parsons in 2015, and the following year was the recipient of an Advance Queensland ‘Ignite Ideas’ grant.

Brad Parsons, on the left, with Bernie Woodcroft from UQ's iLab Program.

“The 2016 grant came in at a critical time for us as it allowed as to revalidate the concept for our product — an all-in-one equipment monitoring solution we named ‘FitMachine’ — and helped us to continue focusing on product development,” Brad Parsons said.

“We sold our first FitMachines the following year in 2017 and still hold a close relationship with our first customer, who recently signed a five-year deal with us. Since then, we have been deploying FitMachines across a range of different industries including agriculture, manufacturing, building and facilities, oil and gas, energy, water utilities, mining, government and universities.”

At the beginning of 2018, MOVUS received its first significant round of venture capital financing from three separate enterprises which supported the next step of its scale-up journey.

“Scaling up is an interesting, intense process that impacts every unit of our business, from technology to sales and customer success,” Brad Parsons said.

“Delivering a disruptive solution while working on scaling strategies is challenging at times, but the MOVUS team love these challenges and we’re proving to ourselves every day that we can do it by closing bigger deals with bigger brands.

“These obviously require our team to provide an enterprise-grade connected experience, from sales and marketing through to product development and customer success, but we know that communicating often and focusing on the vison are both key.

“Sometimes this is easier said than done but we encourage all staff to get out on-site, visit our clients, understand their challenges and tell the stories back to the team.

“We are constantly listening to each other and to our clients — big and small — and applying the learnings into our product and valued services. Fine-tuning as we go is key to make the right decisions on where and how we scale.”

Movus FitMachine. Courtsey Movus.

In the middle of the scale-up journey, Brad Parsons recognises that identifying key talent from the very beginning is critical.

“Our first office was on campus at UQ and that helped us hire great talent and really smart students who are now key members of the MOVUS team,” Mr Parsons said.

“Queensland has so much talent and there’s increasing government support as well as the booming start-up scene too — but I think we’re still missing some of the building blocks in our scale-up ecosystem. We need to invite the corporations to the party too — big organisations with or without teams focused on innovation — to be part of scaling-up opportunities.

“I think we’ll see the entire ecosystem mature by 2028. Founders will be better-versed in all business matters including cash flow, product/market fit will be their main concern and hiring will be faced as a make or break business matter.

“I also expect the investment community will mature. Australian investors are known for being conservative and there is plenty of room for balancing risks and proper due diligence. Queensland is also building a new generation of coders and business thinkers and I can’t wait to see the quality of work these guys and girls will create.

“There’s room over the next decade to build a solid collaboration model between Government, Industry and Academia that supports the generation of new products, new jobs, and funding opportunities. The Triple-Helix or Quadruple-Helix models could help inspire the creation of a functional, customised model for Queensland — and I think that’s all possible.”

Starting up to scaling up: Queensland businesses taking big steps and going global was originally published in Advance Queensland on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Last updated 17 Sep, 2019
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