To honour the 40th Anniversary of ATC Williams, founder Paul Williams recollects its humble beginnings and how the company grew to become an Australian leader with global projects.
Paul, when did you first decide to work with tailings?
It was in the 70s when I was working with Golder as a geotechnical engineer. I was asked to design a tailings dam for a tin mine at Ardlethan near Wagga Wagga, NSW. Like most people, my first response was, ‘What’s tailings?’ All I had to go on was a technical paper written by a colleague in British Columbia, Canada. Following the paper’s advice, we constructed an upstream raise, cyclone sand tailings dam. I became the ‘tailings’ guy in Golders and soon had another to work on at Rosebery in Tasmania, and one for Elura Zinc Mine at Cobar in NSW, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, then CRA.
By that time, I’d read an interesting paper by Dr Eli Robinsky, a Canadian academic. He proposed that tailings could be thickened to 60% solids or more to make it a “creamier” slurry which would deposit at a steeper and more uniform beach slope than would otherwise be the case. Most critically, it would be non-segregating so that there would be no separation between coarse and fine particles. Taking advantage of these properties, tailings could be “stacked” on level ground in a low conical hill, avoiding the need for large retaining embankments. There were obvious advantages.
Always keen to try something new, I naively decided to build a central thickened discharge tailings deposit, CTD, for the Elura site. It was very flat terrain, and the traditional four-sided cell-type dam would look quite alien in the landscape, plus be expensive to build. The client said yes, and we got it done.
Tell us about the early days of MPA Williams?
After the Elura project, I got itchy feet and started thinking I could go out on my own. I had an image in my head of a company that was maybe half a dozen people, with a nice quiet office. We would do good work, earn a good reputation, take pride in what we did and have fun doing it. That seemed a pretty good philosophy to me.
We had a tiny room in our house about 2m x 3m which we set up as an office with our patio table and a rigged-up bulb for light. We put in a telephone, and MPA Williams was open for business. My wife, Judy, was thankfully very supportive when she quite fairly could have called me crazy for leaving a secure job where I was doing work that was well regarded. Thankfully she didn’t. She told me to figure out what I’d be happiest to do. Judy was right there with me while I got it going and even did a typing course so she could help with the letters and reports.
About eighteen months later, we built a small office on our property, and Steve Murphy, a colleague from Golder, joined as our first employee. We employed a part-time secretary to take over from Judy, which left her to concentrate on the bookwork.
How did you find your first clients?
We printed and bound a few brochures, and I started working through the Yellow Pages, making phone calls and introducing myself. I met with anyone that showed interest and picked up a few simple jobs. We did many house site classifications, to begin with, for just $50 to $100 a pop.
The first big project was for a uranium mine in the Northern Territory, followed by a few small water storage dams in rural Victoria. I was very keen to do more tailings work as I could see it could be a smart speciality and interesting work. It didn’t happen overnight, but we kept at it and eventually secured quite a few tailings dam projects.
We relocated the office in the mid-1980s to a converted house to Nepean Highway, Bonbeach, and we turned the bathroom into our first laboratory. Then we bought the house next door and connected them. I remember thinking we will never fill this up, but we soon did.
The company expanded steadily over the next twenty years until we outgrew the Bonbeach property and moved to the current office in Mordialloc at the beginning of 2007.
Tell us about the evolution from MPA Williams to ATC to ATC Williams
I’d registered the name Australian Tailings Consultants (ATC) just so no one else could but didn’t do anything with it for a while. I was initially quite resistant to the change of name to ATC, but I was out-voted! That was in 2000. Just at that moment, work had lulled, and I didn’t think we could afford the change. However, we secured two significant proposals soon after the name change announcement, so I felt that was a good sign.
As Managing Director, I recognised that for the company’s stability and growth, people needed to have ownership in the business. We set a fair value for shares, and Steve, Keith (Seddon) and Craig (Noske) bought in as early shareholders. I was always very keen to listen to other people’s views and treat them with respect. Bringing them in as part-owners and the name change to ATC are good examples.
A few years later, we knew we needed to expand. Trevor Osborne, a colleague from many years previously, who had a geotechnical consultancy in Perth, joined in 1993. A few years later, Steve mentioned Allan Watson and Associates in Brisbane as a possible new partner as they were already doing work in tailings disposal. That merger took place in 2011, and I was pleased with how welcoming and positive AWA were at becoming part of ATC.
The change from Australian Tailings Consultants to ATC Williams occurred in 2008, just after I stepped down as Managing Director. I remained on the Board, however, and in Allan Watson, I immediately recognised a kindred spirit in the sense that he was one of those very personable engineers who is technically based but with entrepreneurial interest and push. He became CEO in June 2015, and you couldn’t have dialled up a better person to lead the company.
How did you manage the transition?
The whole issue of succession is a challenging one. There are really just three alternatives.
One. You wind it up. We never contemplated that.
Two. You find someone to take it over. Easy to achieve, but you risk the company name and everything you’ve stood for, almost certainly disappearing within three to six months.
Or three, you arrange for the company to continue after you are gone. This is the most difficult to achieve. Very pleasingly, we’ve made this option work.
For the first thirty years, ATC benefited from that hands-on focus of being a very technically oriented company where quality was everything. We had a sort of obsession with that. It became part of the company’s DNA if you like.
Now the company has the entrepreneurial and professional management that is required to grow. Even the Groundwork newsletter is just brilliant! I email it to friends because it is so rewarding to see the company’s evolution, and I still want to share its success.
I work very little now. I have one job to review for a copper mine in Chile, where we have worked for Codelco for many years. BHP asked us in 2014 to present an in-house workshop to their team in Chile about tailings disposal, and we’ve been a key player with projects there for them ever since.
Otherwise, I’ve been happily and finally fully retired as of two years ago.
In 2011, you started the Woomera Education Scholarship Trust (WEST) to support Indigenous youth. How did that happen?
An interesting question! And a complete change of tack from engineering.
I remember the exact moment. I was in Santiago at a conference, and I had a sudden calling of wanting to make a legacy-type difference with what we, Judy and I, had amazingly achieved over the years. We have a son who is quite severely intellectually disabled. We don’t have grandchildren, nieces or nephews and passively donating to a charity didn’t sit right as I wanted to be more involved. When we saw an ABC Australian Story episode about Aboriginal children receiving support with their education from a cattle station owner in South Australia, it was a wow moment. I knew that was something we could take on.
WEST provides education boarding scholarships at Peninsula Grammar in Mt. Eliza for children in years seven to twelve from remote communities in the Kimberley District in WA. We decided to focus on this “catchment” district to allow us to develop relationships with the communities and the schools in the area.
We settled on the indigenous word ‘Woomera’ because it’s the device that enhances the throwing of a spear, but also, when you throw a spear, you cannot be sure where it will land. Education is a crucial enhancement for young people. We launched the spear, and it’s given both the kids and us much more than we could have expected. It is a very enriching and rewarding way to contribute at this time of life.