Interview with Rob McIlwraith, General Manager for Axter Australia
Could you tell us more about the history of Axter and its core activity?
Axter is a French-based company with a head office in Paris that has a very long track record of producing oil-based materials for civil engineering and construction. Axter’s history dates back to the original company called Paix & Cie which was founded in 1863. The company name Axter was created in 1990 with the merging of three companies. Axter is a subsidiary of a French company called SMAC - specialised in roofing materials – which is a subsidiary of Colas Group, one of the largest international road construction companies with 65,000 people around the world. Colas Group is a subsidiary of the Bouygues Group, which also includes Bouygues Construction, Bouygues Telecom, Bouygues Immobilier (Real Estate) and Colas Rail.
Axter's factory, located in Northern France near Lille, manufactures hundreds of different products for waterproofing, roofing and road construction but here in Australia we focus on the distribution of heavy duty bituminous geomembranes (or liners) widely used in infrastructure projects and industrial sites to prevent soil contamination. Our core product, Coletanche, is a reinforced multi-layered geomembrane known for its exceptional puncture resistance and it ability to be installed in harsh conditions. You can cover it with rocks and drive over it with heavy machinery, which makes it the product of choice for environment protection in the mining sector. This is an expensive, top quality product used in the harshest environments including the storage of nuclear waste. It is also popular in the CSG industry for the lining of waste water ponds to prevent any possibility of environmental contamination. Coletanche comes in different thickness and grades and can stick to metal, concrete and plastic. The non-slip surface of Coletanche is very useful for dams and canals as this enables fallen humans or animals to climb out.
Operating on a permanent basis in Australia since 2014, we work a lot with design engineers and lining contractors. We also provide training to companies to help them use our product properly. Good installation and quality control is important to ensure a quality final solution. Coletanche is delivered in 5.1 metre wide rolls that are flame welded together to provide a full tensile strength, watertight seam. We also supply Bitumseal mastic for the seams on projects where flame bonding may not be possible. For quality control purposes, we can also provide our clients with an ultrasound machine to check the integrity of the welding and conduct the final assessment of the product on site.
Can you describe your personal background and your role within Axter Australia?
I am a civil engineer by training and have been involved in civil engineering and mining projects in many parts of the world. I completed my studies in South Africa, and moved to the UK to gain some international experience with a bridge design company. After a stint in the USA for that same company, I went back to South Africa to work as a design engineer doing a variety of engineering work including roads, structural steel buildings and mining infrastructure. I then progressed to working as an export manager for a manufacturer of geosynthetics used in civil engineering and mining. In this role over the next 12 years, I was lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to and be involved in many major mining and civil engineering projects around the world. I then relocated to Australia and continued in a similar role for the next 5 years. When the opportunity to work for Axter in Australia came up, I decided to take it. Starting a new business is always difficult but I was happy to take up this challenge. Luckily I had good support from Axter’s team in France and the other Axter engineers around the world. I believe that my studies in Business Management (MBA) at Griffith University here in Australia have been useful in helping me along this path. I am also lucky that I have a good network of friends and business associates in the geomembrane industry.
I have now been with Axter for two and a half years. I work in close cooperation with Colas’s sister company SAMI Bitumen Technologies Pty in Sydney who stock and distribute Coletanche geomembranes here in Australia. In my role there is a fair amount of travel involved around Australia and New Zealand as I conduct technical presentations to consulting engineers, present at conferences and provide practical training and technical assistance on Coletanche project sites.
How do you envisage the future of your company and how can FACCI help you achieve your objectives?
Despite the slowdown of the mining sector, Axter’s growth has been very satisfactory since starting in Australia. We do have some cheaper competitors, but our Coletanche geomembranes are recognised for their top quality all over the world. Environmental protection for mining projects will certainly remain a large portion of our activities in the future with ongoing maintenance work, new process dams or CSG ponds. The global trend in the industry and in Australia in particular, is towards stricter safety and environmental protection regulations as well as more enforcement. This is beneficial for us as it allows engineers to use a higher quality product, which limits their risk to environmental damage. In the future, we are also planning to distribute a wider selection of our products in particular for roofing and road construction. Other areas of growth include water supply, landfill gas management, contaminated land capping, as well as railway line construction (all of which we are activity engaged with in other parts of the world).
I personally really enjoy working for a French company and being involved in the French-Australian business community, as my family heritage is part Scottish and part French. From a business point of view, I am very happy to be part of FACCI. It is a very valuable organization for our company and I actually wanted to take advantage of this interview to tell you how impressed I am with your professionalism, pro-activeness and your range of events. The quality of the speakers is very high and you provide relevant networking opportunities for my business both locally, and interstate. Your Queensland Industry Series are particularly relevant to us, but I also enjoy the more informal Tchin-Tchins. As a matter of interest, we have had Coletanche specified on a major project thanks to one of the FACCI networking evenings. Your Bastille Day Business Breakfast was also a great opportunity for Axter to invite potential clients and business partners and I look forward to participating in many events in 2017.
For more information, please visit Coletanche’s website.
Interview conducted on 4 August 2016 by Claire Dupré and Sharlen Crespin.
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