Mancala reinvents itself offshore

 

Mancala trained crews of Vietnamese nationals to operate modern mining and drilling equipment

In the middle of its own struggles in an extremely tough market for many mining and drilling contractors, Mancala has managed to train up about 100 Vietnamese nationals to perform various underground mining tasks at productivity levels the company would be satisfied with in Australia. Requisite skills to achieve solid mechanised mining rates, and evelopment activities, have been transferred – and are now seen to be transportable and a combined team of expats and local workers has gone more than 1000 days without a lost time accident report.

Mancala sees a potential source of competent mine workers it can deploy around the world. Its workforce training model is one that is increasingly sought after governments and mining companies in other countries. And, says executive director Bill Lannen,

Vietnamese mine workers make multi-national crews, and contract bids, cost competitive where Australian expat teams are still too expensive in many parts of the world.

“We committed to training of national employees as a major part of our bid package with significant and early reductions in the number of expats,” Lannen told .

“Despite our lack of international experience I think that this commitment was critical to

our win. It has been a great success.

“Within six months all underground mining jobs were being performed by nationals. Within 18 months their quality and productivity performance was equal or better than achieved in Australia. At a twentieth of the cost of an expat, the client has achieved a cost of production that can sustain operations at the current low nickel prices.”

Mancala’s three-year stint at Ban Phuc, about 160km west of Hanoi, has seen it develop more than 10km of tunnels and drives on narrow nickel-copper ore zones yielding about 35,000 tonnes a month of ore. Decline dimensions are typically 5m-by-5m, cross-cuts can be 4m-by-4m, or 4m-by-4.5m, and strike-drives can be smaller openings: sometimes 4.5m high by 3.5-4m wide.

“We were operating two jumbos and getting 500m a month, on budget, so 250m a month multiple headings from a single jumbo,” Lannen said.

“Once we took out our expat operators and went totally national operators we broke our record. We got 599m for the month, from two jumbos. You’d be proud to get 599m out of two jumbos in Australia.”

Lannen noted there was no rounding-up to 600m in Ban Phuc monthly reporting.

“They measure everything exactly; it’s part of the discipline [of workers in a Communist country]. No, 599m is what they got.”

Global advisory firm Control Risks says continuity of the single-party run Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s positive economic performance of recent years hinges on the national government’s ability to “instil fiscal discipline, rehabilitate its banking sector, and revamp its state-owned enterprises, all while maintaining a stable and pro-business political environment”.

“Early signals appear promising,” it says. “For some investors, Vietnam’s cheap production makes it the ‘new China’. Labour costs are hovering at 50% of China’s, and some [manufacturing companies] have already begun a southern migration.

“Beyond cheap labour, these investors also agree that Vietnam is attractive for its law and order, political stability, the strong work ethic of a relatively young and well-educated population, a high savings rate, as well as a growing middle class and increasing consumer spending.”

While Mancala did its homework on the way into Vietnam, Lannen said he was still surprised at how quickly local trainees adapted to the demanding underground work, safety and reporting requirements, and then performance gains.

“Yes it did,” he said. “It exceeded our expectation.

“But I think Vietnam is different to Indonesia which is different to West Africa – it’s a different cultural mix. We’re talking about people in a country with a fairly high level of basic education. We’re also talking about a Communist country with a high level of discipline. So when you say, I want you to do it like this, they say, okay; that’s what you asked for, that’s what I will do. I want you to report everything – this, this, this and this. So they report everything. It’s really refreshing.

“There is no-one saying, there is a better way of doing this, I’ll do it this way because I know better than you, let’s do it this way. So if you’ve got good trainers in with good systems and good standards, and you get a bloody great result. It’s happened faster than we expected – but I believe it’s to do with the discipline of the Vietnamese people.

“And that’s contributed to the safety record, too. We have been there from day one, over 1000 days, without a lost time accident. I’ve taken an entire workforce that’s never been underground before – there were a couple of ex-hydro guys who may have passed a portal, on a windy day, but basically we took a green workforce – we’ve operated for three years, we’ve trained people up, and we haven’t had an LTI.” Lannen established Mancala with managing director Martin Kyne back in 1990, with a decline excavation on Tasmania’s west coast the firm’s first job. As well as mining and shaft-work, Mancala diversified successfully into the civil construction market, mainly via hydro-power projects. It is currently bidding for a major contract in Chile while pursuing mining work in Peru, Asia and Australia.

The company has about 200 employees and its six current projects include Ban Phuc, coal-mine shaft projects for Glencore in eastern Australia, and some work for Hydro Tasmania. Lannen said innovation was a vital ingredient for mining-contractor survival and, in better times, prosperity.

“We have developed various techniques for constructing large-diameter shafts in sediments, including surface piling, ground conditioning with micro-fine grouts to improve rock mass quality, directional drilling and steel lining. We have lined shafts with modular steel liners to depth of 470m and diameters up to 5.5m. A recent liner weighed well in excess of 200 tonnes,” he said. “The work available and the margin in Australia has fallen significantly in the last few years.

“We are leveraging our Vietnamese experience and reputation to get on more international bid lists. We are currently bidding or pricing projects in Vietnam, Cambodia, Morocco, India, Chile, China and Fiji. Projects vary from full underground development and production to hydroelectric power infrastructure.

“The key to our survival and ongoing development in one of the worst markets in my memory is innovation. On a head-to-head bid, it is often the only edge.